When President Obama officially kicks off his campaign Saturday, Michelle Obama’s popularity will be a key piece of his reelection strategy. Her 71 percent favorable rating far exceeds that of her husband, according to a recent CNN poll with 1,015 respondents, and the president is banking on that popularity to win votes.
Yet I find it a challenge to separate America’s fondness for Michelle Obama from pop culture depictions of her as an “angry black woman” and inappropriate commentary about her body shape, as both popularity and criticism leave her standing under the microscope of an obsessive racial gaze. While the role of first lady inevitably will lend itself to negative attacks, some of the criticisms surrounding Michelle Obama, unlike the women before her, have been deeply tied to racial stereotypes.
“Who was more feisty than Barbara Bush? Laura Bush always spoke her mind, but Michelle Obama takes the heat for being an independent-thinking woman. It’s so clearly based on race and backward ways of thinking,” said Mikki Taylor, author of “Commander in Chic” about Michelle Obama and “the looming shadow of racism.”
Since the beginning of the president’s term, there’s been an ever-present demand to “publicly dissect” her and examine why she dresses the way she dresses, says what she says, and behaves the way she does. The New Yorker’s 2008 depiction of Barack Obama’s “afro-wearing wife Michelle in camo clothes with an AK-47 and ammo-belt slung over her shoulder” drove this point home. Many believe that perceptions such as that one forced Michelle to “soften” her look in order to be perceived as less intimidating.
Characterizations like these have historical and social significance, suggests Washington State University Professor David J. Leonard in an article about the role that “white gaze” played in Trayvon Martin’s murder. He writes that it is a part of a “larger pattern whereupon blackness is consistently imagined as a threat, as danger, and as EVIL; as a cultural and social pariah, blackness needs to be controlled, disciplined, and ultimately punished.”
As a first lady that has always had to explain herself in the face of constant backlash, Michelle Obama gives every indication that she is aware of the piercing eyes that are always upon her. She seemingly recognizes and navigates the “white gaze” in the same ways that she maneuvers black America’s yearning to cast her as a female African American superhero. In the imaginative black psyche, Michelle Obama stands proudly at the helm of America as our archetype of black womanhood, quietly atoning for the sins of video vixens and reality TV superstars.
There are also those who want her to sustain the nostalgia that many of us maintain for a grass-roots, progressive Barack Obama. Fearing that the White House has changed her husband, we need to know that it hasn’t changed her. This forces Michelle Obama to carry the weight of who Barack Obama once was, as well as who he has at times failed to be. Where POTUS falls short, Michelle Obama is expected to quickly pick up the pieces.
Who can bear such fiery pressure without being consumed by the heat? Here comes Michelle “Superhuman Burden-Bearer” Obama to save the day!
Michelle Obama’s popularity comes at a heavy price that leaves little room for error. I can’t think of many other individuals that better symbolize the challenges of race and gender politics faced by black women than this first lady.
So many of us living in “the age of Michelle Obama” see ourselves on the public’s cutting board right beside her, as mass media and research groups dissect our career paths, family dynamics, reproductive choices, sexual histories and spiritual walks until all that’s left of us are the remains of a fragmented identity pierced by the American public’s eyes.
I recently heard Columbia Professor Marc Lamont Hill speak of “the freedom exhibited by those who are no longer under the prison of the white gaze.” My thought is that Michelle has a sense of that freedom. While she is cognizant of the heavy burden that she carries, she’s not a prisoner to it. America’s obsessive gaze has not yet been able to box Michelle Obama in (even after all these years) and I’m inclined to think that it never will. Hopefully, the rest of us will follow her lead, if we haven’t already, and break free from the prison of approval ratings.
Rahiel Tesfamariam is a columnist and blogger for The Washington Post and The RootDC. She is the founder/editorial director of Urban Cusp, an online lifestyle magazine highlighting progressive urban culture, faith, social change and global awareness. Follow her on Twitter@RahielT.