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Michelle Obama on Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In philosophy: “That shit doesn’t work all the time!”

Michelle Obama “leans in” better than anyone. She just rejected the idea that it works.

Michelle Obama Promotes Her New Book In New York City
Former first lady Michelle Obama visits the Lower Eastside Girls Club to discuss her new book Becoming. on December 1, 2018, in New York City.
Roy Rochlin/Getty Images
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Michelle Obama had sharp criticism on Saturday for Lean In, the 2013 book about gender differences in the workplace written by Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg.

Speaking to a sold-out stadium at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn on a tour stop to promote her new memoir Becoming, Obama minced no words on why she thought the mantra’s time had come and gone.

“Marriage still ain’t equal, y’all,” Obama stated, at the start of a withering and unguarded takedown that reportedly left the crowd highly animated.

“It ain’t equal. I tell women, that whole, ‘You can have it all’ — mmm, nope, not at the same time, that’s a lie.

“And it’s not always enough to lean in, because that shit doesn’t work all the time.”

The “Lean In” ethos argues that women should first adapt and learn to succeed within admittedly sexist work environments and cultures. They should then try to change their circumstances through incremental shifts while working within the system, rather than through radical upheavals.

Sandberg’s approach has been criticized frequently and extensively since it was broadcast, and many critics have challenged it as an extension of the idea that women should try to “have it all,” attempting an impossible work-life balance of career and family that men are generally not expected to juggle.

Though the substance of Obama’s statement may have been “overshadowed” by the former first lady’s use of profanity in the moment, her repudiation of the Lean In attitude was a significant moment. What’s perhaps most significant is that Obama herself is in many ways a master at following the “Lean In” mantra — or, as Vox’s Constance Grady put it, the “First Lady Tightrope” of being perceived as both strong and gracious, both progressive and traditional, both independent and non-threatening.

It’s precisely the kind of precarious balancing act that Sandberg argued women should learn to perfect if they want to have a hope of changing the system. But in recent years, the doctrine has become so worn that even Sandberg herself has been rethinking it. Hearing that the mantra doesn’t always work even for a consummate Lean-In tightrope artist like Obama was a liberating moment for many.

The rest of Obama’s evening at Barclay Center was more subdued, as she discussed everything from elements of her book to the late George H.W. Bush’s legacy, and the difficulty of making a marriage work.

Selling 2 million copies in its first fortnight, the book has already become the best-selling hardcover of the year.

Obama’s Becoming tour will include stops across the nation and guest moderators including Oprah Winfrey and Reese Witherspoon. She will return to Barclay’s Center twice more, including a final stop on December 19 for a talk moderated by Sarah Jessica Parker.

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