Michelle Obama’s arms have been getting an inordinate amount of attention lately. It’s not unsolicited; the most modern first lady has appeared sleeveless on the covers of Vogue and People, at 10 inaugural balls, at a party for Stevie Wonder, at her husband’s address to Congress, and most recently, in her official White House portrait, unveiled at the end of last month.
The media saturation has prompted many questions: Is Michelle Obama too sexy? Is her celebrity diluting her image as the distinguished “mom in chief”? Sleevegate, to hear some tell it, has become an issue of sexuality—but it’s always more complicated than that. Obama, the first black FLOTUS, has become the unwitting bystander in an ageless drama of defining the black female form.
Mrs. Obama, writes Erin Aubry Kaplan, is “cruising the coattails of history to present us with a brand-new beauty norm.” True enough. But this new paradigm is particularly complicated in Obama’s case. Her commanding presence, disciplined fitness regimen and rock-hard bod make her seem out of step with the traditional sidekick role of the first lady. And she is also ill-suited to the traditional cultural archetypes circumscribed for black women. She is neither Jezebel, the soft-witted, oversexed temptress, nor Mammy, the asexual nurturer.
What’s a pundit to do?
In the New York Times on Sunday, Maureen Dowd sounded off on the question of whether Obama ought to “cover up” her long, toned arms, whether in print or in person. The fashion-forwardness of going sleeveless in February was not lost on me. But David Brooks, Dowd’s colleague on the Times’ op-ed page, said in passing, “She’s made her point…. Now she should put away Thunder and Lightning.”
Ah, so if neither Jezebel nor Mammy, then dominatrix.
Brooks hides his criticism behind the skirts of “Washington culture,” which he says is “sensually avoidant.” But the Thunder and Lightning comment suggests little about inappropriate or overt sexuality. It’s about, in Brooks’ words, “physical presence”—and even today, the conventions of black female physicality fit Obama like a straitjacket.
Because the first lady is neither siren nor savior, the culture seems at a loss for where to situate her confident black femininity. One only needs to look at the aggressive “Michelle the Riveter” tees being sold with her image, the New Yorker’s July portrayal of Obama as an Angela Davis manquée and the National Review’s campaign-era depiction of Obama as a scowling “Miss Grievance” to see what such categorical confusion has wrought.
The talented and athletic Williams sisters have also been on the receiving end of jeers about their obvious physical strength. One mean-spirited commenter at the Detroit Free Press concludes, of Obama, “I bet she wears a 'husband beater' T-shirt around the White House.” “She looks as if she could kick Barack’s ass,” said another. Florida senior citizens have called Obama a “horse” with a big “tuchus” (read: booty). And Brooks’ “Thunder and Lightning” comment does treat Obama as though she were a thoroughbred, to be discussed as an assemblage of parts.
John McCain made the same mistake before debating Barack Obama during the 2008 campaign. He prepped the American public for a fire-breathing radical, a terrorist who damns America (add one more trope to the pile). The genteel, almost boring professor who showed up at the three debates left McCain looking mighty silly. Now, the pretty girl with the modern style has also thrown the nation for a loop.
Despite the unfortunate playbook on race and gender she’s been given, Obama has walked her own path all along. East Wing aides have, I’m told, been chastised for wearing overly tight pants (though pantyhose, which the first lady herself has said she dislikes, is not mandatory). Yet as she made the rounds of federal agencies in February, she grinned and waved (with no sign of tricep jiggle) while subtly nudging forward her husband’s recovery bill. Traditional and contemporary at once, the fabulous FLOTUS will appear Wednesdy with her Democratic predecessor, Hillary Clinton, to present the Secretary of State’s Award for International Women of Courage. And if the net effect of Obama’s big guns is to encourage women of all colors to shape it up, she ought to be added to that list.
Dayo Olopade is a Washington reporter for The Root.
Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.