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You can date yourself by the first First Lady you remember, the messages she sent about gender and style and public service. Mine was Nancy Reagan. I have vague recollections of a stylish older woman in signature red, but mainly, I remember when she showed up on “Diff’rent Strokes.”
She was promoting her “Just Say No” campaign against drugs, standing patiently, smiling tightly, as people made bad sitcom jokes around her. It seemed like important work — stepping down from her higher plane to briefly visit my middlebrow world, performing a noble duty for my benefit. I listened (until, some years later, I lapsed).
There’s a lot of needle-threading to be done as a modern First Lady, projecting the importance of family and career, being feminine and feminist, navigating unelected power...
Every First Lady projects a different image. Barbara Bush, to my teenaged eyes, seemed distant and patrician in her pearls; only later did I learn she had a wicked sense of humor. Hillary Clinton — oh, Hillary — came girding for battle, fought ceaselessly, and left the White House with a pantsuit wardrobe and a plan to join the Senate. Laura Bush accepted the spotlight with quiet resignation.
And how will girls remember Michelle Obama? She’s a fitting symbol of modern feminism, with all of its dualities and contradictions — an Ivy-educated lawyer who spent the last eight years as a stay-at-home volunteer. She never entered her husband’s policy arena, but managed to wield power of her own. Nancy lost the war on drugs; Michelle may have won the war on tater tots in schools.
But most memorably, she embraced the middlebrow with gusto. When she “mom danced” with Fallon and karaoke-d with Corden, she seem to be having deep, actual fun. She developed a signature style, parading bold patterns and diverse designers, declaring that a woman with access to haute couture could also proudly wear J. Crew off the rack. She made the case for fashion as intelligence: If your job is to be gawked at, don’t fight it. Just make sure you send the gawkers a pointed message.
Hers was, “If I can do this, you can, too.”
There’s a lot of needle-threading to be done as a modern First Lady, projecting the importance of family and career, being feminine and feminist, navigating unelected power — all as people you don’t know either put you on a pedestal or proclaim that you’re doing everything wrong. That middlebrow space — the First Lady’s platform — has become increasingly powerful, a way to move markets, change minds, and set a standard for a nation full of girls.
It’s hard to picture, right now, the standard we’ll get from the next First Lady. I feel for Melania Trump, who asked for a certain life, but not precisely this one. The wife of a blustery celebrity can stay safely in his shadow. The wife of a blustery president has duties.
I feel for Melania Trump, who asked for a certain life, but not precisely this one. The wife of a blustery celebrity can stay safely in his shadow. The wife of a blustery president has duties.
And while a professional model is used to the public’s gaze, models aren’t usually required to speak — especially in the political arena, where speech is fraught with peril. Like far too many political wives, Melania Trump has had to comment on her husband’s bad behavior, to walk that awkward tightrope between condemnation and support, while bearing the unfair weight of disrespect. She’s had to test her voice on an enormous stage; her Republican National Convention address, meant to be her big debut, left her burned when, in an attempt to emulate Michelle Obama, she plagiarized her.
Yet Melania has a story of her own to tell, about immigration and singleminded goals and the newly-common experience of being thrust in the spotlight without preparation or, possibly, consent. These days, she can control her message like never before, engaging the middlebrow not just through a limited selection of terrible sitcoms, but through talk shows and podcasts, platforms and apps, tweets sent from a high tower in the darkness of night.
When she finally speaks, what will she say?
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