Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Between "Mammy" and "Miss Ann"-- The "problem" with Michelle

Priviledge hates to lose it's place. Priviledge believes that it deserves to be exhalted above others. Indeed, it resents when the "other" is elevated to equal status, particularly when the "other" refuses to conform to the rules that priviledge has put in place. So, the criticism of Michelle Obama's physicality and sartorial choices comes as no surprise.

Most mainstream media are on board the FLOTUS love train. They call the First Lady beautiful. They love her unique style. They cherish those awesome, toned arms. They love her modern marriage. They celebrate her role as a mother. All of this talk about appearance and being a wife and mother--stereotypical feminine ideals--is driving some white feminists to distraction. They think this focus diminishes Michelle Obama's considerable intellect and professional achievements. Most black women I know see things differently. The so-called feminine ideal is a tyranny to all women, but it is white women who stand as its embodiment. In the public consciousness, black women are almost never the most beautiful ones or the good wives or mothers. White women see Michelle Obama getting pushed into a feminized role and lament that this always happens to women. Many black woman recognize that it rarely happens to us and we are happy that people are finally recognizing our femininity.

The criticism that Michelle Obama has received, among the accolades, is instructive about the way black women are often viewed by the American public. Yesterday's New York Times "Opinionator" column rounds up Web analysis of reactions to Michelle Obama's style and appearance, particularly on the first couple's recent European trip.

Reading about Juan Williams' "Stokely Carmichael in a dress" comment, hearing the constant pondering of the first lady's large buttocks and strong arms, and witnessing ongoing attempts to portray her as domineering, a narrative emerges that is not unfamiliar: Black woman are big, aggressive--not feminine, but masculine. Perhaps the only stereotype missing is the hypersexual tag that we often get saddled with--hypersexuality that is the opposite of the virginal feminine ideal.

Some folks clearly resent the presence of a black woman in an iconic position of American womanhood--one that is not meant for us.

Take the nitpicking about the First Lady's clothing. Fashion press, as well as designers Donna Karan and Oscar de la Renta have sniffed at Obama's choices of niche designers and off-the-rack clothes. Karan reckons Obama is going through a phase: "I hope and believe this is just a moment." While de la Renta questioned the wisdom of wearing a sweater to Buckingham Palace. And, of course, there is the constant sniping about the First Lady's shockingly uncovered biceps. The New York Times quotes Gioia Diliberto in Huffington Post:

Since the Inauguration, I've been hearing fashion insiders - designers, journalists and scholars complain that many of Michelle's clothes by the relatively obscure U.S. designers Jason Wu, Isabel Toldeo and Thakoon Panichgul don't fit right or are unflattering. They think that Michelle doesn't have enough fashion savvy to know what looks good on her, and that she's relying too heavily on Ikram Goldman, owner of the eponymous Chicago boutique, to choose her outfits. . . .

The designers say that Michelle will help the struggling fashion industry if she spreads her sartorial self around. But it's hard not to read in their complaint a note of condescension. How can Michelle, who comes from a working class background and probably doesn't know the difference between silk ziberline and silk twill, dare to snub them?

Indeed. Over on Daily Kos, Dmitcha breaks it down further:

In Feb 2009, New York's Fashion Week featured 116 labels and 3,697 runway spots. 668 of those spots - 18% - went to models of color. Not 668 models, mind you, because three of the top ethnic girls took up half of those spots with repeat appearances). That's right, 18% women of color - ANY COLOR - on the runways and 82% white models. In New York City. So the real question should be "Donna, Ralph and Calvin, where in the world are your ethnic models?"

When top designers send the ideal down their runways, black women are noticeably absent. (Naomi Campbell recently commented on just this fact.) Yet, these same designers demand to be the ideal couteriers for our first African American First Lady. They disdain us, but expect our loyalty. And they resent young interlopers (of color) like Jason Wu, Isabel Toledo and Thakoon Panichgul for daring to think that they are worthy of dressing heads of state. See, that's priviledge for you.

