Is this the woman that Michelle Obama sees when she looks in the mirror now, free of the White House and the media scrutiny of presidential politics? After more than a decade in public life, can she freely shed the sheath dress and pearls for a wide brim black hat and dookie braids?
She just did.
By allowing herself to be photographed alongside 15 other members of Beyoncé's inner circle, Obama reclaimed her image from the annals of stodgy first lady portraits. And, she did it by embodying Beyoncé's.
The image, in case you haven’t seen it, is part of a birthday tribute to the singer who posted portraits of black women — some famous, others not — dressed in one of her iconic looks from the “Formation” video.
The portraits alone were striking, but Obama's participation was jaw-dropping. Eight months after leaving the White House, she has quietly returned to private life. She posts rarely to social media — a sweet Valentine's message here, a birthday wish there. She has made trips to visit high schools, some low-key and others covered by the media, to emphasize her initiative to encourage higher education. She has given a few paid speeches, but those are generally closed to the public.
Both the former first lady and Queen Bey are two women who don’t put images out into the world without carefully considering their meaning. So what’s the former first lady telling us with this one?
First, that she loves Beyoncé. Well, duh: Their track record of public support dates back to the first inauguration, when the singer serenaded the Obamas with Etta James’s “At Last.”
Second, that she loved “Formation,” undeniably one of Beyoncé’s most overtly political tracks. The video featured stark images of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, along with graffiti supporting the movement for Black Lives Matter, a police cruiser sinking into a body of water and a young black boy dancing in front of a line of officers outfitted in riot gear. That’s all before Beyoncé throws up her middle fingers.
Last, Obama is signaling that she embraces the song as an anthem for black womanhood — and is, clearly, not afraid to cause her own conversation.
Once, an interviewer asked Mrs. Obama who she would be if she could be anyone other than herself. She answered: “Beyoncé.”
As an artist, Beyoncé has been exploring the inner lives of black women. At the same time Mrs. Obama is quite literally exploring her inner Beyoncé.
In "The Meaning of Michelle," Brittney Cooper, an associate professor at Rutgers University, dissects Obama and Beyoncé's "mutual girl crush."
“The curiosity is not that Michelle Obama has an inner Beyoncé,” writes Cooper, “it is rather that this quintessence of twenty-first-century Black ladyhood admits to it.”
In this latest visual love letter to Beyoncé, Obama is not only admitting to her “inner Beyoncé,” she’s reveling in it. Playing dress-up with an image that evokes badassery and “slaying.”
It is a full-on deviation from the former first lady playbook. She is ripping that up in one potent image.
In one of her final interviews as first lady, Obama told Oprah Winfrey that she longed for a "normal" life after living in the nation's fish bowl. So it seems counterintuitive for her to participate in this such a public display of adulation for one of the world's most famous women.
Add to that the controversial nature of the look — which hearkens to Beyoncé in one of her more militant moments. Remember that satirical New Yorker cover, which cast Michelle Obama as a fist-bumping, combat boot-wearing, afro’d commando? That image, Obama has said, “knocked [her] back.”
“That was one of those things that you just sort of think, ‘Dang, you don’t even know me,’ you know?” Obama told Winfrey. “And then I thought, okay, well, let me live my life out loud so that people can then see and then judge for themselves.”
Her predecessors have generally maintained the traditional first lady veneer post-White House. At age 53, Obama is taking a different approach, embracing a pop icon that her two teenage daughters also love (though maybe not as much).
Mrs. Obama’s portrait exists alongside those of the nation’s demurely smiling first ladies, but she makes clear that it also belongs amid the retinue of black women celebrating Beyoncé. She’s there with Serena Williams, with Beyoncé’s 5-year-old daughter, Blue Ivy, with the other members of Destiny’s Child, and with 90-something Hattie White, grandmother of Beyoncé’s husband, Jay-Z.
If there are people who are still wondering whether Michelle Obama is done carrying the mantle of first lady, wonder no more. She is done.