Downtime

The Inspo Trap

Why is Michelle Obama’s memoir getting packaged as vague, boilerplate feminist self-empowerment?

The cover of Becoming Michelle Obama.
Michelle Obama on the cover of Becoming.
Penguin Random House

Michelle Obama released an image of her book cover via social media on Thursday, and of course she looks beautiful and confident. But the image, and the carefully tasteful cover design, also feels standard-issue, evoking any number of inspirational autobiographies written by powerful women in recent years (see: Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, Ariana Huffington’s Thrive, or—perish the comparison—Ivanka Trump’s Women Who Work). The implicit message: Come, listen to my words, for my deeds are mighty and my skin has nary a pore.

Even more importantly than the optics of the cover, the language used in the announcement of the book’s content is bland and boilerplate. A blurb on Penguin Random House’s website calls Becoming “the deeply personal reckoning of a woman of soul and substance who has steadily defied expectations—and whose story inspires us to do the same.” Even Michelle’s announcement about the book doesn’t quite sound like her own voice. “As I prepare to share BECOMING this fall, I hope you’ll also think about your own story, and trust that it will help you become whoever you aspire to be,” her release declares. “Your story is what you have, what you will always have. It is something to own. #BECOMING.” The Obamas are no longer in the White House, and neither of them are running for office, much to my chagrin. So why is this much-anticipated memoir getting packaged as a rote recapitulation of platitudes?

The framing of this autobiography is more than blah—it smacks of the actually kind-of-toxic American cult of positivity and self-actualization, which promises that anyone who really tries can defeat trifling systemic obstacles. Of course, influential white women have been cloaking their own memoirs in the language of vague feminist empowerment for a very long time. So in that sense, Michelle Obama should obviously be free to package her own historic, inspiring life story however she pleases. But it’s still hard not to feel like the publisher is flattening this memoir to fit a pre-established type rather than making space for a new one. Michelle’s own messaging has historically been more pointed than individualist mumbo-jumbo like “Your story will help you become whoever you aspire to be.” I wish she could sell books by telling people how to work on structures, not just themselves.

But since this is Michelle Obama, it seems more than likely that the book itself will be everything the cover and framing is not: moving, original, personal. Just look at the handful of lovely recent Instagram posts, which Michelle noted were “photos and memories from my book,” in which the former First Lady anchored the concept of #BECOMING in her own specific biography. In these images of a young college student (with enviable style) and a hopeful child at home with her parents, we can see the specifics that the marketing lingo obscures.

Michelle Obama, first-generation college student and daughter of Fraser and Marian, has a story to tell. Here’s hoping that Becoming avoids the inspo trap its publishers and marketers seem to have set for it, and says something real.