The overarching "problem" with Michelle Obama is this: Her womanhood does not conform to the boxes the mainstream has created. And priviledge asks for--no, demands--that we confirm to its ideals. Zora at We Are Respectable Negroes writes:

She's statuesque, confident, self-defined, beautiful and black. Pobrecita. What an unfortunate combination of qualities for Michelle Obama to carry, for they seem to stand in the way of the mainstream's ability to feel completely comfortable with her as America's first lady. Folks are still struggling to understand her (and to define her) because she is so unlike any other Black woman on the national and international stage. One "tired" and superficial way of managing this is by focusing on her appearance.

If Michelle were overweight and outwardly insecure about her Negritude (ala Oprah Winfrey), America would likely embrace her more affectionately as our own. She would be heralded as our national Mammy. Yes, she would still get some digs; but the scrutiny of her appearance wouldn't be nearly as great. We've seen mammies before and we are comfortable with them. Instead, we don't quite know what to do with Michelle Obama. The problem is that she does not confirm the WASP woman as an ideal — neither by fitting into the stereotype of the loud, overweight black woman nor by being the good, middle-class Negress who conforms to the norms of white women.

Neither the white ideal nor the black stereotype--Michelle Obama is fiercely herself. And seeing that self lauded as beautiful, strong and feminine does some good for black women and girls. Dmitcha, who btw is a former model, again:

But if you think the extraordinary attention paid to the looks, grace and style of our country's first African-American First Lady truly will not have enormous societal and international repercussions, and for generations to come, you are incorrect.

It mattered to Oprah when the Supremes showed up on Ed Sullivan. It mattered to me when Beverly Johnson showed up on the cover of Vogue. It mattered to the girls in my teen programs when they saw my insanely airbrushed face on a city bus. And it matters to people all over the world - not just young Black girls, but everyone who ever will interact with a Black woman - that Mrs. Obama has become the leading icon of womanhood that our country now exports. It matters. And it may actually change these darn runways and magazines at last, after decades of resistance, so that all of our kids will see a more diverse image of beauty, not just for their own self-esteem, but in the face of a woman they may one day hire, work with, work for, befriend or love.

Let's Talk Black Femininity

Join me for the next episode of The Best of What Tami Said at 4 p.m. ET, Sunday, April 19. Our topic will be Black Femininity. I'll be joined by three of my favorite bloggers: AJ Plaid of The Cruel Secretary, Monica of TransGriot and Renee of Womanist Musings.

Listen and chat via the show page. Call in at (646) 716-4672.


Divalocity said...

Style means the way in which one expresses who they are.

Does she not look distinctive and elegant in what she wears?

Does her look come off as contrived and uncomfortable?

When I see her, I see me, my mother and every other black women who are individuals who demonstrate their own take on style and what chic means to them.

It's not the clothes that make the individual but the character that is displayed by the wearer.

Some folks believe that wearing expensive clothes is better than those that cost less.

Mrs. Obama self-defines and those of the status quo have a serious problem with that.

The world has had enough of the American ideal, it's time for reinvention and renewel and Mrs. Obama is just that. She's not an entertainer.

MacDaddy said...

Great post.

They hate to give up the notion that they have the superior look...

The woman is nothing less than a great mind in a fine body; and they just don't want to acknowledge it...You racist white folks: Don't be hatin!

Just A Thought said...

She is beautiful and elegant, and you are darn right that the priviledged cannot acknowledge that they are uncomfortable with her not because of any faux pas or error on her part (or in her sartorial choices), but because they can't stand the challenge to their ideas and norms.

I for one am glad that she is using (relatively) unknown designers. I personally her choices are a subtle thumbing of the nose to the establishment. oh wait, maybe I shouldn't say that, since they already think she's a radical antiestablishment miscreant.

Mes Deux Cents said...


Wow, that was an amazing post.

jenX67 said...

Posts like this is why, as a white woman, I continue to show up and read your stuff. It takes courage somedays, b/c I always know I'll find something inside myself that needs examining.

RiPPa said...

Well said.

A good friend of mine wrote a column on CQ Politics about this very issue.

