Saturday, April 11, 2009

Michelle Obama is Awesome

Old news, I know. But there's a nice article by Patricia J. Williams in this week's Nation that lays out some of the historical perceptions of black women in this country, then details the ways in which Michelle transcends them:

And so Michelle Obama represents a more comprehensive identity for all women, but particularly for black women. Even when she's just holding court at the head of the White House dinner table, she is a "black woman" performing a "white lady" role--a picture that still causes cultural confusion and anxiety. But Obama is at no risk of being sidelined as perpetual hostess; hers is a well-rounded life, one of multiple roles and layered humanity. She is powerful yet approachable, highly educated yet colloquial, bare-armed but modest, playful but consummately civilized.

Media (and White House) squawking about her mom-hood or her bare arms aside, the national treatment of such a powerful black woman has been surprisingly positive. From where I'm sitting, Mrs. Obama's symbolism may be more powerful than her Mr.'s, or Hillary Clinton's during Bill's presidency. And while no single person can transform race or gender relations, there seems to be something, well, different, about the way that stories about her play out.

Nor, Williams notes, is her symbolic presence only impressive to Americans like me:

If we do not always appreciate this at home, consider how she reflects upon our collective image abroad--and I do not mean whether her wardrobe competes with Carla Bruni-Sarkozy's. She projects a powerfully modern image to conservative constituencies around the globe, whether in the Muslim world; or in Israel, where ultra-Orthodox newspapers recently airbrushed out all the women from a photo of Netanyahu's new cabinet; or in China, where male children are so fetishized that each year thousands of boys are kidnapped and sold...

The queen [of England] is old school, however. So when Michelle Obama casually put her arm around the royal shoulders, the act risked being the order of misfortune that ensued when George W. Bush massaged Angela Merkel's neck. Instead, the palace quickly issued an uncharacteristically warm pronouncement that no protocol had been breached. What was truly remarkable, however, was that the queen, for the first time in her public career, had reached out her frail, white-gloved, little-old-lady hand, the one heretofore used only for waving, and encircled Michelle Obama's waist. For many throughout the British Commonwealth, particularly in South Asia, the Caribbean and Africa, this was a mime of egalitarianism, an unexpected kabuki theater of respect and mutual regard. Michelle Obama had somehow pulled off a superlatively graceful transgression--a symbolically charged moment of the kind that quietly turns a bit of the old world upside down, yet leaves us smiling at the new world glimpsed beyond.

It is really stunning. For one of the first times in my entire life, I have hope that America can affect positive change on an international level, not with its weapons or its money or its ideology, but simply by example.

I know it's a lot to read into a little gesture. But annoying and inscrutable as it can be from the outside, Britons' meticulous concern with the tiniest details of protocol makes small gestures into something truly important: Royal behavior, particularly if it is strongly emphasized, has a way of establishing the guidelines for the behavior of even the most reactionary British citizens. The Queen, with her arsenal of etiquette techniques, could have greeted the new first lady without stepping out of the previously established bounds. That she chose to direct unprecedented warmth towards a member of a demographic that has faced a perfect storm of discrimination, on ever level, in both the US and the UK, reads as part of a long-needed and beautiful sea change. All the more so because the act was instigated by Michelle herself.

Of course, we need only recall Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton to be reminded that neither the symbolism nor the real responsibilities of being a powerful first lady are sufficient to guarantee acceptance on her own terms.

So here's hoping that there has been real change. Here's hoping that the future holds something truly big for Michelle Obama.


  1. 6.04-She's got something big coming alright-a truly bulbous ass!!! And, I don't mean your Messiah either.

  2. Anonymous's Secret Friend!4/11/09, 8:06 PM

    Hey anon, I've missed you!!
    I wish me and you could get our shag on,I put my hand up on your hip, you put your hand up on my hip, when I dip you dip we dip:)

  3. hahahha, getting your handle wrong is a pretty serious burn, 6.54 (or 6.53, am i right? damn son)

    I was considering a field trip for one of the many free republic threads where they went absolutely insane about the 'protocal breach' between Michelle and the Queen. At first I was hoping she just did it to troll the wingnuts, but from the way you put it maybe there's a bit more to the event than that.

  4. Haha!

    God, I hadn't even taken seriously the possibility that people would place more weight on their dislike of Michelle than on what the Royals said about the etiquette of the interaction.

    Oh well... Just goes to show you how entrenched this shit gets, I guess.

  5. I just heard about the SEALs taking out the pirates with headshots. To echo you, for one of the first times in my entire life, I am proud of a Democrat president.

    Nuke'em 'til they glow, Mr. Prez!!

  6. I had been arguing with my close friend on this issue for quite a while, base on your ideas prove that I am right, let me show him your webpage then I am sure it must make him buy me a drink, lol, thanks.

    - Kris