feminist nightmares

Michelle Obama Is No One’s Feminist Nightmare

Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

If you wanted to write a headline about feminist nightmares, you could find plenty of fodder in the news — disappearing abortion rights in Texas, maybe, or the forced sterilization of female inmates in California, or the unlivable minimum wage disproportionately earned by women. Politico Magazine, however, has invented a “feminist nightmare”: Michelle Obama. According to writer Michelle Cottle, feminists are disappointed that Obama has not used the second term to doff her first-lady drag and unleash her abundant intelligence and influence on the American public, popularity polls be damned.

Personally, I haven’t encountered that argument in the feminist blogosphere, and I would never make it myself. It’s the First Lady’s life that sounds like the nightmare to me. You only need to spend one election season writing about Michelle Obama’s clothes to be caught in a fusillade of drive-by commenters’ hate speech. Yes, they’re only Internet trolls, but they’re digital traces of the simmering racism that makes being a high-achieving and high-profile black woman in America singularly frustrating. Cottle pays lip service to the racial limitations of Michelle Obama’s public persona, noting that some say Michelle “must tread lightly to avoid being stereotyped as an Angry Black Woman.” As if that were an abstract theory used to rationalize Obama’s frivolity and not a racist episode we collectively watched unfold over the past five years. If I were Obama, I would barricade myself in the East Wing and watch Food Network’s Chopped until 2016. So I can’t exactly blame her for not tearing Republicans a new one over the farm bill.

Michelle Obama’s transformation into a more traditional wife and caretaker seems like it could only be disappointing to an audience who viewed that role as a domestic prison from which feminism liberated them — affluent white women, for example. When those women booed Obama for saying her most important role was “mom-in-chief” at the DNC last year, Tami Winfrey Harris rebutted that choosing motherhood over work is aspirational for some black women, whose grandmothers had no choice but to work outside the home (often raising other people’s children). “Obama has the strength to make her needs known and that if she has, for now, chosen motherhood, that it is the role she wants. She is a black woman free to make that choice,” she wrote in Clutch magazine. “These things are revolutionary for black women, even if some white women see business as usual.”

Another edifying discussion of Michelle Obama’s predicament took place recently at the New School, in a public dialogue between MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry and feminist theorist Bell Hooks, two public intellectuals often mistaken for angry black women. “I am difficult,” Harris-Perry said. “But so are all the white guys.”

Hooks explained that black women only seem angry in comparison to their more frequent portrayal in popular culture as victims. Maybe Beasts of the Southern Wild’s abused, impoverished Hushpuppy was meant to be realistic, Hooks said, but she’s also redundant. “I’m tired of the naked, raped, beaten black woman body,” she said. “I want to see an image of black femaleness that alters our universe in some way.” Hooks offers Michelle Obama as one such transformative figure, and she shares white feminists’ curiosity about the “Ivy-educated, blue-chip law firm-trained” intellectual (as Cottle put it) inside her. “I feel like, yes, we started out with this incredible, powerful black female voice and it got smaller and smaller,” she said.

That’s a compromise Obama had to make to minimize racial stereotypes, according to Harris-Perry. “I think there was an active, powerful, desire to remove from public space the idea of the black woman who emasculates her husband,” she said. The punch lines about Barack’s bad breath and stray socks disappeared post-primary. So did the stories about how his political service left her feeling like a single mom — another black female identity the media is already saturated with. “She was the primary breadwinner and she was taking on all the parenting, and there was a narrative about her relationship with Mama Robinson [Michelle’s mother], who stepped in as a second parent when Barack the State Senator was downstate,” Harris-Perry recalled.

Harris-Perry saw Michelle as subverting expectations in more subtle ways. Take her anti-obesity and fitness campaigns. Where Cottle’s feminists see a policy issue domestic enough for the “lady of the manor” to dip her “fashionably shod feet” into, the MSNBC host sees a defiant response to the media that reduced her to a set of upper arms. “For me, the immediate rational, reasonable response to that is to stop performing your body, to cover it up,” Harris-Perry said. “Instead the First Lady did this extraordinary thing where she’s like, Oh you want to scrutinize? Here I am. She went more sleeveless.”

Harris-Perry then urged the audience to Google the series of photos of Obama from a Healthy Kids fair during her first spring in the White House, all six feet of her hula-hooping and running across the south lawn barefoot. “When I say that, it sounds like some kind of weird, racist KKK movie,” Harris-Perry said, to laughs. “Instead, it’s completely beautiful.”

Michelle Obama Is No One’s Feminist Nightmare