As 'Spouse,' First Lady Does Mostly as the Romans Do

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 9, 2009

ROME, July 8 -- First lady Michelle Obama has a singular designation during her short stay in Italy while the president attends the G8 Summit in L'Aquila. She is the "spouse."

This designation comes with advantages such as an outdoor luncheon catered by renowned chef Heinz Beck and served at a table draped in ivory tulle on a terrace overlooking one of the world's most ancient cities. It means a private tour of the Capitoline Museums with their paintings and bronzes and the famous sculpture of Romulus and Remus -- symbols of Rome -- being suckled by a wolf. It includes having an advance staff that has taste-tested the variety of gelati the city has to offer so that her daughters will not have to suffer through any unpalatable sweets. (They chose well. Sasha and Malia Obama visited Giolitti, one of the best ice cream parlors in Rome.) And a G8 spouse never ever has to sit in traffic.

But "spouse" also means moving through the day as an object, as an emblem to be photographed and studied. It means politely making small talk and deftly avoiding the Italian imbroglio of the day: the head of state's operatic marital discord. Since the summit began Wednesday, the luncheon -- the G8 spouses luncheon -- was the first big outing for the wives, along with several other female Italian officials. It was hosted by another spouse -- the wife of the mayor of Rome, Isabella Rauti Alemanno.

Afterward they posed for a group portrait. They gathered, mingling and chatting, in one of the museum's atria -- a location ostensibly chosen so they could view the statue of Marcus Aurelius on horseback. But none of the women really seemed to notice that three-story sculpture in the room. They also didn't react to the two stooped elderly guardsmen who flanked the grand equestrian monument, even though they were dressed in gold velvet britches and cranberry-colored military coats adorned with gold braid and epaulets. The real purpose of the moment was the group portrait. It would mark the occasion but it also had the women lined up in a single, shoulder-to-shoulder row as if they were awaiting Bert Parks to announce Miss Congeniality.

The G8 organizes these events with a keen eye to the traditional roles of men and women. While the men are off saving the world during a working lunch, the women are just lunching. No matter that there are no small number of women running many corners of the world. The G8 still seems to be adjusting to that notion.

These are discombobulating times in Italy for male-female relationships, particularly in the arena of politics. Consider the sex scandal. The United States has had its share of sordid tales, for instance, with a glut of congressmen who've been delivering public mea culpas of late. Italy has always been tolerant of men, especially powerful men, with complicated private lives. But Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has managed to stir up a sex scandal that has the usually accepting Italians beside themselves with dismay.

Here the details have unfolded like a serial novel in the media, owned for the most part by Berlusconi himself. The saga centers on his relationship with an 18-year-old model named Noemi Letizia, whom Berlusconi has described as merely a friend. His wife, Veronica Laria, has accused him of having an affair with the young woman and has asked him for a divorce.

Much of the highly emotional dialogue between Berlusconi and Laria has been devoured in open letters published in the press. Each chapter checks in on a scorned wife (who was herself, at one time, the other woman), a libidinous septuagenarian head of state who has been accused of making political appointments based on looks, and a young lingerie model who calls the prime minister "Daddy," and the whole saga has exacerbated an already problematic image of women in this country.

Women here hold powerful positions in government and business, but Italian television is not hesitant to show some women in the equivalent of soft porn. Women are extremely conscious of their appearance, and often the anchors on television news look as though they were styled by Glamour Shots. It's not unusual to see a TV reporter at a fashion show -- and fashion is serious business in this country of Giorgio Armani, Ermenegildo Zegna and Gucci -- wearing a sequined mini dress and doing her stand-ups while sprawled on the runway.

Into this tangled web of ambivalence over female identity walks Michelle Obama, a career woman who recognizes the pleasure of pretty but who would also prefer it if people stopped focusing on her clothes. She is the woman with big thoughts who, for the next two days, is referred to as "spouse." Yet much of her popularity here in Italy grows out of the way in which she has signaled an archetypal shift for an American first lady. Much of that change has come by way of style.

Of all the wives who milled about in the atrium of the museum Wednesday afternoon, Obama drew the lens of virtually every camera. She stood out because she is black, but there were several other black women at the luncheon. She was among the tallest of the wives, but she didn't tower over them. It was her taxicab-yellow sheath with its saucer-size green flower brooch that caught the eye, not because it was fancy, but because it was relaxed. Unstarched. But not shy.

Italians have assessed her physical appearance -- along with her attitude and all that hugging -- and decided that she is a different kind of American first lady. Not so formal. Approachable. Italy is a country that does not shy away from celebrating physical appearance; it is the country of la bella figura, after all. It is considered neither shallow nor judgmental to mix style into the equation when taking the measure of a woman.

But there is a balance. And while Italian feminists are attempting to tamp down the focus on their appearance -- nice legs should not be a bullet point on a résumé, unless the job is as a Rockette -- Obama has signaled a more modern kind of first lady with hers. It seems that the "spouse" has done her job.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company