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Michelle Obama, Mom-in-Chief: The Racialized Rhetorical Contexts of Maternity

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Abstract

Directly following her husband’s 2008 election, Michelle Obama assumed the moniker “mom-in-chief,” and in her tenure as first lady she has extended this role to “mother” the children of the nation through her policy choices. Noting her Ivy League education and her prior work as a high-powered attorney, many White feminists decried Obama’s maternal focus. Black feminists, however, rejected those critiques, pointing to the progressive potential of Obama’s maternal persona. In this article, I explain these divergent perspectives by examining Obama’s maternal first lady rhetoric through an expansive understanding of context. Specifically, I argue that the varied readings of Obama’s maternal performances reflect the racialized rhetorical contexts within which she was acting and through which audience members understood her. This analysis points to the importance of investigating the rhetorical contexts within which both audience members and rhetors circulate and participate. 2016

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... As a prominent African American woman, she faced significant obstacles in winning the support of the American public, including gendered racism and racialized sexism (Junn 2017;Simien 2007;Smooth 2013). In presenting herself to the public, Michelle Obama had to contend with the negative stereotypes all too commonly invoked about women of color (Guerrero 2011;Harris-Perry 2011;Hayden 2017). As Melissa Harris-Perry observes in her book Sister Citizen, Michelle Obama had to carefully and strategically craft a public persona to counter harmful images of African American women, including conversations "about her body, discussions about her role as mother, and speculations about her marriage" (2011,277). ...
... Nevertheless, Michelle Obama recognized the public's preference for tradition and adeptly crafted her image as first lady to fit within those expectations. By giving up her career, consistently emphasizing her role as "mom-in-chief," and refraining from political or policy influence (Guerrero 2011;Hayden 2017;Kahl 2009;Vigil 2014Wright 2016, Michelle Obama was able to embody traditional expectations and reap the benefits in terms of public support. Thus, even though Michelle Obama challenged some aspects of the traditional image of presidential candidate spouses through her race and "modern, striving, edgy, ironic" personality (Cottle 2012), she attracted some level of bipartisan approval because of her decision to behave in a traditional manner. ...
... The challenge of fulfilling the motherhood expectations of the first lady was more complicated for Michelle Obama given her status as an African American woman operating in a society with long-ingrained negative stereotypes attached to black women and black mothers (Guerrero 2011;Harris-Perry 2011;Hayden 2017). Soon after becoming first lady, Michelle Obama began referring to herself as "mom-in-chief," making it clear through interviews and high-profile appearances that despite her Ivy League education, law degree, and accomplished career that her priorities in the White House would be to take care of her daughters and her family (Hayden 2017;Vigil 2014). ...
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During the Vietnam War, a maternal pacifist group named La WISP developed and sold cookbooks as fundraisers for its causes. The cookbooks provide an opportunity to explore the linkages between quotidian practices and the performativity of identity. This critique offers instructive evidence about the inventional possibilities of maternal pacifist politics, including the redefinition of issues of war and peace in international rather than national terms and replacing antagonistic rhetorics with rhetorics of identification and cooperation.
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Batman Forever is a mass‐mediated public text crafted in response to a perceived need to “sanitize”; the Batman by resolving the psycho‐sexual ambiguities that define him. The textual resources mobilized toward this end consist primarily of simultaneously presenting potentially ameliorative archetypal forms and stripping these forms of their ameliorative potential. The resulting text is a paradigm of managed meaning, denying its own polysemy and thus making itself unavailable to its audiences as “equipment for living.”; Batman Forever may seem, to some, more palatable than its predecessors, and Batman may seem more sane, but this text offers a particularly insidious form of repression‐Batman is a cultural artifact rendered culturally useless through excessive demystification.
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Through a case study of first lady Rosalynn Carter's 1977 Latin America trip, this essay heeds feminist critics' calls to account for the discursive conditions that enable women's rhetorical performances. Examining the public vocabularies of feminism and foreign policy in the 1970s, I argue that the popular emergence of the terms “equal partnership” and “individual sovereignty” facilitated Carter's performance of her public role.
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The film Fried Green Tomatoes (1991) uses a type of polysemy, strategic ambiguity, to transform a lesbian relationship from the novel Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe to a sexually ambiguous relationship. Through textual and audience analysis, I demonstrate that audience members are unlikely to interpret the relationship as a lesbian relationship unless they define lesbianism as identity as opposed to merely as sexual behavior. Although the film illustrates the power of woman-identified experience, it rejects an opportunity to illustrate fully Adrienne Rich's (1986) “lesbian continuum” by refusing to compare explicitly a heterosexual female friendship with a lesbian relationship.
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This article explicates the discursive foundations that bubble up multiple meanings in racial humor, describing three prominent discursive clashes at the heart of Chappelle's Show’s polysemic comedy: Egregious stereotyping versus subtler mediated racism, inverted racial stereotypes versus traditional stereotypes, and serious versus nonserious discourse. Throughout the article, I make a case for “polysemic scaffolding,” a method that positions polysemy as a taken-for-granted interaction among text, author, and audience, and instead seeks to understand the discursive patterns that will eventually have their polysemic meanings activated. This article underscores the importance of not only undertaking polysemic criticism, but also of uncovering the discursive scaffolding upon which the polysemy is based.
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This article, framed epistemologically and politically by women of color theory, examines Michelle Obama's response to her racist and sexist treatment in the mainstream U.S. media's coverage of the 2008 presidential election campaign. I argue that Obama uses the very tools of postidentity, a conservative ideology that promotes the fiction that the country has arrived at an “after” moment of racism and sexism, to argue against postidentity, a safe manner to engage in racism and misogyny in the 21st century. Understanding Michelle Obama's speaking back to postidentity ideology provides minoritized 21st century subjects with a means to understand how power, privilege, racialized and gendered discrimination, and resistance function in the new millennium United States.