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Malia and Sasha Obama Have Left the Building

Over the past eight years, and despite their parents’ best efforts, the Obama daughters have become cultural icons in their own right. What happens next?

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

We hear about Malia and Sasha Obama so often that we assume — that I assume — that we know everything about them. Some things we know: at the ages of 18 and 15, they still attend nightly family dinners. (They supposedly like Michelle’s cauliflower mac and cheese.) Sasha once worked as a cashier at Nancy’s, a seafood restaurant on Martha’s Vineyard. Malia once paired her Harvard hat with a handwritten Smoking Kills T-shirt that she could plausibly sell on Etsy. They both like Chance the Rapper; they both skipped the last turkey pardoning. Neither of them thinks Obama’s Dad Jokes are particularly funny.

I often think about how cool it would have been to see the Obama girls in the White House when I was growing up. About what it would have meant to me, to watch two, intelligent, beautiful, poised, vivacious black young women become icons just like their mother (a top three feminist icon, in my opinion). Millions of people want to know what Malia and Sasha are interested in, what they’re up to, what they wear; they’re role models, even if, like their mother, they never asked for the job. As first daughters, they’ve become cultural icons larger than any first kids since the Kennedys, and so we cling onto every detail.

Kate Andersen Brower, author of two East Wing books, The Residence and First Women, is full of little stories like the ones above. She tells me how once Malia received a mini Christmas tree for her room; she wrote the florist a very nice thank-you note that politely asked, “If it’s not too much trouble, could I have lights on the tree?” (She got them.) “I know these are such small, tiny things, but because we know so little about them, they are interesting,” Andersen Brower tells me. “We don’t know anything really substantive about their personalities at all. They’re never allowed to do interviews or anything. I don’t think we ever hear them speak. If you think about it, can you even think about how their voices sound?”

This is partially because of their parents’ insistence that their girls have an undisturbed, normal-as-possible childhood. But it’s also because a childhood spent in the White House — however public it might be, in practice — also gave them a safeguard against the media. “Their parents evoked them in political moments,” says Krissah Thompson, a features writer for The Washington Post’s Style section. “But what the country came to know about Sasha and Malia was often from their parents … They’ve had pretty private lives for the last eight years, despite being in the White House.”

As Malia and Sasha grow up, and as their time in the White House comes to an end, their public roles are necessarily in flux. There are already hints of the sisters being covered as separate entities — as celebrities, almost: websites write about their fashion, their hobbies, their significance, their status as icons separate from the monolithic first family.

“As they are moving into a different stage of life, they still do have the celebrity of being first daughters attached to them,” says Thompson. It’s clear from history, from recent coverage, and from the fact that they’re cool as hell and we just want to know about them, that we’ll still be talking about Sasha and Malia Obama long after their departure from the White House. The question is: How will we — their fans, their family’s political detractors, the media — treat them once they are no longer off-limits?

The very last question of President Obama’s very last press conference as our president was about Sasha and Malia. (How were the president and the first lady explaining this election to their daughters, asked Cristi Parsons of the Los Angeles Times. “They don’t mope,” Obama answered.) The first daughters’ influence is undeniable, even in the sphere of first kids; we’re more emotionally attached to them than we are to, say, the Bush twins or Amy Carter. “I think people may feel more connected because they have their images broadcast to their phones and their Facebook feeds for eight years and have literally been able to see them grow up that way,” says Thompson. “It feels different to people.”

For many, myself included, that profound emotional attachment is only intensified by the fact that they are black. There’s no ignoring that importance: America’s first daughters are black.

I can’t overstate the value — for women, for adolescent girls, for black people — in being able to see yourself represented in the public sphere by these two happy, loved young women. To define sisterhood, and womanhood, and success in terms of Sasha and Malia. To have black girls leading the way for a change.

That representation matters across the board, whether we are talking about professional and academic goals, or the fact that sometimes teens go to concerts and wear OVO hats. (We see you, Sasha.) “They seem like cool girls,” says Andersen Brower. “They are interesting to entertainment reporters in a way that Jenna and Barbara Bush maybe were not.”

But our attention and adoration is complicated, says Rebecca Traister, author of All the Single Ladies and a contributing writer at New York magazine. “On the positive side [Malia and Sasha] feel more significant because the Obamas are the first black family to occupy the White House,” she says. “And in America especially where so much racist policy has been deployed in part by depicting black families as dysfunctional … I want to acknowledge how important that was in terms of correcting the United States’ vision of what black families look like.

