To be fair, we have always been fascinated by the First Lady of the United States’ fashion choices. From the moment her husband announces his candidacy, a spotlight is directed at some hapless political wife, and it only shines brighter if her husband is elected to the highest office in the land. Who can forget the flap about Hillary Clinton’s headbands and the low hum of dissatisfaction generated by her preference for pantsuits? And then there was Laura Bush’s unfortunate tendency, in the early days of W’s presidency, to dress a lot like her mother-in-law. The press wasn’t exactly brutal, but let’s just say it didn’t go unnoticed. And it would be folly to broach the subject of First Ladies and fashion without mentioning Jackie Kennedy. Her unerring fashion sense was credited with at least contributing to a softening (albeit temporarily) of French anti-American sentiment during President Kennedy’s state visit in 1961. Her pillbox hats and exquisitely tailored dresses with clean, architectural lines are still ooh -ed and aah -ed over today. And oh yes, she wore lots of sleeveless dresses, which brings us to Michelle Obama.
The election of the nation’s first African American president was a momentous enough occasion that many of us overlooked the accompaniment of an equally important first: a woman of African descent had become the First Lady of the United States. So collectively enamored were we with Barack Obama that we tended to forget at times that Michelle Obama is by all accounts a force to be reckoned with in her own right. A Harvard-educated attorney who has never shied away from expressing her strong opinions, she had her mettle tested during the campaign when she had the temerity to suggest that someone who had grown up Black in America might have had on occasion reason not to be proud of her country.
Well, she weathered that storm just fine, acquitting herself by making kinder, gentler appearances on The Food Network and Rachel Ray to talk about her exercise routine and her husband’s favorite comfort foods. The campaign’s artful change of subject quieted America’s fears and settled everyone into a comfortable and secure belief that she wasn’t one of those “radical” Black women, but someone who could – when the situation called for it – drone pleasantly on about how fulfilling it was to be a mother. You know, the way wives of powerful men are expected to do regardless of whether they once crossed Harvard Yard carrying constitutional law books with ambitions of their own to fulfill.
But many of us never forgot that genuine and vulnerable moment when Michelle Obama gave voice to the duality of the African American experience – hopefulness and disappointment; pride and derision – all rolled up into one complicated ball of emotion. It was a moment when she truly connected with many women of color and in her, they recognized themselves. One of my closest friends, an African American attorney who has made her career fighting race and gender-based employment discrimination called me the night after Michelle’s speech and – in anticipation of the pundits’ reactions – said dryly, “Here we go – cue the angry Black woman routine.”
The “Angry Black Woman” is a shrill and cynical malcontent who maintains an almost pathological sense of persecution and sees racism under every rock. Like most stereotypes, she does in fact exist, but by making a caricature out of her, we invalidate her grievances, many of which are based on authentic experience. Other archetypes ascribed to African American women should be equally familiar – the “Music Video ‘Ho” – the sexually indiscriminate, vulgar, down-for-whatever girl. And then there’s the “Mammy” – the nurturing, asexual surrogate mother figure (think, Oprah Winfrey) – who exists to help whites become self- actualized human beings. For an illustration of this phenomenon one need only think back to 1988 when Oprah lost over 60 pounds on the Optifast diet and started wearing form-fitting jeans on the air. Suddenly, her ratings took a precipitous dip. In choosing to take care of herself rather than take care of America, she’d become somehow less “relatable.”
But what does all this have to do with Michelle Obama? Her speech seemed to provide just enough information to permit us to define her. Until that moment – particularly for those whose experience with the Black middle and upper-middle class is limited, Michelle Obama was a one-of-a-kind, hard to comprehend creature who might have stepped right out of the Cosby Show . She is well-educated, well-spoken, and has two children by the same man, to whom she is actually married. (Oh, and she was well- dressed, but back to that in a minute.) America did not quite know what to make of her. She didn’t pander, like the Mammy archetype, was not overtly sexual like the Music Video ‘Ho, but (aha !) she fit very neatly into this other box – she was clearly an Angry Black Woman who was not proud of her country .
One of the many displays of genius by the Obama campaign followed Michelle’s outburst of honesty. They didn’t directly address the stereotype because to do so would be futile – even Barack Obama’s powerhouse candidacy was not strong enough to counter hundreds of years’ worth of prejudice. Instead, they launched a “product placement” campaign, repositioning Michelle Obama as an Everywoman who loved her husband, raised her children, worked out, and shopped at JCrew online.
In many of her appearances on daytime television, she chose simple wearable ensembles that accentuated one of her best assets – her well-toned arms. The ensuing furor has been well-documented by bloggers and journalists alike so let’s not revisit it except to say that when political commentators like George Will, take time out from their self- satisfied displays of erudition to remark on the fact the new First Lady of the United States is scandalously without sleeves, something else is afoot. One also need only watch clips of David Brooks on Meet the Press , barely concealing his embarrassment as he describes Mrs. Obama’s sleeveless dress at the February 24 th Presidential Address to Congress as “ostentatious,” to suspect that it ain’t about the sleeves.
What it may be about is the discomfort we experience when a new idea becomes part of the zeitgeist. The “idea” in this case is the very beginnings of a realization among many in the majority population that the archetypes they have become familiar with do not begin to encompass the multiplicity of the African American woman. The degree of upset can be likened to learning, quite by accident, that there exists an alternate and vibrant universe. One from which you have been deliberately and maliciously excluded.
By exposing her arms, Michelle Obama negates the stereotypes in several ways. She is strong and proud of that strength without being the Angry Black Woman. She is also sexual though in a healthy way and not in the manner of the Music Video ‘Ho. Finally – and perhaps most threatening to the status quo – she has absolutely no interest in being the Mammy. The strength and sexuality she exudes – and that she does so unselfconsciously – speaks volumes about how she feels about herself. That she does so without apology, when it clearly makes so many of us uncomfortable, tells us as individuals and as a nation that the journey to self-actualization is not one she will usher us through. It is a path almost always better traveled on your own.