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The Meaning of Michelle

First Black First Lady as Outsider Within and Agent of Change

This post is part of the Bodies, Gender, and Domination OOPS Series.

There are many aspects of the United States, of the political culture and system that I find interesting (to use a word that is telling without saying anything much). One of them is the office of the First Lady. There is no real job description for the position but it generally refers to the job of being “the White House hostess,” championing some non-divisive issues, and representing the United States by looking good and being nice.

The First Lady is clearly only there because of her husband, the President, and it is telling that there is no official name for the husband of a potential female president. Given the political culture and expectations, any politician would have a hard time being elected president without a caring wife and nice looking children to represent a “typical” (normally white) US-American family (aside from lifelong bachelor and 15th president James Buchanan, whom historians believe to have been gay). With its clearly defined political limits, always auxiliary to Mr. President, the office of the First Lady represents the classical heterosexual, caring and harmless woman and, of course, mother. All the First Ladies that I had seen in my earlier life (and I am too young to have experienced Jackie Kennedy) seem to fit in this picture, with Hillary Clinton being much more politically active than others.

And then came Michelle Obama. With the first Black President came the first Black First Lady and the couple introduced a lot of novelty to the White House, not least of which was posing a clear and direct challenge to racist notions that have long dominated the perception of Black women in the US. The question here is to what degree Michelle Obama was different in how she occupied and used this office; whether she was an agent of significant change; and whether or to what degree this agency was located in her symbolic power as a black woman who challenges stereotypes.

In her book “Black Feminist Thought” Patricia Hill Collins identifies and analyzes “controlling images” that are used to keep Black women down. It is noteworthy that — even if one tries hard, and I am sure white racists and supremacists do this all the time — Michelle Obama cannot be pressed into any of the categories that Collins identifies: She cannot be put in the category of the “mammy,” the faithful, domestic servant, as she clearly does not take care of white children at someone else’s home. She cannot be seen as the matriarch as — and this is only the most obvious reason — her husband is clearly not emasculated. Due to her class status and her career before becoming First Lady, having worked her way up from a working class family, neither can she be cast as a welfare queen, nor fit into the image of masculinized, asexual Black lady nor construed as the hyper-sexualized “hoochie.” None of these simplistic, violent constructs fits Obama, not remotely. Her image is just the opposite: she has successfully presented herself as a caring wife and mother, as well as an accomplished professional with impressive academic accolades.

Indeed, the public picture Michelle Obama paints is complex, and represents the lives many women outside the White House. The first sentence on her official White House website states that she is a lawyer, writer and — only then — the wife of President Barack Obama. This is followed by a sentence emphasizing that she sees herself first of all as mother of her daughters and daughter of her parents. She is thus a caring mother and family person but can by no means be reduced to that. While at many formal occasions the Obamas represent the typical couple with the man wearing a boring suit and the woman wearing the remarkable dresses, Michelle Obama quite consciously used these dresses to make powerful political and diplomatic statements by hiring designers with immigrant backgrounds and by supporting small businesses rather than fashion empires.

In fact, Obama has re-inspired the US fashion industry, with each outfit sparking new discussions about what beauty is. She has even managed to definitively establish sleeveless dresses, showing her famously powerful upper arms against all critics’ attempts to discredit her outfits. Michelle Obama has succeeded in changing images about femininity and beauty as she combines a sporty, tall body with her sharp intellect, smartness, caring attitude. Her powerful speeches also start national conversations: just remember the sentence “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves” from her speech at the DNC 2016, or the way she dismantled and attacked Trump’s misogyny in her campaign speech in Manchester, NH. The issues she championed most — education, especially for girls, and healthy nutrition and exercise for children — speak to her commitment and authenticity as a mother and a professional. To add one more dominant picture that speaks to Collins’ argument, Michelle Obama worked endlessly against the image of the angry Black woman that has been produced and endures so prevalently in TV shows and films. She really brought and symbolizes change and hope, and emphasizes the importance of resisting fear, as she so clearly repeated in her last official speech as First Lady.

But from a feminist perspective, has she done enough in her position or at least as much as she could? Has she been an agent of real, rather than symbolic, change? Clearly my view as a white woman is limited and I want to stress my difficulty in assessing the changes that we saw or might see as a reaction to Michelle Obama in the White House. One could argue that Michelle Obama’s self-representation was too limited to the wife and caring mother, that she stayed away from controversial issues, and that she is a wealthy woman. One might even try to blame her for playing her part in the process of being reduced to fashion, due to the endless discussions about her dresses. Further one could say that she basically played by the rules and did little more than bend them just a tad.

In his PS post “Black Feminist Thought and the Pitfalls of a Critical Mass” Moises Ramirez asks: “Can a body act as an agent of change merely by occupying space?” Can Michelle Obama be seen as an “emergent woman,” an emancipatory identity shaping new definitions of Black womanhood that Collins so far only finds in fiction? I argue that in her function as First Lady in the White House, Michelle Obama has produced new images that are important to counter beliefs at the intersection of race and sex, such as the idea that Black is the most un-American color (cf. Hill Collins, p. 90). Especially given the history of Black women in the political system who have so long been forbidden to vote and excluded from public offices and from higher education, a highly-educated, eloquent Black woman in the White House is an important change. Given the unfortunate persistence of ideas that true beauty requires whiteness and super-slimness, a Black, sporty powerful woman in the White House is a welcome deviation from feminine norms and controlling images of womanhood. She has not only occupied the space but has also participated in cultural shifts that are slow but important.

But let’s be clear: The First Lady is not an elected office and, as sad and frustrating as it is, due to sexism and racism, a Black woman will probably not have a chance to run for president in this country at this moment, nor for many years to come. As long as she stayed limited to the functions of the First Lady, Michelle Obama might have been acceptable, despite racist attacks, made by people like former Mayor Beverly Whaling in the small town of Clay, West Virginia.[1] The white backlash represented by the last election and its unfolding implications must also be read as a furious attempt by white nationalists, supremacists and racists to keep the Black woman in her place, especially given the involvement of Michelle Obama in the Hillary Clinton campaign. The election results can easily be seen as a punishment for endangering the status quo.

Progress is not a straight line. As important as Michelle Obama was in the White House and independent of the position she will take after her time as First Lady, be it public or not, she can only be a piece of an ongoing puzzle. It will be interesting to see in how far the ephemera and physical traces of Michelle Obama’s time as First Lady — like numerous Vogue front covers, videos of her in a push up contest with Ellen DeGeneres, the White House’s vegetable garden or discussions about her fashion-politics — will be important symbols and catalysts for ongoing cultural changes.

And possibly even more important: Will this cultural change eventually contribute to material redistributions of both economic and political resources? Maybe — and here I am the one wanting to see and believe in change and hope — the threat that the new administration poses to all of us and to some more than others can also be a chance to work harder together and be more creative in destroying limiting images and violent stereotypical restrictions. In the now eternal words of the first Black First Lady, may we go high.

Footnotes

[1]Here, it is interesting that the female Mayor resigns or has to resign from her post, while countless male public figures that disseminate racist comments about the Obamas in most cases keep their posts.

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Esther Franke

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