Between “Mammy” and “Miss Ann”: The “problem” with Michelle

by Guest Contributor Tami, originally published at What Tami Said.

Privilege hates to lose it’s place. Privilege believes that it deserves to be exulted above others. Indeed, it resents when the “other” is elevated to equal status, particularly when the “other” refuses to conform to the rules that privilege 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 Toledo 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 couturiers 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 privilege for you.

The overarching “problem” with Michelle Obama is this: Her womanhood does not conform to the boxes the mainstream has created. And privilege 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.

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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

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