I Didn’t Know My–Or Michelle’s–Ass Was That Interesting

By Sexual Correspondent Andrea Plaid

Did United Statesians electing its first president of color become an implicit invitation for liberal/progressive media outlets to talk about Black and brown behinds?

According to two of them, yep.

Salon started off the conversation with Erin Aubry Kaplan’s essay, “First Lady Got Back,” where she waxes ecstatic about First Lady Michelle Obama’s behind:

“…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.

As America fretted about Obama’s exoticism and he sought to calm the waters with speeches about unity and common experience, Michelle’s body was sending a different message: To hell with biracialism! Compromise, bipartisanship? Don’t think so. Here was one clear signifier of blackness that couldn’t be tamed, muted or otherwise made invisible. It emerged right before our eyes, in the midst of our growing uncertainty about everything, and we were too bogged down in the daily campaign madness to notice. The one clear predictor of success that the pundits, despite all their fancy maps, charts and holograms, missed completely? Michelle’s butt.”

As my friend Tom would say, “Stop, Miss Gurl.”

There’s more–infinitely more–to what makes our new First Lady beautiful and a challenge to the white-beauty standard than her boo-tay. If Aubry Kaplan would have delved into the beauty-brains combo she started to discuss (“She has coruscating intelligence, beauty, style…”), the piece would have been sort of all right. Nope, just Michelle’s ass.

Then here comes Alternet with Myra Mendible’s “Big Booty Beauty and the New Sexual Aesthetic. Her take on the ass thang:

“We should not underestimate the symbolic value of buttocks. Butt metaphors helped European cultures categorize and describe their others, ascribing bodily differences certain moral and intellectual attributes. Gilman argues that, “Beginning with the expansion of European colonial exploration, describing the forms and size of the buttocks became a means of describing and classifying the races. The more prominent the more primitive…” (Making the Body Beautiful). British culture, in particular, identified the buttocks with primitive or debased sexuality (Havelock Ellis, Studies in the Psychology of Sex). Non-Western women were associated with the “lower regions” of the body and characterized in terms of their abundant backside. Similarly, in American culture, the U.S.-Mexico border marked a figurative divide between Northern mind and Southern body, rationality and sensuality, domestic and foreign. This bodily trope culled associations between the lower body and the inferior, more primitive “under” developed “torrid zones” south of the border; it often served to rationalize U.S. military interventions or corporate exploitation of Latin American labor and resources.”

Analytically speaking, what Mendible wrote is what Aubry Kaplan should have written: a more nuanced reflection on the history and meaning of the colored butt in the erotic imaginations and racial and gender definitions of white people and Black men and Latinos and how that loaded image became a policy of exploitation for both groups. In other words, a little intersectionality would have helped Aubry Kaplan’s essay. (Though I find it interesting neither talk about what all this “ass aesthetics” means to some straight Asian American, Native American, and Arab American, and mixed-race folks. And for same-gender-loving folks of color. But that’s me.)

Like Aubry Kaplan, Mendible has her own We Women Should Be Taken More Seriously Moment:

“Either way, I’ll still be dreaming of a time when (to loosely paraphrase Martin Luther King), women will be judged by the content of their character and not the size of their butts. Now that would be truly bootyful.”

Huhn? If Mendible felt that way, then why did she write a 3-page essay on rumps?

Is The “Ethnic” Boo-tay going to be the new feature-story trend, starting in the “progressive” press and eventually working its way into the MSM? Or does “booty” become the mass-media meme for evasively talking about Black and Brown beauty?

To be fair, perhaps these outlets feel these articles and authors serve a two-fold purpose: 1) to give opportunities to marginalized voices and 2) to educate the mostly white readers about the concerns of women of color. But these articles reduce the complex conversations Black women and Latinas have about beauty and sex to a single body part–as if that’s all we talk about, that’s all we are. And these articles–when accompanied with a dearth of other writings and images in the mass media about the complexities of our lives–really do little more than stereotype us again as nothing more than big ol’ behinds. And a subtler message of these pieces appearing in these high-readership forums is that if a Black female or Latina writer wants to get heard, then writing about black and brown derrieres is the way to go. Or we become the default “experts” when a news outlet wants to talk about this topic.

(I’m just waiting for Dr. Melissa Harris Lacewell  or Maegan La Mala  to blog about her being on some left-leaning radio show and the interviewer starts talking about the “Booty Question.” “I could’ve sworn I was asked to come on to talk about Israel’s bombing of Gaza as it related to Hurricane Katrina,” they’ll write.)

The progressive media hiding behind these female writers of color under the guise of “giving voice” doesn’t excuse this perpetuation.

And isn’t it interesting, on the eve of Michelle Obama becoming First Lady–a woman whose own complexity can launch a thousand conversations about race, power, gender, class, and the collective erotic imagination in the US–that asses of color are the emerging topic for progressives….even her own?