Pride and Prejudice: Discussing Michelle Obama’s Body


The
recent cacophonous chorus surrounding Michelle Obama’s derriere is undeniably
troubling.  Yet, to be quite honest, it
is also strangely gratifying to me. 

I
recently read Salon’s feature piece "First Lady
Got Back
."  Taken aback by the
implicit oxymoron between the words, "First Lady" and "Got Back," I sat for
hours pondering all that this cluster of words signified.  For instance, what does it mean to place "first
lady," which designates a "respectable" social position, with "Got Back," a
sexist epithet coined by rapper, Sir Mix-a-Lot, in his hot song, "Baby Got Back," in the early
90′s?  And, what does it mean to inscribe
these words on to the body of our very first African American First Lady? 

The
deployment of both "lady" and "back"
can be viewed as problematic.  First,
discourses about mythologized "ladies" didn’t initially include black
women.  A "lady" was a woman or wife who
innately possessed such virtues as delicacy, piety, beauty, politeness and
gentleness.  Black women, who were not
seen as "ladies," "women" or wives, were historically not privy to such
designation.  Historically speaking, this
was a term reserved for white women.  And
let me just say upfront, this was not necessarily a compliment.  As I understand it, "lady" was just as
imprisoning as the more derogatory terms used for black female slaves–just in
a different way.

Secondly,
there is a long history of discourses regarding harmfully reductive views of
black women’s "backs."  Black women have
been pathologized and objectified because of their "backs," which, by the way,
come in all shapes and sizes just like those of other men and women.  Sir Mix-a-Lot’s hit song, "Baby Got Back," was only
the tip of the iceberg.  The cultural
chorus regarding black women’s bodies, particularly their fragmented backside,
had been singing for centuries.  Sir
Mix-a-Lot simply joined in.  Or did he?

To
be sure, the mass production of "Baby Got Back" via radio and television took
ongoing essentialist discourses about black female hyper-sexuality to new
dimensions.  The constant reproduction of
the gyrating images became a source of social studies on black female
sexuality.  This was obviously deeply
problematic.  However, as stereotypically
reductive as this song and video was, in its own way, it also celebrated black
women’s bodies.  Sure, this so-called
celebration reproduced every stereotype about black female sexuality
possible.  And, by fetishizing black
women’s privates, reduced them to mere objects, namely their butts.  This was absolutely damaging.  However, it also did something else.  Through the process of representation (via
video imaging), which presented black women’s butts as evidence of
stereotypical difference (regarding black female sexuality), many black women,
including myself, strangely found a sense of pride in our bodies, specifically
our butts.  Thus, while Sir Mix-a-Lot
(and others) reassigned mythical legacies to our behinds, some black women were
re-imagining themselves as subjects with beautiful bodies.

However,
it is important to realize that this was not everyone’s experience.  Nor was it likely the experience of those
like Sir Mix-a-Lot who commodified black women’s bodies for his own use and
enjoyment.  Nor is it likely the
experience of many of those who have
joined in the chorus regarding Michelle Obama’s butt.  Deployment of terms such as "lady" and
"back," without some sort of critical analysis is irresponsible at best,
particularly in reference to black women. 
Even if Obama’s butt makes us beam with pride every time her beautiful
body sashays center stage, we cannot ignore the effects of the obvious
"blackening" of the already historically
brimming noun, "lady," when placed together in a title like "First Lady
Got Back."  There are serious
implications to consider here, namely the pathologization of our first African
American "First Lady." 

In
short, if we are not more careful in our utilization of language and not more
forthright in our criticisms of the language of others, we run the risk of
reinforcing historical ideals of black female sexual savagery at the highest
level.  This is very dangerous.  So, if Michelle Obama’s body makes us proud,
why not shape our enthusiasm with a critique of the status quo, which continues
to treat her as an object by fragmenting her to her parts? Obama is a
subject–more than a body, and, more than a butt.  Inscribing her with words without carefully
evaluating their operation first is
beyond distressing.  It is death
dealing.  Not just to her, but to all
women.

