Lay off Michelle Obama: Why white feminists need to lean back
The first lady’s critics miss the fact that black women have never been the model for mainstream American womanhood
In a column at Politico last week entitled “Leaning Out: How Michelle Obama Became a Feminist Nightmare,” Michelle Cottle cast First Lady Obama as a feminist failure, declaring that though “somebody will shatter the conventional first lady mold,” it “won’t be Michelle Obama.”
My message to white feminists is simple: Lean back. Way back. And take your paws off Michelle Obama. Black women have never been the model for mainstream American womanhood, and to act as though she takes something away from the (white) feminist movement is intellectually disingenuous and historically dishonest. Your molds were never designed to contain the likes of a Michelle Obama in the first place. And feminism’s biggest nightmare isn’t Michelle Obama; it is white feminists’ consistent inability to not be racist.
Though Cottle fully acknowledges that the intersection of race and gender “puts Michelle in a treacherous spot,” she co-signs the assessment of Linda Hirschman, who argues that the FLOTUS, in terms of gender, has largely relied on “an almost music-hall-level imitation of a warm-and-fuzzy, unthreatening, bucolic female from some imaginary era from the past.”
There are many problems with this assessment. Neither Cottle nor Hirschman manages to make her assessment of Michelle Obama’s gender politics or performance while holding race constant. But it is race that shapes black women’s access to narratives of womanhood, and the protection that comes with femininity. In other words, black women were never viewed as “unthreatening and bucolic.” (Let us not forget the routine dustups that emerge whenever the first lady shows her arms or her legs in public.) That narrative has been the sole and privileged access of heterosexual, middle-class white women. And white women do not want to acknowledge that this narrative has given them a particular kind of white female privilege — such narratives about delicate and unthreatening white femininity drove the creation of the black male rapist myth and necessitated the labor of black women domestics to maintain white women’s unsullied delicacy and virtue.
Thus, they can’t rightly view Michelle Obama’s gender politics as retrograde, when the ways in which femininity is refracted and experienced through the lens of race is taken into account.