FIRST lady Michelle Obama has been making the rounds on television recently, appearing on the Parks and Recreation season finale and poking fun at her role as America’s health cop in a Veepskit shown at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner. This week, she will appear on the country music drama Nashville at a charity concert organised by Connie Britton’s character Rayna James. During these cameos, she is usually on-message about her Let’s Move campaign, but what they also show is that she is remarkably savvy about being in on the joke, and using pop culture to further her ideas.
One of the most powerful women in the world is using television to reach out to people, and she’s and doing it well. It’s not common for first ladies to appear on television, and certainly not in any way that makes them seem relatable; they either do it poorly, or avoid it altogether. My generation had Nancy Reagan’s creaky, jangling appearance on Diff’rent Strokes in 1983 to warn us about the dangers of drugs for her Just Say No campaign (which was, admittedly, a failure).
Hillary Rodham Clinton was appointed to the national health care reform task force when Bill Clinton took office; most of her television appearances simply served her post, and when she ventured into the realm of pop culture post-White House it was seen as a bid to soften her image. Both Barbara Bush and Laura Bush were more interested in books than television. Michelle Obama is using the language of the people to speak directly to the people in a way that makes sense for the moment.
The first lady maintains her amiability by defaulting to self-deprecating humour. Last year she appeared on Jimmy Fallon to walk us through the evolution of mom dancing. She convinced Big Bird that her height doesn’t make her half-bird on Sesame Street. She showed up on iCarly in 2012 to talk to kids about supporting military families and poke fun at her title. She even dunked on LeBron James when the Miami Heat visited the White House. While her appearances on The Biggest Loserare fairly standard, in terms of her talking about healthy eating and exercise, the first lady has proven again and again that she won’t compromise personality for publicity.
Right now there is a strong argument to be made that TV has surpassed movies in terms of cultural cache, and TV producers are throwing out the old model and taking more risks. This works well for someone like Flotus, who is willing to let her own sense of humour peek out around the edges of the traditional sitcom format.
Subverting the stodgy hokeyness of old model television is part of the joke. We’ve grown accustomed to seeing politicians shill for something, like Bob Dole stumping for Viagra, or President Barack Obama appearing on Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis to push the Affordable Care Act, but Michelle Obama’s appearances are different. Her consistency of message across a variety of TV shows are a smart political move that ensures she can reach more than one type of viewer.
Her appearance on Nashville this week is another smart move. She’ll be sending a message of support for the military at Fort Campbell in Kentucky, which simultaneously reminds viewers that the US still has troops deployed all over the world, and works towards answering detractors who think the Obama White House isn’t doing enough to support those troops. Her many TV cameos to date have revealed that Michelle Obama is a pretty good actor: she is skilled at playing herself in the role of herself. On-screen, that comes over as sincere and believable, which are qualities most politicians would kill for.
—By arrangement with the GuardianTags: actor, concert, movie, music, producer, television, tv