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Wed February 19, 2014
The Cultish Appeal Of Michelle Obama
Originally published on Thu February 20, 2014 10:23 am
There are people who do not like Michelle Obama.
This is not a story for, or about, them. This is a story for, and about, people who like the first lady. And perhaps some of the reasons they like her.
In a recent poll by Pew Research Center, she is viewed favorably by 68 percent of all Americans. And more favorably than her husband, President Barack Obama. (The poll points out that conservative Republicans are not totally enamored of her, but even they like her better than her husband.)
Another just-released survey shows that the top-rated first ladies since World War II — among some 242 historians — are Jackie Kennedy and Michelle Obama. (Hillary Clinton was right behind Michelle Obama.) Reuters reports that "Current first lady Michelle Obama scored particularly high in the categories of 'being her own woman' and 'value to the president.' "
When it comes to public opinion polls, observes USA Today, "the most consistent aspect of the Obama administration is first lady Michelle Obama." And there are many Americans who just flat-out adore her.
Robin Givhan, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer who covered the first lady for The Washington Post in 2009-2010, observes: "Michelle Obama is a cult figure."
She is a commanding presence in contemporary American popular culture.
So far during her tenure in the White House, people have shopped with First Lady of Fabulous tote bags; purchased Michelle Obama action figures; tuned in to YouTube to learn to Dance Like Michelle Obama and watched her interact with the Muppets time and again.
She is scheduled to be a guest Thursday night — along with a parade of other popcult paragons — during the first week of The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon. As first lady she has danced with Fallon and pushed-up with Ellen Degeneres. She has dunked and photobombed with NBA players.
The Michelle Obama Fan Club page on Facebook boasts tens of thousands of likes — and countless fawning comments. Photos of her — goofing off at the White House, posing as a just-turned 50-year-old with a shiny new AARP card and hanging out with the rest of the first family — elicit hundreds of giddy remarks.
From the moment she stepped onto the political stage, she has attracted a loyal and loving following. "Every first lady engenders a degree of adoration from the political base," says Carl Sferrazza Anthony, consulting historian to the National First Ladies Library, "but only one so captured the fascination of the public that it became downright obsessive — Jackie Kennedy. And I think Michelle Obama may be coming up a bit towards that level."
'DiffiCULTy Of The Path'
Since the election of her husband in 2008, Michelle has been in the spotlight. With her Let's Move initiative, she has urged Americans to eat healthier and exercise more. She has appealed to companies to hire veterans. She launched the first official first lady Twitter account.
Robin Givhan elaborates on the idea of Michelle Obama as cult figure: "Most prominently, I think she's reached that status among black men and women — especially women."
The first lady has been able to manage "the extraordinarily difficult trick of garnering praise from those who are lower on the socio-economic ladder as well as those at the top," Robin says. "Despite her rarefied position, she hasn't alienated working-class folks — who would not be so enthusiastic about her if they felt she'd forgotten 'where she came from' or was putting on airs or was in any way not relating to them because she saw herself as being better."
The first lady makes constant references to her past, Robin says. And "her willingness to wear mass-market fashion and her focus on encouraging young black students to excel — I think she has sparked admiration. She underscores that she is no different from so many other black folks."
And in the eyes of more economically successful black Americans, Robin says, "she has made no missteps. They understand the difficulty of the path she walks, know the microscope she's under and admire that she's done it so well. She has made them proud by showing the wider world that their ilk — educated, focused, ambitious, family-oriented — exist. And that they live authentic lives."
Her iconic status, Robin says, "is certainly wider than just among black Americans — because others admire her for some of the same reasons."
Historians' poll aside, there are obvious parallels between Michelle Obama and Jackie Kennedy. Stylishness and, says Carl Sferrazza Anthony, intelligence. "It is not an intelligence expressed by quoting Shakespeare or didactically hammering a legal point," he says, "it is a wisdom, and sensibility shown more than heard — so others can transfer onto them their own interpretations."
He points out that Jackie Kennedy expressed her support for civil rights without speaking a single word but by releasing a photo of her daughter's White House kindergarten class — which just happened to include an African-American student.
Michelle Obama has a long history of holding down executive positions, Carl says. She even has that one label often thought of as the snootiest in America: Harvard lawyer.
But she never brings any of that up, Carl says. "And so, instead, the public rivets on her sweeping confidence in a formal ballgown depicted in Vogue, she dances well on Ellen, and confesses to loving fruit cobblers on The View. And all of that reverberates down the endless echo chamber of the Net and gets bullet-pointed by local news as the 10-second sweet nothing of a kiss at the end of an evening broadcast of grim school shootings and mundane local ordinance changes."
With such adoration comes inevitable backlash. "Along with this cult state there is usually a smaller and hardened percentage of haters," Carl reminds us. "Almost always it is a matter of partisanship, but sometimes it is only because they hate the idea of anyone being that adored."
The Protojournalist is an experiment in reporting. Abstract. Concrete. @NPRtpj