Opinionista Sisonke Msimang 3 July 2013

On being Mrs O: Michelle Obama fights back

For the last five years Michelle Obama has chosen to play the ‘good wife.’ The trouble is that she is so much more than this.

By publicly rejecting powerful stereotypes about African-Americans and embracing deeply traditional ideas about women, Mrs. Obama has had to pretend to be someone that she is not.

The heckler that Mrs. O confronted a week before she came to Africa was asking for a fight. Michelle Obama merely punched back. It was a dangerous thing for an educated black woman to do, but hopefully it marks the end of the Mom-in-Chief pretence.

The excitement about Barack Obama’s trip was a bit much. Our continent’s ability to get excited about symbols continues to baffle me. I was primarily watching the news to see what outfits Michelle would pop up wearing and I must admit that I spent most of Saturday wondering what she and President Zuma’s fourth wife spent the day talking about. Now there’s something I wish Snowden were still around to record.

While Barry gets all the accolades, and Michelle just gets the comments about her bangs, the truth is that she is a newsmaker in her own right. Just before she got on a plane to travel to Senegal (not Africa, as the media and the Obamas have incessantly described their three-country visit), Michelle Obama got into a confrontation with a heckler at a Democratic Party fund-raiser.

The response to the incident said more about the American media and public than it did about Mrs. Obama. In the shaky footage you see an impeccably groomed black woman who is kind of angry. Getting into the crowd and walking up to the woman, Obama cuts an imposing figure. Michelle suggests that she will leave if the woman continues to heckle her. The crowd asks Michelle to keep speaking (of course) and she smiles and laughs, consoled and having made her point. Michelle comes out looking like someone you don’t want to mess with, and the heckler is bundled away.

What you don’t see is the back-story. The woman who heckled was not just a random individual heckler. Her name is Ellen Sturtz and she is part of a gay rights organisation called Get Equal, which is lobbying to ensure that President Obama signs an executive order barring discrimination by federal contractors based on sexual orientation.

Her organisation paid $500 for her to get in the door, so that she could heckle Michelle in what was supposed to be an intimate and safe space (mainly attended by party insiders), in order to raise the profile of her issue. It’s a smart strategy which mimics the approach that equal rights groups took in relation to her husband’s stance on the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy of the US military. There’s only one problem – it’s a dirty tactic.

During his first term, Barack Obama was repeatedly heckled by gay activists, admonished and shamed at every opportunity, until he delivered on his promises. Obama’s embrace of the gay rights agenda was not a magical epiphany: it was the consequence of careful and planning and activism.

It seems that the folks at Get Equal thought that they would use Michelle Obama’s speech two weeks ago to ramp up their advocacy. The trouble is that Michelle Obama is not the president of the United States. She is not a politician, she is not a senior member of the administration, and she has bent over backwards to make this clear.

So it was low blow. Michelle was being used, baited into a fight that is not hers to have, by an organisation that knows full well that it is an illegitimate tactic. The real fight they need to have is with Barack Obama.

In some ways the strategy speaks to the fact that Michelle Obama is perceived as being far more powerful than she actually is. Her role as the first black First Lady is imbued with symbolic power. She is iconic both because she is the first and because she has played an incredibly smart game in defying racial stereotypes, while playing into a rigidly defined gender role.

Her embrace of the term, Mom-in-Chief, and her choice of child nutrition as her first priority as First Lady, have put out the message that this is a woman who defines herself primarily through her role as a mother. She has approached motherhood with a determination and professionalism that is almost breathtaking – and with a focus that is only possible when you live in some sort of bubble of privilege. Mrs. O is undoubtedly a great mom, but there is something that doesn’t seem authentic about ‘momminess’ as her primary identity.

So it was great to see the Michelle that got in that heckler’s face. That Michelle seemed to be standing up to all the people who have bullied her since the day her husband declared his political intentions. I may not like the fact that she has responded to the bullying by developing an excessive preoccupation with looking the part of First Lady (albeit a contemporary version of what that means) and insisting on playing an incredibly gender-conforming happy mom role, but I get it.

I also understand that despite her best efforts to be inoffensive, the barbs have kept coming. The angry black woman label seems always to be lurking behind the scenes, ready to gobble up her gorgeous smile and her wistful gazes into her husband’s eyes.

I am not a huge fan of Michelle’s. Initially I was as rapt as the rest of the world but over time I have been concerned about the increasing prominence of the wardrobe. She cannot control the media and their obsession with what she wears, but she need not feed it by being so engrossed in what she wears. I have also worried about the extent to which she has chosen to edit herself, and by her exuberant embrace of the ‘troops.’

However, watching the heckler incident reminded me of how difficult it must be to constantly have to bite your tongue, to pretend to be far more demure than you actually are. The US media reacted as expected. Her response was taken as another sign that she is “an angry black woman.” More patronising reports suggested that she needed to handle hecklers the way her husband did, or that she needed ‘training’ and ‘coaching.’

She was miffed, that is for sure. And indeed, she is black. But was she the stereotypical angry black woman who couldn’t control her temper, who lashes out at the drop of a hat? Of course not, because that person doesn’t actually exist; that angry black woman person is a callow, played-out, silly stereotype that doesn’t describe any black woman that I know.

Unfortunately, the awesome, shape-shifting power of stereotypes means that the truth is incidental. If you are a person about whom stereotypes abound, they tend to stick to you no matter what you do. No matter how much Michelle Obama smiles and does jumping jacks on the White House lawn, she lives in a world in which despite all the privilege and accomplishment, cannot simply have a bad day without that being seen through the eyes of powerful racial stereotypes.

Like all black women who are prominent in the media spotlight, Obama has had to choose between playing into racial stereotypes or playing into gender stereotypes. It is clear that she has chosen to privilege her racial identity over her gender politics. I don’t judge this choice – indeed I understand it and emphathise with it. What is has meant, however, is that at the symbolic level the White House project has been a racial rather than a gender one.

The Obamas have pushed the boundaries of what a black family in the White House is. They embody a wholesome, in-love model of heterosexual romance that is powerful primarily because they are black. Were they a white couple, the pressure on Michelle to conform to gender norms wouldn’t be so visceral.

Michelle’s behaviour has been (necessarily) bounded by stereotypes. In the popular imagination, one powerful stereotype of black women is that we are expected to have attitude, to speak out of turn, to fight our men, indeed to fight anyone that tries to mess with us and our families. There are others, of course, but this is a particularly pernicious one, even in our dear Mzansi. Black women are depicted as always being on the verge of tearing off their earrings and getting involved in street fights, even when they are carrying Louis Vuitton bags and rocking Prada shoes.

To avoid this treacherous terrain, Michelle Obama has chosen to play the ‘good wife.’ The trouble is that she is so much more than this. By publicly rejecting one set of stereotypes and embracing another set, Mrs. Obama has had to pretend to be someone that she is not. Sturtz and Get Equal were playing dirty. Michelle Obama merely punched back. This is a dangerous thing for an educated black woman to do, but hopefully it marks the end of Michelle’s pretence. I like the real Mrs. Obama waaay better than the Mom-in-Chief. DM


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