For years conservatives have tried to turn Michelle Obama's extracurricular obsessions -- organic gardening, healthy eating, exercising -- into a political symbol. But her husband's up for re-election, which means there's a First Lady in waiting, Ann Romney, who has her own hobbies, like the expensive horse riding sport called dressage. Obama's new book American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America is certain to provide more material for jokes. But the wife of the Republican presidential nominee is giving her some competition in this arena. Let's explore: Does the current First Lady or the aspiring one have the more annoying hobby?
To keep this (fake) objective, we've isolated five factors and scored both women's pursuits on a scale of 1 to 5, since the obnoxiousness of a girly hobby like gardening or horse riding is a sort of kaleidoscope of distinct factors that come together to create a single uniquely annoying picture.
Michelle Obama's Snooty Garden
Princess quotient: 3.5. At the core, what determines how obnoxious these hobbies are is the extent to which they give the impression that the practitioner thinks she's better than you. That image is conveyed when the political spouse looks as though she's serenely observing the plebes sweating. Gardening might not seem that princessy, since you have to get down in the dirt to do it. But The Guardian's Emma G. Keller, who got her hands on an early copy of Obama's new book, scoured the book for a photo of the First Lady with a little dirt under her nails. "Try as I might, I couldn't spot a speck," she says. Plus, there's a certain vanity in telling other people how to get skinny (like me!).
Wastefulness: 2. It's not that expensive, but growing your own food is not cost effective. Garden blogger Wellywoman explains the grim economic analysis:
"Simple you might think, seed aren’t that expensive, just buy some, sow them and then several months later you’ll have carrots. But as all you fellow carrot growers will know it’s not quite that simple. I tried some last year at the allotment and they were decimated by carrot fly. Fellow plot holders went to extreme lengths to keep the flies out with wooden contraptions constructed and covered in fine mesh but they admitted it would have been much cheaper just to buy them from the supermarket."
Dumb outfits: 2. As seen at right, gardening clogs can be styled to minimize dorkiness. (Photo via Associated Press.)
Obnoxious associated characters: 5. Foodie-sim is one of the easiest trends to hate. "I think everybody and their brother knows that food is the new rock 'n' roll… Right now people collect tastes like they're records," Brooklynite Justin Warner told The New York Times earlier this month. "This has all of the earmarks of a great shark-jumping moment, when twee Brooklyn identity politics-based foodieism finally went too far, tipping from mild subcultural hobby into macrocultural caricature," Gawker's Hamilton Nolan responds in f-bomb-packed fury.
Hypocrisy: 4. Becoming a health food guru sets you up for mockery the moment you admit to liking anything with a little fat. Keller observes:
[Obama's] record as ambassador for veggies is spotty, and however much she dresses her first lady ambivalence in a brightly-coloured cardigan and cinches it tightly round her waist, it shows. For example, it might be an idea next time she appears on The View as an advocate for healthy breakfast, not to say "my protein is bacon", or to describe her family as "bacon people". Along the same lines, she might tell her husband to skip the bit in their love story that goes: "I took her to Baskin Robbins for ice cream, and that sealed the deal."
Ann Romney's Fancy Horse Sport
Princess quotient: 5. Aside from a tiara, horses are the most important accessory in a princess-focused fairy tale. (It is what the princess always gets rescued on.) And dressage is particularly prim -- it's even a fancy French word! -- as it involves not racing or jumping, but a rider subtly shifting her body to tell the horse to make dance-like movements to music. Dressage fans have remixed the horse ballets to hip-hop and Lady Gaga on YouTube, but in competition, the music is more like this performance, set to a muzak version of The Carpenters' "Close to You."
Wastefulness: 5. Dressage is an expensive sport that attracts "some of the world's richest people," according to the Los Angeles Times' Robin Abcarian, like Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang and his wife. Romney was sued in 1998 when the woman who bought once of her horses alleged a hoof defect was concealed (the case was dropped against Romney). But the court documents reveal some of the cost of the hobby: $2,400 a month to board one horse; one horse was purchased for $100,000 in 2003; $7,800 a year to insure five horses against theft. "I self-insure for the rest," Romney testified, because it's "just expensive to have insurance." Financial disclosure forms show the Romneys own between $250,000 and $500,000 worth of horses. Ann Romney trains with Jan Ebeling, who aspires to compete in the 2012 Olympics, and acts as his patron, The New York Times' Trip Gabriel reports. The family has loaned Ebeling between $250,000 and $500,000, Gabriel writes, and on their 2010 taxes, they reported a $77,000 loss on their share of one of Ebeling's horses.
Dumb outfits: 5. Romney competes in tails, gloves, and a top hat.
Obnoxious associated characters: 2. The horse obsessives Gabriel describes seem odd, but they're rare enough to not be as overwhelmingly annoying as food evangelists.
Hypocrisy: 0. "I've been very successful. I'm not going to apologize for that," Mitt Romney has said.
Winner: Michelle Obama wins as the less annoying hobbyist on points -- just half a point, actually. It's not a TKO.