“But all presidential kids in my living memory are in this fish bowl of pressure where they can’t have the basic freedoms to screw up in the ways that most young people screw up,” Traister says. “With Malia and Sasha that fact is amplified by an unimaginable factor because the Obamas bear so much symbolic weight as the first black family to be in the White House. I worry about that with them still.”

There’s a simple accord that has traditionally existed between the public and the first kids. “There’s a sense that around the children, you have to respect that they are going through their childhood,” says Andersen Brower. “They are living in an incredibly difficult situation.” Thompson, who has spent a decade covering Michelle Obama and the first family for the Post, acknowledges this unspoken treaty. “What tends to happen in Washington is that people respect the fact they want to be private citizens and create a certain border and buffer around them.” She recalls reporting at Malia’s high school graduation ceremony, where journalists were not allowed inside. “Everyone at Sidwell [Friends School] were very protective [of them] and it was difficult to get anyone to say what happened inside the ceremony.”

Historically, the press has treated former first kids with respectful distance — though Chelsea Clinton did not have to go to college in the age of Facebook and Instagram. “What you’ve seen for first children in the past is that as they go about establishing their careers, and often they become public figures because they choose to,” explains Thompson. “But they are given space to figure out for themselves what they are going to do with that.” But Traister says that’s no indication of how the Obamas will be treated. “There isn’t historic precedence for Barack Obama himself, so we cannot take history and use it as a guide to predict the future when it comes to the Obamas. Those girls are going to be out there in college, being young women, in particularly vulnerable stages of life, and I think that the scrutiny on them is going to remain extremely intense and probably very punishing.”

We’ve seen what that looks like. Perhaps you’ll remember when Republican congressional aide Elizabeth Lauten criticized Malia and Sasha’s outfits and demeanor at the turkey pardoning in 2014, saying they should show “a little class.” (Lauten soon resigned from her communications position.) You may also recall the speculation as to whether Malia was smoking weed at Lollapalooza, or the weird blog frenzy around the selfie of Malia in a Pro Era T-shirt. The overwhelming response by Obama fans was: leave them alone. But it’s different outside the cocoon of the East Wing, as the Bush twins will tell you.

At this point, we know the broad details of the Obamas’ post–White House life: they’ll stay in D.C. so Sasha can finish high school; Malia will go to Harvard in the fall. “Part of my assignment is going to be to continue to write about the Obamas from a feature perspective. And so Sasha and Malia are a part of that,” says Thompson. “If their parents, as they build their post-presidency platforms, are talking about their daughters, they’d be a part of that. The role that they might play in any Obama library or museum or foundation are also ways to continue to look at them.”

“I think Sasha will be left alone while she finishes school,” says Andersen Brower. “There will be less interest in where Sasha is going to college then there was with Malia. Malia, if she is working on TV shows — like she interned for Girls — if she’s in the entertainment industry at all, that does kind of open you up to being a public figure. If she chooses to pursue television and movies, whatever she’s doing, she does open herself up to becoming a sort of celebrity — not Kardashian level, but maybe a Kate Middleton.”

But given the political circus we’re about to enter, she thinks there will be even more distractions that pull focus from the Obamas. “Honestly, there is so much that’s going to happen with the Trump administration that I think the media can only focus on one thing at a time.”

Traister, for her part, disagrees. “They are not ever going to become anonymous, and I do think that young people are going to have an eye to them for a long time to come, especially until they decide what they want to do with their lives. But I’m optimistic that maybe we can afford these beautiful, incredible women who have just done a real service to this country that time,” she says. “They gave eight years of their childhood into their adolescence that they just gave to the U.S. for their father’s historical presidency. And if we can’t manage to thank them by giving them the space to have their lives back for a while, we are worse than I thought.”

I agree with Traister, and still selfishly, I don’t want Malia and Sasha to disappear. I’d like to watch them both become the women they want to be. I hope we get to hear of their accomplishments, or just hear them speak. I want to learn who they are outside of part of their father’s historic presidency. I want them to succeed in whatever they end up doing. I want Teen Vogue to cover Malia’s gap year, or for her to write about it herself. I want slideshows of Sasha’s uber-cool clothes. I want the list of the most important feminist icons to be Michelle, Malia, Sasha, and Oprah. Again, that’s selfish, and also probably unrealistic. But Malia and Sasha Obama are important figures, not just because of their parents, but because of the possibilities that they represent for millions of young women. Let’s hope that this country will allow them to stay that way, on whatever terms they’d like.