Michelle Obama: First Lady, American Rhetor.

Author:Cunningham, Sheryl
Position:Book review

Michelle Obama: First Lady, American Rhetor. Edited by Elizabeth J. Natalie and Jenni M. Simon. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2015. 157 pp.

In this book, Elizabeth J. Natalie and Jenni M. Simon offer a series of essays focusing on how rhetorical critics can begin to understand Michelle Obama's historic presence as the first African American First Lady. At the heart of the collection is the question of Obama's agency as a speaker. It is helpful to conceptualize agency as Michael C. Leff does in his article, "Tradition and Agency in Humanistic Rhetoric" (Philosophy and Rhetoric 36: 135--47 [2003]), where rhetorical agency is the movement between tradition and invention. Leff describes agency as a type of continuum, explaining that speakers build on what has come before them (tradition), but also have opportunities to say something new (invention). First Lady rhetoric, in many ways, must be grounded in tradition and, so, brings with it a set of gendered constraints (these essays further complicate those constraints by giving attention to the intersection of race with gender). The authors in the collection argue that, while Obama faces unprecedented rhetorical obstacles, she successfully navigates the space between tradition and invention, leading to a largely celebratory analysis of Obama's public discourse.

Across these essays it is evident that Obama rhetorically constructs herself as a family-oriented black woman in a public sphere that is not always welcoming to the "Mom-in-Chief' (5). In Chapter 2, Tammy Vigil begins her analysis with Obama's 2008 Democratic National Convention address--a point before Obama has become the Mom in Chief--and shows the way in which Obama articulates a version of traditional femininity common to First Ladies by focusing on family and relationships. Vigil also brings the lens of intersectionality to bear on this relational focus: "Casting herself as a supportive wife rather than an assertive woman, Obama depicts herself in a familiar manner, encouraging listeners to perceive her as similar in stature, character and demeanor as many past First Ladies and distancing herself from stereotypical caricatures of highly educated women and African American women" (23). Here, Vigil acknowledges the rhetorical constraints on Obama in terms of gender and race and reads her self-presentation as strategically traditional. Yet, she also marks the way in which Obama moves outside of this more traditional First Lady discourse...

To continue reading