Monday, 14 March 2016

Michelle Obama and the Rhetoric of American First Lady Politics

On 12 November 2008, Rebecca Traister wrote that ‘the exoticism and difference of Obama’s race was all the progress the American people could take in one election […] A threateningly competent woman might put them over the edge’[1]  The article referred in particular to Michelle Obama’s self-portrayal, in her speech at the August 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, as mother, wife, daughter and sister rather than the successful independent woman that she was. Certainly the article passed a far too hasty judgment on a woman that had just become first lady, but Traister was not the only one lamenting a return to stifled gender stereotypes as Americans wished to put behind the image of a  ‘power hungry’ (the media’s favourite attribute when referring to Hillary Clinton)Democrat first lady. In truth, the plethora of articles on Mrs Obama’s toned arms and unlikely comparisons with Jackie Kennedy for their passion for fashion and glamorous look, far too often have obscured her accomplishments as first lady.

As the Obamas get ready to move out from the White House, the Centre , on Wednesday 9th March, welcomed Dr Elizabeth ‘Jody’ Natalle, Associate Professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, contributor and co-editor, with Jenni Simon, of  ‘Michelle Obama: First Lady, American Rhetor’ (New York and London: Lexington Books, 2015). In an insightful and engaging lecture, ‘Michelle Obama and the Rhetoric of American First Lady Politics’, Dr Natalle explained why the study of Michelle Obama’s rhetorical strategies enhances research on American first ladies. Michelle Obama is a ‘first’ first lady on many levels. She is not only the first African American and the first social media first lady that the country has ever had, but she has also changed the way we look at American women, motherhood and the definition of family in the White House.

Dr Natalle, who has a background in gender and communication studies, demonstrated how an interdisciplinary approach can offer a deeper understanding of American first ladies and indeed, a new angle in feminist studies. From the fusion of rhetorical and cultural studies approaches, Michelle Obama emerges as a first lady that has been able to use her power of persuasion in such innovative ways that greatly benefited her agenda and that eventually brought her to be more successful than her husband who, on the contrary, has met with strenuous opposition on every political project.

The examples here are many, from speeches, photographs (apparently no first lady has ever before shown her bare arms in official photographs), or campaigns. One of the most ground-breaking strategies that Mrs Obama adopted was the enlisting of what Dr Natalle defines ‘co-rethors’,  collaborators, not necessarily from a political background, to help her persuade her audiences. In her Let’s Move!  campaign to fight childhood obesity promoting healthy eating and exercise, the First Lady recruited the White House chef and even Big Bird from Sesame Street. In the Join Forces campaign, which addressed military families, Obama collaborated  with Vice President’s wife Jill Biden, again something unprecedented as first ladies don’t usually work closely with  vice presidents’ wives.  The idea of collaboration has been a feminist political ideal since the 1960s, demonstrating the First Lady’s engagement with feminist theory and the belief that change can only happen through cooperation, which starts within the family to gradually include the whole society. The words Michelle Obama frequently uses also highlight her attempt to build a community effort around her campaigns: for instance, the overuse of the word ‘we’ suggests a will to include everyone, the children as well as their parents, redefining the notion of health as something that can be accomplished intergenerationally.

To those still fearing that Mrs Obama represents a return to the role of first lady as primarily wife and mother, we could reply that she used these gender stereotypes to her advantage to claim an identity that is not subordinate to that of her husband.  The creation of the ‘mom-in-chief’ brand is an example of this, suggesting that the first lady holds a parallel, not inferior, role to that of her husband, commander in chief. Mrs Obama transformed the notion of Republican motherhood itself.  She never made motherhood look easy and acknowledged the need for help by bringing her mother into the White House. This is a revolutionary act in its own right, as the presence of grandparents is common within the African American or ethnic communities but extremely rare in white Anglo-Saxon families and new in the presidential family model.

Through a pluralistic approach that analyses communication at different levels, be they photographs, choice of words, symbolic actions, we see a first lady who represents the history of America in which race, gender and class can equally be barriers and opportunities. But Michelle Obama is not simply a symbol. She represents the struggle of every modern woman who has to juggle many roles and who overcomes gender, race and class stereotypes, negotiating them to further her agenda, and welcoming the concept of diversity as a strength rather than a divisive factor.

Not surprisingly given her communication studies background, Dr Natalle’ s delivery was lively and engaging, generating plenty of questions from the audience. Many concerned the present presidential campaign and what would happen, in terms of rhetorical strategies and political/social aims if a man (we all know who I’m talking about here) fills in the role of president’s spouse. I have to admit that Dr Natalle’s fascinating arguments convinced me of the fact that I, too, got side-tracked by Mrs Obama’s impeccable fashion sense, missing the subtle subtext in her rhetorical strategies, which further persuaded me of how interdisciplinarity can add extra dimension to our research. No doubt the hybrid approach that Dr Natalle presented in the lecture and indeed in the book, will be extremely useful for future research  whether we will see a model or a ‘first laddie’ at the president’s side next November.

Bianca Scoti

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