The biggest surprise on Sunday night’s Oscars show wasn’t anyone winning a particular award; it was First Lady Michelle Obama appearing live via satellite from the White House to present the Best Picture Oscar.
In a brief, 80-second speech, Mrs. Obama took the opportunity to “help celebrate the movies that help lift our spirits, broaden our minds and transport us to places that we have never imagined.” She congratulated the nominees, which “took us back in time and all around the world” and “reminded us that we can overcome any obstacle if we dig deep enough, and fight hard enough, and find the courage to believe in ourselves.” She then opened the envelope that named Ben Affleck’s Argo this year’s Best Picture winner.
The First Lady didn’t say anything that could be construed as controversial or even political. She didn’t re-enact the “Whitey tape.” But apparently, the notion of finding the courage to believe in yourself is more shocking than it used to be.
The freakout was swift. The Oscars, unforgivably and without precedent, had become “politicized.” Breitbart.com took a break from making up fake terrorist organizations to denounce the First Lady for praising the nominated films and not the heroism of soldiers. “How much of our taxes went towards @michelleobama‘s dress?,” someone on Twitter asked, presumably in complete seriousness.
It was deemed “Orwellian” that the First Lady appeared on a giant screen, although strangely nobody said that earlier in the evening when William Shatner did the same thing.
We were asked to consider how embarrassing it would be if the envelope had contained not Argo but Zero Dark Thirty or Django Unchained, leading to speculation on at least one radio show that the White House must have cleared the result. The accounting firm of PricewaterhouseCoopers, which has never, a single time, had any Oscar results leak in advance, likely wouldn’t bend on that, even for the White House.
And it wasn’t just conservatives. Oscar pundit Nikki Finke of Deadline.com got in on the concern-trolling, calling the First Lady’s appearance “so unnecessary and inappropriate,” and expressing concern that “Hollywood will get pilloried by conservative pundits for arranging this payoff for all the campaign donations it gave the President’s reelection campaign”—as though “conservative pundits” aren’t pillorying Hollywood all the time anyway. Then again, Finke always hates everything about the Oscars, this year and every year.
The criticism of Michelle Obama’s Oscar appearance drives me crazy for several reasons. The people doing the criticizing would likely be attacking any public appearance by Michelle Obama anywhere; it already happened when she went on Sesame Street, and when she went to get a cheeseburger.
Meanwhile, the same people who argue year-round that Hollywood is a decadent socialist hellscape are holding up Oscar night as somehow sacrosanct, as though it’s a Sabbath that must be politically objective and neutral in every way. But that’s not the case and it never has been: Political grandstanding at the Academy Awards is a tradition that goes back decades.
And on an evening that also featured numerous jokes of a sexist nature by host Seth MacFarlane, an animated teddy bear joking about the Jews controlling Hollywood, and the “I Saw Your Boobs” song, an innocuous appearance by the First Lady of the United States ranks pretty low on the list of potentially offensive material.
That’s one thing I’ve never understood: I agree with conservatives that most prominent people in Hollywood are biased toward the left. But why be outraged about it? I long ago came to terms with some people, even people I respect, having differing political views than mine; why not just acknowledge that George Clooney is liberal, make peace with it and move on?
And she had soldiers in uniform behind her? I’m less bothered by soldiers appearing as part of an Oscar segment than by their use in the background as part of a premature declaration of victory in a war.
I’ve written before that there’s a far-right critique of Barack Obama that the vast majority of Americans don’t share, which is how, despite all the nonsense about birth certificates and madrassas, he still managed to get re-elected. But with Michelle Obama it’s even more stark. The extreme right sees Michelle as a Marie Antoinette figure, a black militant/welfare queen living large off taxpayer money and seeking to tell America, by force, how to live their lives. That New Yorker cartoon by Barry Blitt from July 2008 really just gets more and more prescient with time.
But in reality, most people who aren’t hardcore conservatives love Michelle Obama. Her approval rating as of December was 73 percent, and her approval ratings have been higher than her husband’s for pretty much the entire time they’ve been in public life. And the more people get to know her, it seems, the more they like her.
And besides, it’s only the Oscars, and it’s only a speech. No laws were altered by virtue of the First Lady presenting an award. Michelle didn’t wave a magic wand and make everyone’s guns disappear. She praised the Best Picture nominees, praised overcoming obstacles and following one’s dreams, and that was that. The Republic survived another day.