Robin Givhan on Culture: You Gotta Love the First Lady. No, Really, You Have No Choice.

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By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 15, 2009

The rise of first lady Michelle Obama as an icon -- of fashion, black womanhood, working motherhood and middle-class success -- has propelled her onto a pedestal that would surely give the average person vertigo. She is Jackie Kennedy, Sojourner Truth, Hillary Clinton and a Horatio Alger character all rolled into one J. Crew-clad package.

Obama has slipped into that rarefied world in which normal human behavior -- concern for one's children, a preference for wearing jeans on the weekend, the ability to look other people in the eye while they're speaking to you -- is perceived by many as an incomparable example of graciousness, familial commitment and kindness.

Criticize her at your peril. For there are bloggers, mainstream writers and pundits who seem intent on keeping the path clear for her canonization. This observation is not intended to take anything away from the professional accomplishments of the new first lady. Or to diminish the thoughtful way in which she seems to treat people. And she should be enthusiastically cheered for pushing an often-ignored story into the spotlight: the tale of accomplished, stylish black women and their functional black families. Obama is extraordinary. But she is not exceptional.

She represents a community larger than herself. But her fans have declared an Internet Code Red at the slightest hint of a threat, as if she were the "one and only" and must be protected like the last snow leopard.

Her iconic stature was underscored recently with the unveiling of her Vogue cover -- only the second time a first lady has been featured in that coveted spot. (The cover is such a cultural statement about female beauty and its worth that Oprah Winfrey lost 20 pounds for her 1998 picture and said the first test Polaroid brought tears to her eyes.) The Obama effect transformed Friday's Fashion Week presentation in New York by Jason Wu -- the young designer who created her inaugural gown -- into the season's must-see event. In Washington, she had federal employees cheering and locals swooning.

The vitriol has flown at those, such as journalist Juan Williams, who have suggested that she can be too aggressive or dour in some of her speeches. And the poor woman who wished in Women's Wear Daily that Obama had worn an ensemble by a black designer during the inauguration was verbally pummeled . . . by black designers. She and Williams may have been wrong. But still, theirs were just opinions.

Other prominent women have their fan bases poised to defend their dignity and ensure they receive due respect. It always boils down to respect, which always seems to be defined as mandatory trepidation on the part of anyone criticizing, disagreeing or just being childishly superficial.

Clinton had an enthusiastic and protective sisterhood that guarded her back as she marched into the old boys' club as a presidential candidate. They brought wisdom and energy to her campaign. But when she lost the Democratic presidential nomination, many of them howled in outrage. They were never able to articulate anything that would salve their wounds -- anything other than a do-over, that is. They threatened and they swaggered and one suspected that at any moment they'd grab for their family jewels, start throwing hand signals and rhyming about being dissed.

And consider the outcry over pop star Jessica Simpson, a not-so-talented starlet who has found more success than her voice and acting ability are worth. She appeared onstage either significantly heavier than she has been in recent years or wearing the most unflattering pair of high-waisted pants ever to be stitched from denim. In any case, the assaults on her appearance were harsh. And her fans -- as well as some folks who were not especially enamored of her oeuvre -- went on the attack in defense of her right, and all women's right, to wear ill-fitting pants in public or to gain weight. Or both.

Women such as Katie Couric (first female solo anchor on network news) and Winfrey (first person to transform a talk show into a combination cult, political platform and angel network) have equally ardent fans who have rallied in defense of perkiness and a decades-long weight-gain/loss confessional.

For all the wide-eyed Michelle-Obama-is-just-like-us rapture because she wears Gap, the reality is that those Main Street frocks in her closet make her position only more vertiginous. Audiences feel they have an intimate relationship with this person they've put atop a pedestal, and they are more visceral in their defense of her.

The photograph of Obama on the March cover of Vogue adds to that false sense of public intimacy. Unlike the portrait of Clinton that appeared in December 1998, there's nothing especially regal or grand about Obama's image. Clinton wore a boat-neck ball gown by Oscar de la Renta when she broke the Vogue cover barrier. Obama wears a sleeveless sheath. Clinton's formal photo could just as easily have been an oil painting by a modern-day John Singer Sargent. Obama's picture has the self-consciously relaxed quality of something that might appear on a Facebook page.

Obama's champions act as if they know her, that they understand her and she them. All that passionate support, however, comes at a price. They have wrapped her in a protective cocoon that could soon border on smothering. It is a place where normal human failures are denied, reasonable criticism is met with a ferocious defense, bad hair days don't exist and dimwitted attacks can't simply be ignored.

Being an icon is not for the faint of heart. How unnerving it must be to know that your actions have disappointed some stranger. How odd to have anonymous citizens rising up in your defense over something that has caused you no upset. And even more frustrating: How do you show your gratitude or tell your defenders to back off? Can an icon have a cranky day in public -- and have that crummy mood noted without it launching boycotts, blogs and a thousand dissertations on the stereotype of the angry black woman? It may be that she cannot.

Still, one wishes that some close Obama friend would step forward and do for her what she pointedly tried to do for her husband early on in the campaign. Tell the world that she doesn't put away the milk. That she skips the weekly pedicures. Debunk the mythology. Or at least try.


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