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.
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.