Michelle Obama, feminism and the strong black woman

by Carmen Van Kerckhove

I’ve been following the media’s handling of race in its coverage of Barack Obama’s presidential bid very closely over the last few months. But right now I’m particularly riveted by the media coverage of his wife, Michelle Obama. Race, gender, and feminism are intersecting in fascinating ways. Here are some highlights.

As my fellow BlogHer Contributing Editor Laina Dawes wrote a few weeks back, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd has criticized Michelle Obama’s light-hearted comments about her husband being “just a man” and not knowing how to put his socks in the laundry. Dowd felt that these remarks were “emasculating”:

Many people I talked to afterward found Michelle wondrous. But others worried that her chiding was emasculating, casting her husband – under fire for lacking experience – as an undisciplined child.

Just a few days ago, Michelle Obama resigned from her high-powered job as vice president of community and external affairs at the University of Chicago Hospitals to focus on her husband’s presidential campaign.

Debra Dickerson, writing for Salon, declared that she is “in a feminist fury” about it:

Just as we watch curvy, healthy-looking singers and actresses like Lindsay Lohan become anorexic too-blonde hoochies before our very eyes, so we’re now in danger of having to watch the political version of that process: Any day now, Michelle Obama’s handlers will have her glued into one of those Sunday-go-to-meeting Baptist grandma crown hats while smiling vapidly for hours at a time. When, of course, she’s not staring moonstruck, à la Nancy Reagan, at her moon doggie god-husband who’s not one bit smarter than she is.

In response to Dickerson’s article, the new Gawker Media blog Jezebel (worst name ever, by the way) declared that Michelle’s “weird passive-aggressive comments” can only be explained by one thing: Barack obviously cheated on her:

…when Michelle Obama says stuff like “someday maybe he’ll deserve all the attention” or “he’s just a man” or calls him “the brother” even when she knows it makes the white folks uneasy is pretty simple: “The brother” fucked up! It wasn’t Gennifer or even Monica; it was probably just some one-night fling…

Mrs J, writing at Our Kind of Parenting, points out the Jezebel bloggers’ embarrassing cluelessness when it comes to African-American vernacular:

For the record, even if it makes white people uncomfortable, calling someone “the brother” (even if it is one’s husband) is not a diss. Especially when, in context, it is to say “The brother is smart”, as Mrs.O actually did recently (to an all black crowd)… This is a serious presidential candidate we’re talking about, ladies, not you’re effing ex-boyfriend. Save the cheap shots for someone else.

The Coup Magazine blog analyzes reactions to Michelle Obama in relation to the “Strong Black Woman (SBW) syndrome” and points out that Michelle is damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t:

She can’t be funny. She probably shouldn’t work. After all, if she wants to counter the SBW stereotype and make her husband appear to be in charge, she cannot have a career. But when she quits her job, her motivation and commitment are called into question, and she risks losing credibility in the eyes of feminists. She can never have a hair out of place, appear aggressive, or ever be shown working out (one of her favorite activities), lest she characterized by someone as a “nappy headed ho.” In light of this constant and very public criticism, Michelle Obama can never quite be herself without being stereotyped as the aforementioned SBWa categorization that could potentially destroy her husband’s presidential campaign.

And finally, Malena Amusa, writing for Racewire, suggests that Michelle is integral to Barack Obama’s racial authenticity:

Her presentation is a well-engineered counter to Barack’s Black masculinity that has been attacked for being diluted. Michelle proves Barack’s Black authenticity by her being so home-grown, down-home, and straight-up on the issues. Further, if Barack had said some of the things Michelle has, he’d be lumped under the Black nationalist umbrella held up by Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rev. Al Sharpton, and so many white people probably wouldn’t like him as much.

About This Blog

Racialicious is a blog about the intersection of race and pop culture. Check out our daily updates on the latest celebrity gaffes, our no-holds-barred critique of questionable media representations, and of course, the inevitable Keanu Reeves John Cho newsflashes.

Latoya Peterson (DC) is the Owner and Editor (not the Founder!) of Racialicious, Arturo García (San Diego) is the Managing Editor, Andrea Plaid (NYC) is the Associate Editor. You can email us at team@racialicious.com.

The founders of Racialicious are Carmen Sognonvi and Jen Chau. They are no longer with the blog. Carmen now runs Urban Martial Arts with her husband and blogs about local business. Jen can still be found at Swirl or on her personal blog. Please do not send them emails here, they are no longer affiliated with this blog.

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