Politics as Pop Culture

Our Royalty: Bangs Aren't All Michelle Obama And Kate Middleton Have In Common

First lady Michelle Obama paints a bookshelf at Burrville Elementary School in Washington, D.C., as part of the National Day of Service on Saturday. i i

First lady Michelle Obama paints a bookshelf at Burrville Elementary School in Washington, D.C., as part of the National Day of Service on Saturday. Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images
First lady Michelle Obama paints a bookshelf at Burrville Elementary School in Washington, D.C., as part of the National Day of Service on Saturday.

First lady Michelle Obama paints a bookshelf at Burrville Elementary School in Washington, D.C., as part of the National Day of Service on Saturday.

Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

Ask yourself this question: How weird would it be if you changed your hair and it was on the news?

No, seriously. Pull back from everything you know about celebrity and pretend it's about you. You change your hair. You decide, "Hey, you know what? It's been long for a while; what if I went a little shorter?" And so you go a little shorter. And then it is on the news.

That's what happened to Michelle Obama when new photographic evidence emerged that proved — no paperwork needed, no investigative journalism, no shoe-leather reporting — that she has bangs. SHE HAS BANGS! If this were an old black-and-white movie, this would be the part where you'd suddenly see people madly running to telegraph machines and reporters hurrying to the phones to call their editors, and you'd hear "beeeeep-be-deep-deep-beetle-deep-deep" as the news began to spread. SHE HAS BANGS! BANGS BANGS BANGS! The headline "Breaking: Michelle Obama Has Bangs!" really exists. As does the headline "Michelle Obama's Bangs Sparking Hair Revolution." As does, inevitably, a headline beginning "She Bangs." (That's a Ricky Martin reference, youngsters.)

It's not just current first ladies to whom this happens, either. If you don't believe me, Google "Hillary Clinton scrunchies." Or check out the entire Daily Beast slideshow from 2010 called "First Lady Hair."

You know who else's bangs caused a stir recently? Kate Middleton's.

And, in fact, as stern as Americans are about not having or believing in royalty, and about presidents not being kings, it's remarkable how much first ladies feel, at least in pop culture, like prominent members of a royal family — particularly modern ones like Middleton or, for that matter, Princess Diana. The role of first lady has become essentially to (1) engage in attention-grabbing advocacy for a chosen cause or causes, (2) try to be an ambassador of likability, (3) get your picture taken a lot while people fuss disproportionately over what you're wearing, and (4) have lots and lots of people hate your guts and complain about your uselessness and/or profligacy while others admire you to the point where they will line up to see you.

  • First lady: Michelle Obama waves after addressing the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., on Sept. 4, 2012.
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    First lady: Michelle Obama waves after addressing the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., on Sept. 4, 2012.
    Jae C. Hong/AP
  • First dance: Newly sworn in President Obama and the first lady dance during the inaugural ball on Jan. 20, 2009, in Washington, D.C.
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    First dance: Newly sworn in President Obama and the first lady dance during the inaugural ball on Jan. 20, 2009, in Washington, D.C.
    Mark Wilson/Getty Images
  • In the garden: Michelle holds up broccoli as she participates in the White House Kitchen Garden Fall Harvest with students on the South Lawn of the White House on Oct. 20, 2010.
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    In the garden: Michelle holds up broccoli as she participates in the White House Kitchen Garden Fall Harvest with students on the South Lawn of the White House on Oct. 20, 2010.
    Charles Dharapak/AP
  • Diplomacy with style: The Obamas pose with Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip at Buckingham Palace ahead of a state banquet on May 24, 2011. Michelle's gown was designed by American fashion designer Tom Ford.
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    Diplomacy with style: The Obamas pose with Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip at Buckingham Palace ahead of a state banquet on May 24, 2011. Michelle's gown was designed by American fashion designer Tom Ford.
    Chris Jackson/AFP/Getty Images
  • Typical American: Michelle leaves a Target department store in Alexandria, Va., after doing some shopping on Sept. 29, 2011. Her style choices range from expensive, high-end designers to discount stores like Target.
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    Typical American: Michelle leaves a Target department store in Alexandria, Va., after doing some shopping on Sept. 29, 2011. Her style choices range from expensive, high-end designers to discount stores like Target.
    Charles Dharapak/AP
  • Let's move: Michelle and a group of children try to break the Guinness World Record for the most people doing jumping jacks in a 24-hour period, at the White House on Oct. 11, 2011. Michelle's anti-obesity campaign, Let's Move, focuses on teaching children good nutrition and regular exercise.
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    Let's move: Michelle and a group of children try to break the Guinness World Record for the most people doing jumping jacks in a 24-hour period, at the White House on Oct. 11, 2011. Michelle's anti-obesity campaign, Let's Move, focuses on teaching children good nutrition and regular exercise.
    Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
  • Hanging with celebrities: Talk show host Ellen DeGeneres and Michelle dance during a taping of The Ellen DeGeneres Show on Feb. 1, 2012, in Burbank, Calif.
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    Hanging with celebrities: Talk show host Ellen DeGeneres and Michelle dance during a taping of The Ellen DeGeneres Show on Feb. 1, 2012, in Burbank, Calif.
    Michael Rozman/Warner Bros./AP
  • Aww: Obama sneaks an extra smooch after kissing Michelle for the "Kiss Cam" at the basketball game between U.S. and Brazil, on July 16, 2012, in Washington, D.C.
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    Aww: Obama sneaks an extra smooch after kissing Michelle for the "Kiss Cam" at the basketball game between U.S. and Brazil, on July 16, 2012, in Washington, D.C.
    Alex Brandon/AP
  • On the campaign trail: Michelle greets supporters at Broward College in Davie, Fla., on Oct. 22, 2012, where she rallied grass-root supporters and spoke of what's at stake in the election for Floridians. Michelle was seen as an asset on the campaign trail, where she often drew large crowds.
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    On the campaign trail: Michelle greets supporters at Broward College in Davie, Fla., on Oct. 22, 2012, where she rallied grass-root supporters and spoke of what's at stake in the election for Floridians. Michelle was seen as an asset on the campaign trail, where she often drew large crowds.
    Alan diaz/AP
  • First family: Obama walks on stage with his family to deliver his victory speech on election night on Nov. 6, 2012, in Chicago.
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    First family: Obama walks on stage with his family to deliver his victory speech on election night on Nov. 6, 2012, in Chicago.
    Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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You instantly become one of the most famous women in the world despite the fact that absolutely nobody voted for you, and the role may or may not be anything you ever particularly wanted, but it came with the guy you married.

