Brow Beat

Michelle Obama Isn’t Just a Savvy Manipulator of Pop Culture. She’s a Pretty Sophisticated Culture Critic.

Michelle Obama on Billy on the Street.

Still from YouTube

Whether chatting up Rory Gilmore, pushing around Billy Eichner in a shopping cart, or belting out “Single Ladies” with James Corden, Michelle Obama has long demonstrated that she is a savvy manipulator of pop culture. She has managed to relay information about her various causes—healthy eating, college advancement, and girls’ education—in a way that’s both accessible and innovative. She has navigated the late-night circuit and viral world effortlessly. Overall, she clearly understands how to leverage popular entertainment as a public figure.

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But the biggest takeaway of the new Variety interview with Michelle Obama might be that she isn’t just good at cannily exploiting pop culture for her own brand; she is also a pretty sophisticated cultural critic. Understanding the power of popular entertainment as a platform and being able to articulate the phenomena surrounding it are two very different things. More than any political figure in recent memory, Obama appears to understands this—as well as how she can play a part.

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In her conversation with Variety’s Ted Johnson, she cited such monumental series as All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show as evidence of the power of blending politics with entertainment and satire with “empathy and understanding.” She knows the value of a well-timed TV appearance. But she also understood why something like Billy on the Street was a good way to do it: A relatively niche but influential show like this reaches “audiences [of] kids and teens” who just “want to be in on the joke.” (Also it fulfills her first requirement, as she described it: being funny.) While other first ladies have made strategic good-natured cameos on mainstream TV shows, Mrs. Obama is one of the most energetic entertainment consumers in first-lady history—and one of the most conversant in pop cultural history writ large.

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Her commentary on representation, too, is thorough. She described her own experience of learning from Mary Tyler Moore and specifically from the notion that a single, working, professional woman could proudly exist in the world. And she skillfully explained how quality art can change hearts and minds, in the same way that ’70s audiences “developed a love for Archie Bunker and empathy for George Jefferson”:

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There are folks who now know black families—like the Johnsons on Black-ish … They become part of who you are. You share their pains. You understand their fears. They make you laugh, and they change how you see the world. And that is particularly true in a country where there are still millions of people who live in communities where they can live their whole lives not having contact or exposure with people who aren’t like them, whether that is race or religion or simply lifestyle.

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She has a keen understanding of the cultural role that she herself plays. “For so many people, television and movies may be the only way they understand people who aren’t like them,” she explained. “My mom says it all the time: ‘People are so enamored of Michelle and Barack Obama,’ and she says, ‘There are millions of Michelle and Barack Obamas.’ We’re not new.” That argument for ordinariness—for broader and more nuanced depictions of families of color and other underrepresented groups—is a deceptively simple one that nonetheless could be transformative if more content creators internalized it. Mrs. Obama recognizes that watching people like Mary Tyler Moore helped bring her to where she is—and she realizes that people are now watching her in the very same way.

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