WaPo on Michelle: 'So Many Eye Her With Awe and Disbelief'

June 19th, 2009 8:29 AM

The Washington Post’s Robin Givhan goes all gooey for Michelle Obama again at the top of the Style section on Friday, comparing the First Lady to Clair Huxtable, or as explained by the caption under their pictures: "As portrayed by Phylicia Rashad, Clair Huxtable was an accomplished yet down-to-earth figure. In Michelle Obama, the nation now has another symbol of success and style." Givhan writes with an admiration so dazzled that you worry she’s going to faint:

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.

Givhan hailed how "Historically, television has been more progressive than reality, preparing society for the moment when what only existed in the shadow surges into the spotlight," but television "rarely introduced viewers to anyone like Michelle Obama. The last similarly accomplished and wholesome black woman" on TV was Clair Huxtable on The Cosby Show.

Playing off a column in the hard-left Nation magazine by professor Patricia Williams, Givhan complained that few black female characters on television "really reflects a generation of black women with advanced degrees, solid self-esteem, and no anger issues."

Set aside for a moment the idea that Michelle Obama’s never displayed "anger issues," while we wait for the story of what happened to Jackie Norris, fired as the First Lady’s chief of staff only four months into the job. Givhan really overplays just how awfully racist American culture has been up until this moment:  

In a culture in which every white woman is presumed to be Everywoman until proven out of the mainstream, Obama has brought the normalcy of black women into the broader social consciousness. All it took were her two Ivy League degrees, a six-figure boardroom salary, a Norman Rockwell family, soccer-mom bona fides and an ability to dress herself without the aid of an entourage.

In many ways, the first lady has made people see -- really see -- black women for the first time. [Italics hers.] For example, when a black model appeared on the May cover of Vogue, news articles credited the "Obama effect," ignoring the concerted lobbying by fashion industry activists that began long before Barack Obama was even a presidential contender.

The role of style in defining the first lady might easily be dismissed as a distraction from more substantive issues. But Williams says the fan magazine breathlessness is significant because "it implies a kind of parity we really needed."

A reader who's not black or female can sympathize with the feeling that black women are undervalued or mischaracterized in pop culture. But the Post and Givhan seem unaware of how they're casting their readers as backward racist and/or sexist rubes whose heads are filled with crude stereotypes -- that is, until the vision, the colossus that is Michelle Obama graced the public stage.

The Post and Givhan also seem unaware of how this gooey prose about Michelle's perfection can really sound like the mandated meringues of a state-run newspaper in a airless dictatorship.