Shortly after First Lady Michelle Obama took the stage at this year’s Academy Awards, commentators from both Hollywood and inside the beltway erupted with criticism. It was just the latest chapter in a decades old debate about the proper role of the first lady in contemporary society. On this edition of FM89’s commentary series The Moral Is, Fresno State communication professor Diane Blair says that when it comes to public praise or criticism, it often tells us more about society as a whole than about the first lady herself.
First Lady Michelle Obama’s surprise appearance at this year’s Academy Awards sparked a national media conversation about whether her presence was appropriate. Some critics accused her of selfishly crashing the event and turning an evening of entertainment into a political affair. Donny Deutsch, a commentator for the Today show said, “She was what I call an uninvited guest . . . there was an assumptive elitist quality to it.” Washington Post columnist, Jennifer Rubin argued that her appearance made the first lady seem “small and grasping.” Michelle Obama’s response was that it was “absolutely not surprising” that her appearance provoked a national conversation. “Shoot, my bangs set off a national conversation. My shoes can set off a national conversation. That’s just sort of where we are.”
All first ladies are well aware of the level of scrutiny their performances bring. Since the earliest days of the republic, first ladies have grappled with the proper performance of this unelected role that holds considerable celebrity status and public visibility. In some ways the position is more difficult to perform than that of the president. A president is elected and the duties of the role are spelled out in the Constitution. The first lady is neither elected nor given any constitutional or legal guidelines to follow. She has no official duties, and yet she serves as a representative of the nation. She is in an unpaid position, and yet the role has often been a fulltime job for the women who occupy it. Every first lady faces the same dilemma: she is an individual and may have her own preferences and ambitions, but when she assumes the office of the first lady, she also becomes a symbol of her husband’s administration and American womanhood in general. Life under such scrutiny prompted Margaret Truman to say that the American people tend to treat the first family like “public property, like the White House itself.” Although the American public can’t specifically say what they want from a first lady, many are quick to point out what they, as individuals don’t want once she’s performed an action.
First ladies and the public are also aware that the role enables the women who occupy it to wield an imprecise yet significant political and cultural power. First ladies have served as political advisors, defenders of their husband’s image and legacy, presidential surrogates, and advocates in their own right. Contemporary first ladies have one of the most influential podiums in the world at their disposal, and the public typically expects that they will do something useful with that platform. At the same time, first ladies who appear to exercise influence and power over their husband’s decisions or who may perform the role in a more activist manner have experienced harsh criticism and backlash.
The public’s comfort level with a first lady’s activities varies greatly at any given point in time. Given the ill-defined nature of the role, what is viewed as acceptable and unacceptable in this role may say more about our own political commitments and cultural expectations than it does about any individual first lady herself.
The views expressed on The Moral Is are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Valley Public Radio.