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  • invalid-0

    Correctly, you have identified the two issues with Sir Mix-a-lot’s “baby got back”. Although the song fragmented women right down to their “butts” it was also a celebration of who Black women are. For so long our bodies which were seen as hyper sexual, where also not viewed at what one would call beautiful in popular culture. Fantastically beautiful women who had rounded hips and butts were not seen as beautiful and were given roles in the film industry or as models. Sir Mix-A-Lot allowed Black People to feel good about their bodies and gave a place for the form to be celebrated. As far as First Lady Obama, she is being praised because not only is she extremely intelligent, which by the way is representative of many African American women, she looks like my auntie, my mother, my girlfriends. Not only can Black America finally tell their sons that they can be president and mean it, we can finally as women look at Michelle Obama and see ourselves.

  • invalid-0

    I also think this is a double edged sword. Many women have felt the effects of the celebration of black women’s bodies in pop culture. It has also had a complimentary effect on women of many different races who have similar bodies. But it is a danger zone. Even when it is meant to be positive, such as the references to Obama’s “parts” as well as her style, I find it diminishing in the same way talking about politicians like Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton’s bodies, either positively or negatively, without proper cultural analysis is intentionally diminishing. At the end of the day, talking about powerful women leaders in this way continues to take its toll on all women.

    Thanks for the good article.

  • invalid-0

    I am very confused about this; so many mixed signals are coming from almost every direction.
    And it’s not only this subject. A few years ago, I saw a movie based on an actual event. A member of the family was killed. The friends and neighbors of the family offered condolances, brought food after the funeral, and promised to help in any way they can.
    The confusing part in regard to the movie was when the mother of the family very angrily began to curse all their friends and neighbors because of the support they offered. Why did she display such contempt and hatred against their friends and neighbors? To this day, I am afraid to offer support to those I know when they suffer a loss; I also don’t want to offend them by not saying nor doing anything.
    This article is similar to the movie in that I’m damned if I do, and damned if I don’t: I regard black women as beautiful, but if I say that, much less think it, I’m a bad guy. According to the article and the comments above mine, I’m somehow worse than bigots who declare that there’s no such thing as a beautiful black woman.
    I don’t get it. Can someone help me understand?

  • invalid-0

    This article is not necessarily about overall aesthetics. There’s nothing wrong with saying, “X is a beautiful woman.” However, that’s a lot different than saying, “I only appreciate X’s beauty” or, more specific to this situation, “I only value X’s rear end.” The latter two scenarios do not express appreciation for X, the person. X is more than her beauty and more than a rear end. This is dehumanizing. It fragments X to her parts. This is particularly problematic for black women who have been seen in this way for years. Assuming you are male, I am sure you would not like to be valued for your big bank account (I use this for an example b/c men’s body parts have different social meanings so you might want your parts to be valued). If this is your reality, you might say that this is only an aspect of who your identity.

    Sorry to double post.

  • invalid-0

    I find Michelle Obama neither “stunning” nor repulsive, but just another physically attractive female, but only at first glance. When I’ve been lucky enough to hear her in interviews, Ms. Obama is a very engaging and articulate person to the point where I almost ignore to two physical features I personally find unusual: the slender arms and the shape of her mouth in relation to the rest of her jawbone. It bears repeating her unique physicality becomes unnoticeable once I hear how just unlike the demure Laura Bush Michelle Obama is. When I see the Obamas together on TV (I did see Barack once in Philly), the adults look proportionally average to each other, so what’s the problem, Salon? I haven’t done any journalism since college, but a feature piece? Did you feel “Good Housekeeping” or “Shape” was stealing your hits?
    For a site people depend upon to get REAL news, this non-story gives me reassurance I’m not missing anything by avoiding it. I can’t see doing a piece on one member of the family I think it’s safe to say the family looks fairly energetic, compared to most others: hopefully, it’ll still have some energy left after 8 (keep your fingers crossed) years!