First Lady Hype Can Be Offensive

Yusuf Smith said...

Sunday, AUGUST 19th? Is that a typo? (April 19th is a Sunday, August 19th is a Wednesday.)

Hasn't this got a lot to do with the fact that the nomination campaign offered the choice of the first non-white (but male) candidate and the first female (albeit white) candidate? It seems to me that some (mostly white) feminists are angry that Michelle Obama assisted her husband, the male candidate (and some of them would have seen him as just that) by emphasising her femininity, always wearing dresses (in contrast to Clinton's trouser suits) and low heels, so as not to look taller than her husband (here's one example, by Germaine Greer in the Guardian). These same women would complain any time they saw a woman being praised for being a good housewife, etc., because they think that is all a waste of a woman's talent, but they really see red when they see a high-achieving woman being praised for "throwing it all away" to become a "mere" wife and mother, and appealing to conservative voters with the message that this is a proper family with a proper woman, unlike their candidate (remember that joke about Chelsea Clinton and Janet Reno?).

When it comes to white women resenting seeing a black woman characterised as feminine, surely a bit of old-fashioned female competitiveness comes into it as well as (if not more than) white women fearing losing their privilege? I don't know about the USA but over here in England, a lot of white women who used to dress beautifully in the 1980s and early 1990s have gone into some sort of shell since then, preferring rather dull and androgynous clothing. I am talking about middle-aged women here (i.e. those who were actually women in the 1980s). White feminists can resent as they wish, but they cannot change the fact that men know femininity when they see it, and that their version of it isn't the only one, even for "their" men. These women are no competition for an attractive and vivacious woman who is prepared to wear a dress other than for a work party.

Tami said...


To be clear--this isn't about dressing and appealing to men. It's about a woman's right to make choices that work for HER (as is every human's right), whether or not they work for other women OR men.

As feminists or womanists, we can't be so ideologically rigid that we box women into cages--different cages than the patriarchal ones--but still cages.

Yusuf Smith said...

To be clear--this isn't about dressing and appealing to men. It's about a woman's right to make choices that work for HER (as is every human's right), whether or not they work for other women OR men.

My point was that competition for men (or the fear/perception of it) might have been an issue for the women who resented seeing Michelle Obama praised for her femininity, even if unconsciously. It works the other way around as well - when black Caribbeans first started coming to the UK in the 1950s, one of the first complaints that white men made about them was "they're taking our women", because the newcomers had something "their" women liked.

Beautifuldaidreamer said...

I appreciate the honesty and candor of this article. Michelle Obama is an intelligent, influential and beautiful woman. It disturbs me that the media has paid so much attention to her attire and her body, but I believe that her accomplishments (future and present) will overshadow all that fashion nonsense. Although I know that the Obamas will not change America’s view of Black people entirely, it’s nice to have that positive image accessible to the masses. I want more people to realize that women like Mrs. Obama are the rule, not the exception.

Joseph said...

I just wanted to repeat my comment from Racialicious: this is terrific because it explores the touchy differences between African American women and White feminists frankly but with no rancor. I am really inspired by your analysis.


Yoli said...

I think she is lovely and such an inspiration for all minorities. She is my one of my heroes.

Marie said...

Michelle Obama is an unfortunate looking woman. She is in no way beautiful, pretty or attractive. However, the media has gushed over her like a Miss America winner. I can only conclude it's because she's a black woman.

After all, even if you consider the media liberal minded, you have to remember they never bothered to push this beauty-and-style agenda with poor Hillary Clinton when she was First Lady.

Larissa said...

This is the first time I have read your blog and I am going to read it more often.
I am taking a class at UNR on race and gender in politcs.
My final essay is about the media's portrayal of Michelle Obama.
Thank you again.

Crimson Wife said...

Very thought-provoking post.

Mrs. Obama is an elegant woman with a great physique. But she does seem to have a hit-or-miss fashion style. Some days she looks fabulous and other days her choices leave me scratching my head, like that hideous red & black dress she wore on Election Night.


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