Sunday, March 8, 2009


Are you old school enough to remember Chaka Khan's blazing, bumptious 1978 hit song, "I'm Every Woman"? You could dance to this chart-topper, of course; Chaka Khan wouldn't have had it any other way. But besides its role as a dance-floor staple back in the disco day, its lyrics conveyed the universalist aspects of an anthem. Especially the chorus:
I'm every woman,
It's all in me ...
That sense of typicality, of extraordinariness within the ordinary, was something that eluded black women in the eyes of pop culture, and through no fault of their own. Through the prism of pop culture, black women were always the sassy, plain-spoken, earthy Other -- not so much people as walking stereotypes meant to go no further, to be no more than the relatively narrow and isolationist roles assigned to them by the majority culture.

The walls of that cultural apartheid have been crumbling by degrees for years now. We can thank Michelle Obama for helping to pile-drive a hole through that wall, once and for all.

In little more than seven weeks, Michelle Obama has quietly reinvented the franchise of First Lady. For about as long, the media has obsessed over the bare arms she's displayed on several occasions. We've gotten weekly U.S. Biceps & Triceps Reports about the new First Lady. It's as if Laura Bush had no such physical equipment for the last eight years; that part of the female anatomy apparently didn't exist until Michelle went sleeveless. Without meaning to, she's become a symbol of the national physicality yearning to breathe free.

"Let’s face it: The only bracing symbol of American strength right now is the image of Michelle Obama’s sculpted biceps," Maureen Dowd wrote March 7 in The New York Times. "Her husband urges bold action, but it is Michelle who looks as though she could easily wind up and punch out Rush Limbaugh, Bernie Madoff and all the corporate creeps who ripped off America."

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But of course it's more, it's bigger than that. Besides brandishing a refreshingly revisionist sense of fashion -- one in which the lion of haute couture lies down with the lamb of J. Crew -- Michelle Obama has helped revolutionize the national sense of black femininity and motherhood. Her very presence in the White House resets the baseline of expectations when we think of the First Lady.

She's brought a visible, uncompromising sense of protectiveness to the role of Moms-in-Chief, working to effect a balance of the private and the public for Sasha and Malia, our First Kids. That swing set you can see from the Oval Office? Don't for a minute think that was all the president's idea.

In a mere seven weeks, she's given her quasi-office clout, championing her own causes — including aid to veterans' families, improved nutrition and the plight of working families — in a direct, populist way.

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Then there's the element of style. We've had issues before with Condé Nast, the monster magazine publisher, but they get credit for realizing what the country has known for awhile: Michelle Obama will be an inescapable presence in the fashion world. The publisher has just featured her on the cover of Vogue, the international style & fashion bible, as well as in a smartly electric illustration on the cover of the current issue of The New Yorker.

Maybe the biggest nod to Michelle Obama as everywoman turns up as an item in an online catalog by Taylor Gifts: A T-shirt bearing a sharp illustration of Michelle Obama assuming the physical posture and dress of the iconic Rosie the Riveter, whose original image appeared on a poster that galvanized the homefront during World War II.

The ballooned caption, "We Can Do It!" is a direct import from the original. With the words arrayed to come from the mouth of the new First Lady, the message goes forth: Despite the panorama of social and economic and personal challenges black women face, along with all women, this shout of the possible is a tonic, a throwdown of uplift that probably couldn't come at a better time, or from a better source.

The wire services have for years made it a convention of their copy style: The phrase "first lady" is rendered in the lower case — this despite the seemingly obvious titular singularity that comes with use of the word "first." "Not a formal title," says the Associated Press. Fair enough — for them.

But maybe for the rest of us, it's time to break with that convention. Maybe with this First Lady, we can give the title, and the current titleholder, the props they deserve.
Image credits: Michelle Obama, White House kitchen: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters. Vogue, The New Yorker covers: © 2009 Condé Nast/Advance Publications. Obama shirt: Taylor Gifts catalog.

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