Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Salon published a front page article about Michelle Obama's ass today

...and I don't know how I feel about that.

Erin Aubrey Kaplan writes:

Free at last. I never thought that I -- a black girl who came of age in the utterly anticlimactic aftermath of the civil rights movement -- would say the phrase with any real sincerity in my lifetime. But ever since Nov. 4, I've been shouting it from every rooftop. I'm not excited for the most obvious reason. Yes, Obama's win was an extraordinary breakthrough and a huge relief, but I don't subscribe to the notion that his capturing the White House represents the end of American racial history. Far from it. There is a certain freedom in the moment -- as in, we are all now free from wondering when or if we'll ever get a black president. Congratulations to all of us for being around to settle the question.

But what really thrills me, what really feels liberating in a very personal way, is the official new prominence of Michelle Obama. Barack's better half not only has stature but is statuesque. She has corruscating intelligence, beauty, style and -- drumroll, please -- a butt. (Yes, you read that right: I'm going to talk about the first lady's butt.)

What a bonus! From the ocean of nastiness and confusion that defined this campaign from the beginning, Michelle rose up like Venus on the waves, keeping her coif above water and cruising the coattails of history to present us with a brand-new beauty norm before we knew it was even happening.
Actually, it took me and a lot of other similarly configured black women by surprise. So anxious and indignant were we about Michelle getting attacked for saying anything about America that conservatives could turn into mud, we hardly looked south of her neck. I noted her business suits and the fact she hardly ever wore pants (unlike Hillary). As I gradually relaxed, as Michelle strode onto more stages and people started focusing on her clothes and presence instead of her patriotism, it dawned on me -- good God, she has a butt! "Obama's baby (mama) got back," wrote one feminist blogger. "OMG, her butt is humongous!" went a typical comment on one African-American online forum, and while it isn't humongous, per se, it is a solid, round, black, class-A boo-tay. Try as Michelle might to cover it with those Mamie Eisenhower skirts and sheath dresses meant to reassure mainstream voters, the butt would not be denied. Read more...

Now, I get that Kaplan's article is not really about the First Lady-to-be's posterior. As one Salon commenter put it:

It's not about the ASS.

It's about black women, strong black women, (arguably almost always behind the success of many black men and not a few white men) finally getting their own, on a big scale. Michelle wasn't the first black female to win an oscar in the white house, or the first black female to cure a disease in the white house. She is the first black female from the South Side bringing her own incredible ass UP on her own merits alongside a strong black man to become the first black First Lady with a GodDAMN impressive resume and YES, all the black BACK that comes with her. And seemingly, busy as she was, a helluva mom.

This is an article about JOY.

This is ALSO about...hey, you know what? She doesn't have to be Naomi Campbell to be strong, successful, and THERE NOW, 'cause not everybody fits into a size 0 dress.


A happy side effect of an Obama presidency will be that it may help to "normalize" blackness. Malia and Sasha Obama's fuzzy twists and cornrows may normalize girlpie hair (TM bell hooks). A President whose speech features a hint of African-American drawl may normalize "blaccent." And sharp, beautiful, black Michelle Obama on the world stage may help society to stop viewing black women through the prism of deficiency and, yes, may help gain some respect for black women's bodies and the unique attributes that have been derided since the days of Sara Bartmaan.

But...but...but...why, in perhaps black women's finest hour in this country, must it still be about...the butt. Black women are so often reduced to our protruding posteriors that some of us can't help but be exhausted by it. I know Kaplan's piece was meant as a celebration, but coming to Salon this afternoon to see--front and center--a photo of our future First Lady highlighting the way her aqua shift hugs her derriere, then reading some 26 pages of discussion on the matter, felt like degradation. In the end (no pun intended), the article gave a bunch of folks license to talk all up under a black woman's clothes, speculating on her body parts. To borrow a phrase from Joe Biden: That's not change; that's more of the same.

I admit that much of my discomfort is with the context of Kaplan's article. Before I even finished the article, I knew what the comments would be like. Salon, despite its liberal reputation, is generally not very insightful or self-aware about race. And when racial topics arise, the comments section is quick to turn into a cesspool of idiocy. I might have had an easier time accepting Kaplan's confection of an article if it had appeared in Essence or on Racialicious or in some other safe space where readers generally "get" the long and tangled history of European beauty standards and their effect on women of color. Instead, I felt skeeved and annoyed reading as white liberals, with no cultural context, dissected an article about a black woman's arse written by another black woman. (To readers' credit, most thought the article ridiculous.)

It is way to easy to critique women's bodies. Where is the article on Barack's booty? It is even easier to critique the bodies of women of color. I would be honestly surprised if anyone dared write a two-page article on any part of Laura Bush's anatomy. (Though years ago, Kaplan wrote an article for Salon about Jennifer Lopez's badonkadonk. And, in an appearance on NPR, lamented Beyonce's less-than-bootylicious bottom in "Dreamgirls." What is it with the ass obsession?) Bootily challenged as I am, I don't have a special gluteal connection to Michelle Obama like the writer of the Salon article. No, what excites me about having Michelle in the White House is seeing the Harvard-educated, successful product of a hard-working, education-promoting family like mine--the sort of black family the media treats as invisible--getting some love. And I would prefer that the media focus on her impressive resume, rather than her impressive...well...you know.

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