So far, the first lady has chosen to be a food bank volunteer with an outsize entourage and an education activist with the largest soapbox imaginable. But Michelle Obama also fills a role that is not of her choosing but that may, in fact, be the most influential: She serves as a symbol of middle-class progress, feminist achievement, affirmative-action success and individual style.
And she has done all this on the world stage . . . while being black.
Time and again, observers grasp for adjectives to describe Obama's combination of professional accomplishment and soccer-mom maternalism. It's no wonder so many eye her with awe and disbelief. Or why a minority still view her with suspicion. There have been few broad cultural precedents for what she represents.
Historically, television has been more progressive than reality, preparing a society for the moment when what only existed in the shadows surges into the spotlight. From "Soap" to "Will & Grace," TV helped people envision gay couples living picket-fence lives. "Maude" and daytime soap operas raised the topic of abortion before it became a political wedge issue. Television made the case for the first female commander in chief. And popular culture has more than once suggested that the idea of an African American president wasn't so far-fetched. But it rarely introduced viewers to anyone like Michelle Obama.
The last similarly accomplished and wholesome black woman to enter the homes of TV audiences -- both black and white, in small towns and big cities -- was Clair Huxtable, the matriarch of "The Cosby Show." It is a cultural comparison more apt than the one made to Jackie Kennedy, which is rooted in little more than the two first ladies being mothers of young children and their affection for sleeveless dresses.
Television, in particular, speaks to viewers intimately, in the privacy of their homes, building long-term relationships and weaving complicated narratives. People discuss the lives of TV characters -- from soap opera stars to reality-show contestants -- with the kind of emotional empathy normally saved for family members. Syndication allows characters to live forever and connect to multiple generations, whether it is the blended family of "The Brady Bunch" or the codependent New Yorkers on "Seinfeld."
Even as viewing habits have become more fragmented through cable and DVRs, TV still serves as a lingua franca. It can gently and affably prod disparate groups toward greater tolerance and acceptance. TV builds kinship.
But most of the prominent portrayals of black women on television are men in corpulent drag ( Madea), strutting tarts ("The Real Housewives of Atlanta") or emotionless law enforcement officers (Lt. Anita Van Buren of "Law & Order"). In its most enlightened moments, popular culture presents black women as strident taskmaster with the heart of gold -- see Dr. Miranda Bailey of "Grey's Anatomy."
In a recent essay for the Nation, Columbia law professor Patricia Williams shared her frustrations about popular culture's failure to present more images of the sort that Obama reflects. Black women -- and women of color, in general -- still are dogged by the tropes that have haunted them for generations, she wrote. But instead of images such as Mammy and Prissy from "Gone With the Wind," contemporary women must deal with "the adventures of Flavor Flav and Strom Thurmond" as well as "depictions from Don Imus and the minstrelsy of Tyler Perry."
"Where, for heaven's sake, is a picture of black femininity (in particular, that of darker-skinned, non-tragic femininity) that might signify beauty, chic, elegance, vulnerability, sophistication?"
Where are the images that celebrate the educated black woman? "The jurisprudence of the entire 20th century was about black people trying to get into school," Williams said in a telephone interview. "That's invisible." Niche media have tried to showcase the black professional class -- from the stories of uplift in Ebony magazine to "Harlem Heights," a reality show about 20-something buppies that debuted this spring on BET, a rarity on a black-oriented cable network often criticized by viewers for pandering to the worst stereotypes of African Americans. There have been shows that have spoken knowingly to a predominantly black audience, such as "Living Single" and "Girlfriends." "Soul Food" and "Lincoln Heights" address the small segmented audiences of cable.
Only Audra McDonald's character on ABC's "Private Practice" -- a divorced, stylish doctor with a young daughter, a vibrant social life and a healthy relationship with her ex-husband -- really reflects a generation of black women with advanced degrees, solid self-esteem and no anger issues.
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