China has a new president in Xi Jingping, and with him comes a new first lady.  Peng Liyuan, an iconic pop/folk-singer in her own right, has largely been viewed as a political asset in her husband’s nascent presidency. The Chinese Communist Party has long struggled to gain popular favor internationally, battling against a reputation for being elitist, corrupt, and out of touch. Ms. Liyuan, however, is credited with humanizing her husband as he navigates his new job.

With her successful career as a famous singer, Ms. Liyuan has established herself as a modern woman. And with her charming personality and fashionable tastes, many in China are glad to liken her to the ever-popular Michelle Obama. However, despite progressive moves such as her work as an ambassador of the World Health Organization for AIDS (a sensitive subject in China), she has met criticism internationally.

As her husband climbed the Communist Party’s ranks, she retreated from the spotlight and became markedly more conservative in appearance. While this is a distressingly common trend amongst first ladies everywhere, in the case of Liyuan, it perhaps emphasizes the markedly patriarchal traditions of the Chinese single-party state.

Contrarily, Valerie Trierweiler, the girlfriend of François Hollande and France’s unofficial first lady, is largely regarded as France’s first working first lady. A twice-divorced, mother of three and well-respected journalist, she has committed to keeping her job even though she is welcome to keep house at the Élysée Palace instead.

ObamaBut the paragon first wives are, of course, Kate Middleton and Michelle Obama. Since her marriage to Prince William, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, has charmed her subjects and the international media with her poise, relevance, style, and compassion. She has also handled the constant tabloid focus on her life with grace.

Such a fascination with first ladies has only grown in recent years. In fact, Vogue published a glowing profile of the first lady of Syria, Asma al-Assad, in 2011, to much criticism. In the article, the Assad family was described as ‘tolerant and peaceful’, even ‘democratic’ – editorial decisions that have since been contested for obvious reasons.

Michelle Obama, however, recently graced her second cover of Vogue to usual applause. As a Harvard-trained lawyer, she certainly holds her own in the White House: after her outstanding speech in support of her husband’s reelection bid at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, she was met with cries of ‘Michelle 2016’ – proof of existing support should she run for president herself.

The role of first lady in any country is a poorly defined role, perhaps even more so in our modern age. Besides championing charities and presenting a fashionable front for their husband’s administrations, first ladies are limited. If they are seen as too involved with their husband’s politics, they lose public appeal (see Hillary Clinton, circa the ‘90s). However, if they seem too passive or frivolous, they are criticized for capitalizing on their husband’s successes.

Nonetheless, here’s to the current generation of first ladies: navigating their domains with class and ability.

Photo credit: Flickr Commons

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