The 85th annual Academy Awards featured a number of memorable moments last Sunday including Jennifer Lawrence’s fall after winning Best Actress, host Seth McFarlane’s odd and dwindling humor as the night carried on, and perhaps most of all, first lady Michelle Obama’s abrupt appearance via satellite to present the most coveted Best Picture award. Beamed in from the White House and surrounded by young and smiling military members in full uniform and regalia, the first lady’s quasi-presence at the Oscar’s instantly launched both criticism and praise. But whether Obama’s participation in the Oscar’s was appropriate or not, it does beg a number of questions: What is the role of the first lady? Where do we draw the line between celebrity and politics? And, what effect do appearances like these have on Obama’s political message?
“The Obamas have assiduously reached beyond Washington – showing up at sporting events, on entertainment television, social media and local media,” said Krissah Thompson in her Washington Post article on Obama’s role at the Oscar’s. “But the first lady has rarely engaged pop culture without also pushing one of her own causes.” Indeed, before announcing Argo as the winner of Best Picture, Obama took a moment to sidetrack on the need for education in the arts and the importance of supporting young artists across America. While her message certainly had relevance to the setting and many have applauded her inclusion in the ceremony, some have argued that it wasn’t the appropriate venue for a tangent into political dialogue. “As far as the optics in the national conversation, you can see where the other half have come down, asking ‘Is this really necessary?’” Thompson wrote.
Other politicians have certainly blurred the line between pop culture and politics, with Franklin D. Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, and former first lady Laura Bush all contributing to the Academy Awards at some point as well. Some politicians, simply by the nature of their background have increasingly fused celebrity and politics – namely Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger. However, the outcry over Obama’s appearance seems to stem from the fact that she has taken immersion in the everyday lives of Americans to a whole new level. As Howard Kurtz writes in The Daily Beast, “It’s true that the first lady has been just this side of inescapable. [She] runs the risk of overexposure.” Kurtz refers to Obama’s recent stints with Jimmy Fallon, Robin Roberts, Rachael Ray and even Serena Williams. Furthermore, Donny Deutsch of NBC was quoted as saying, “You are putting politics, like it or not, in a space that people are not necessarily invited into their home for.”
Although there is limited academic literature on the growing intersection between politics and celebrity or pop culture, it is a trend that has been rapidly evolving, especially since President Obama began his tour-de-force back in 2007. David Marsh, et. Al, define celebrity politicians in their article for the Political Studies Review as “a traditional politician who engages with the world of popular culture in order to advance their pre-established political functions and goals.” Marsh describes these politicians, such as Barack and Michelle Obama, as “coming to terms with the media age and consumer culture, attempting to personalize or ‘brand’ their leadership and are constantly adapting their political communication strategy to communicate through evolving media, such as radio, television and the internet.” But at what point does this “branding” effort undermine the nature of democratic politics?
Along the lines of Kevin Barnhurst’s argument in his article “The Makers of Meaning: National Public Radio and the New Long Journalism,” Marsh argues that there has been a shift in the nature of media coverage to a more dramatized style, compounded by the rise of celebrity politics. To the extent that politicians like Barack Obama, and by extension Michelle Obama, are continually immersed in the daily, non-political lives of Americans, there is the possibility that citizens begin to associate these figures more with the popular culture realm they have started to inhabit, and less with the serious policy issues facing the country. Even though there is always an undercurrent of political messaging, such as the first lady’s plug for education in the arts at the Oscar’s, the policy issues get pushed further toward the back burner as media coverage shifts its attention toward the celebrity element.
Additionally, Mark Wheeler, in his article “The Democratic Worth of Celebrity Politics in an Era of Late Modernity” argues that, “the mass political communication process has led to a decline in rationality as televisual style dominates substantive debate” and “substance has been replaced by a stylistic form of politics in which the norms of democratic engagement have been undermined.” Now that Americans have the opportunity to engage with their politicians on a popular culture and more personalized level, will they stop engaging on a political and democratic level?
Arguably, many Americans love to see the Obamas interacting with the public outside the realm of politics and view the president and first lady’s many appearances in popular culture as evidence of their ordinary American-ness. And to an extent, it does seem that more citizens are willing to engage with this type of politician. However, moving forward into this era where politicians are more accessible and in more ways than ever, will the nature of democratic discussion itself be impacted?
Marsh, D., ‘t Hart, P. and Tindall, K. (2010), Celebrity Politics: The Politics of the Late Modernity?. Political Studies Review, 8: 322–340. doi: 10.1111/j.1478-9302.2010.00215.x
Wheeler, M. (2012), The Democratic Worth of Celebrity Politics in an Era of Late Modernity. The British Journal of Politics & International Relations, 14: 407–422. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-856X.2011.00487.x