First ladies must do neither too much nor too little, or they become the target of jokes. Too much, and they are perceived as meddlers and harpies; too little, and they are perceived as out-of-touch airheads. Don't spend enough time on their appearance, and they are mocked for their bad hair or bad clothes; spend too much time on it, and they are mocked for preening. They have to have exactly the right gown when a gown is required, but they also must be dedicated to working hard for good causes — as with Michelle Obama's initiative against childhood obesity or Barbara Bush's literacy foundation. They are feared for their ability to distract and burden men with important work to do; if you've seen Sally Field keening as Mary Todd Lincoln, you know this.

Admittedly, there are some things we do with first ladies that would probably never happen to Kate Middleton: Family Circle, in 2012, still had a Presidential Cookie Recipe contest between Michelle Obama and Ann Romney because apparently, expecting all wives to represent with cookie recipes, no matter what their backgrounds or interests, is still a thing we're doing. The idealized notion of a first lady contains an air of domesticity that doesn't apply as strongly in royal settings. A duchess has to be a hostess, but she doesn't have to pretend she cuts up all the finger sandwiches herself. (Vanity Fair says that Kate Middleton does, in fact, cook— and even do her own grocery shopping — but she likely doesn't have to do it to be loved.)

And that's really at the heart of what makes first lady such a strange job: You have to be both regal and normal, both above us and one of us. With presidents, there's certainly some of that, as suitability for beer-sharing emerges as a widely discussed voting metric. But when you're the president, policy and politics tend to dominate what people think of you. With first ladies, image tends to be dominant (which is probably part of why people sometimes like first ladies whose husbands they don't support at all and why first ladies are often more popular than their husbands).

A first lady is, culturally speaking, a little like a temporary princess who doesn't have to do her own laundry but who we must believe could and would do her own laundry, lest we think she's kind of ... you know, too princess-y. We demand something both extraordinary and ordinary, both a fantasy figure and a down-to-earth mom. And the closest analog for that really is the combination of majesty and relatability that people now want from British royalty. It's like the women who said on the day of the royal wedding that they loved the personal touch Prince William has with people — like his mum, not like his dad. His mum was new-style royalty; his dad is old-style royalty. Prince Charles would never make it as a first lady.

Show up at events looking great. Wear the right designers. Smile. Be clever but not too full of yourself. Get your hair cut in a way that's cool, but not too cool. Have a cause you care about. Touch people's hands. Represent something greater than yourself. Present a perfect picture of a happy marriage all the time. Love your children transparently and protect them fiercely, but let us see them a lot and make sure they don't screw up. Don't expect to get only the attention you asked for.

Princesses (or duchesses) and first ladies might very well get a lot of the same advice, even beyond the importance of trimming your bangs.

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