Michelle Obama: First Lady, American Rhetor.
In this book, Elizabeth J. Natalie and Jenni M. Simon offer a series of essays focusing on how rhetorical critics can begin to understand Michelle Obama's historic presence as the first African American First Lady. At the heart of the collection is the question of Obama's agency as a speaker. It is helpful to conceptualize agency as Michael C. Leff does in his article, "Tradition and Agency in Humanistic Rhetoric" (Philosophy and Rhetoric 36: 135--47 ), where rhetorical agency is the movement between tradition and invention. Leff describes agency as a type of continuum, explaining that speakers build on what has come before them (tradition), but also have opportunities to say something new (invention). First Lady rhetoric, in many ways, must be grounded in tradition and, so, brings with it a set of gendered constraints (these essays further complicate those constraints by giving attention to the intersection of race with gender). The authors in the collection argue that, while Obama faces unprecedented rhetorical obstacles, she successfully navigates the space between tradition and invention, leading to a largely celebratory analysis of Obama's public discourse.
Across these essays it is evident that Obama rhetorically constructs herself as a family-oriented black woman in a public sphere that is not always welcoming to the "Mom-in-Chief' (5). In Chapter 2, Tammy Vigil begins her analysis with Obama's 2008 Democratic National Convention address--a point before Obama has become the Mom in Chief--and shows the way in which Obama articulates a version of traditional femininity common to First Ladies by focusing on family and relationships. Vigil also brings the lens of intersectionality to bear on this relational focus: "Casting herself as a supportive wife rather than an assertive woman, Obama depicts herself in a familiar manner, encouraging listeners to perceive her as similar in stature, character and demeanor as many past First Ladies and distancing herself from stereotypical caricatures of highly educated women and African American women" (23). Here, Vigil acknowledges the rhetorical constraints on Obama in terms of gender and race and reads her self-presentation as strategically traditional. Yet, she also marks the way in which Obama moves outside of this more traditional First Lady discourse in her discussion of family. Obama remains, topically, in a fairly-safe rhetorical space for First Ladies, but what she does within that space is to move toward inclusivity rather than reifying the nuclear family as the ideal.
Obama's rhetorical focus on family, children, and motherhood--specifically, her conceptualization of self as the Mom in Chief--is highlighted in most of the essays. In Chapter 3, Jeanne M. Persuit and Deborah A. Brunson point out that Obama's adherence to tradition is not viewed favorably by some within feminist circles. Though some other First Ladies may have received similar criticism, Persuit and Brunson show how the history of the "respectability factor" (45) for African Americans, along with "the devalued, fetishized, and exotic image of Black women" (46), constrains Obama in ways that white First Ladies have not been constrained in the past. Noting the way in which Obama's embodiment of racial difference sets her apart from former First Ladies, they read Obama's Mom-in-Chief rhetoric as an intentional and strategic way of branding herself, which allows her access to traditional First Lady rhetoric while at the same time allowing her to disrupt historical narratives about black women and motherhood.
All of the scholars in this collection give attention to the ways in which historical legacies of race, along with contemporary racism, complicate the question of Obama's agency as a rhetor. In Chapter 6, Simon conceptualizes Obama's main rhetorical obstacle as a problem of ethos, arguing that "establishing 'good ethos' and fostering identity is problematic for black feminine speakers whose character is often questioned outside their immediate communities" (107). Simon also sees the rhetoric of motherhood as one of the smartest ways for Obama to establish her ethos, but argues that there are moments in some of her rhetoric in which Obama also presents herself as an independent woman. Simon reconciles these two subject positions by showing how Obama's adoption of these seeming opposites--mother and independent woman--make her rhetoric fundamentally different from that of other First Ladies as the two positions actually advance an articulation of "the mother tongue," an "alternative discourse of historical importance that influences the rhetoric of contemporary Black women" (106). Simon argues that even when Obama asserts classically liberal themes of individual success, she couples such themes with an ethic of care and, thus, asserts motherhood and its connection to nation in a new way: "While there are certainly underpinnings of Republican Motherhood, her rhetoric holds a transformative spirit that may provide the catalyst that changes the way we view success and successful rhetoric" (114). For Simon, Obama's articulation of personal responsibility and care together mark Obama as a new kind of rhetor who opens up possibilities for both other rhetors and for rhetorical critics.
Natalle and Simon's book, as a whole, successfully interrogates two important theoretical ideas--intersectionality and agency--and will be of most interest to rhetorical scholars who focus on identity and its impact on public address, and on First Lady rhetoric, specifically. Throughout, Michelle Obama is described as a First Lady who is able to overcome her identity constraints through a strategic presentation of self, centered on motherhood and family (though a few essays shift direction, such as Rachel Alicia Griffin's chapter on Obama's tribute to Maya Angelou). While rhetorics of motherhood and family have been problematized within First Lady studies, the use of such rhetorics has proven to be a powerful tool for women in politics. Michelle Obama is no exception, though the authors featured in this collection argue that the way in which Obama uses such rhetoric is, in many ways, exceptional.
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|Publication:||Presidential Studies Quarterly|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2017|
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