Praise the comedy gods.
We’ve finally reached the moment in Barack Obama’s presidency where we can make fun of him and his family without looking over our shoulders, worried that we’ve inadvertently insulted the president in front of polite company.
Really, this moment arrived the night sketch comedians Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele introduced Catendra, a loud, demanding, neck-rolling, bad-weave sporting counterpart to the president’s anger translator, Luther.
But it really became clear Tuesday, when #BlackTwitter had a field day with a series of photos from former South African president Nelson Mandela’s memorial service, the first being President Obama’s now- infamous selfie with British Prime Minister David Cameron and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt.
The first sparked interest — since when does presidential protocol endorse funeral selfies – but the subsequent photos offered a comedic goldmine: an affable, caddish-looking Obama chatting up Thorning Schmidt, as Michelle sat by, stony-faced, before they switched seats.
FLOTUS: “What I don’t do well…. is this.” pic.twitter.com/HTYgqpvwGK
— April (@ReignOfApril) December 10, 2013
Whole story lines arose about what could be going on between the two members of black America’s most aspirational couple.
Which of course, prompted an obligatory “Scandal” reference:
— El Cosby Esq… (@TheCosby) December 10, 2013
Some of #BlackTwitter’s feminists were quick to decry the jokes, while others either joined in or remained agnostic.
Yes, I understand the tweets about Michelle Obama’s side-eye are jokes. But they feed into a stereotype that is pernicious as all get out.
— Imani ABL (@AngryBlackLady) December 10, 2013
I’ve done my fair share of railing against stereotypes of black women. They’re problematic when they become a crutch born of ignorance, or when they just don’t say anything new. And as always, context is key.
What happened Tuesday was the conversation you sit around having with your friends at a party, except it’s a giant inside joke, broadcast live on the Internet.
#BlackTwitter knows that Michelle Obama isn’t “some angry black woman” and it’s safe to say the hive is quick to close ranks and protect her when serious pejoratives are lobbed in her direction. We kid out of love; we know Michelle Obama is not walking around, barely obscuring a Pennsylvania Avenue edition of Beyoncé she-hulk lurking just beneath the surface of her toned arms and preternaturally fabulous hair.
People who buy into that sort nonsense are willfully obtuse.
Seriously, do we need to call on Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes? If you don’t know by now that there’s nothing scary about Michelle Obama, you will never, never, never know her.
Don Lemon gonna do a special tonight on how Black Women’s angry faces are the reason for their low marriage rates — Desus (@desusnice) December 10, 2013
Most of this debate hinges on respectability politics: Is it permissible to joke about Michelle’s stink-eye, or Barack flirting with the Danish PM, when, as Wanda Sykes would say, “white people are looking at you?”
Of course it is. Because the very people who demand this sort of performance, who insist that you jump through a never-ending set of hoops designed to determine whether or not you’re worthy of being treated as an equal, are people you will never be able to please and whose opinions are firmly entrenched. They are a lost cause. Stop courting them and their approval.
Here’s my thing about yesterday’s jokes — I think its important to have fun without being concerned about the white gaze.
— Josephine Baeker (@Vivaciously_Val) December 11, 2013
We do them a disservice when we treat the Obamas as brand ambassadors for Team Black People. Heaven forbid Michelle examine this latest media moment and determineS that, on top of everything else, she now needs to police her facial expressions. Besides, even President Obama has said that he needs Luther.
So, a little perspective: someone labels the first lady a “feminist nightmare?” By all means, pounce. But a little good-natured ribbing, among friends, made possible by an occurrence of “bitchy resting face?” Let’s give that one a pass.