Monday, April 6, 2009
Zora Says: What America Really Wants is a National Mammy
She's statuesque, confident, self-defined, beautiful and black. Pobrecita. What an unfortunate combination of qualities for Michelle Obama to carry, for they seem to stand in the way of the mainstream's ability to feel completely comfortable with her as America's first lady. Folks are still struggling to understand her (and to define her) because she is so unlike any other Black woman on the national and international stage. One "tired" and superficial way of managing this is by focusing on her appearance.
If Michelle were overweight and outwardly insecure about her Negritude (ala Oprah Winfrey), America would likely embrace her more affectionately as our own. She would be heralded as our national Mammy. Yes, she would still get some digs; but the scrutiny of her appearance wouldn't be nearly as great. We've seen mammies before and we are comfortable with them. Instead, we don't quite know what to do with Michelle Obama. The problem is that she does not confirm the WASP woman as an ideal -- neither by fitting into the stereotype of the loud, overweight black woman nor by being the good, middle-class Negress who conforms to the norms of white women.
The issue with Michelle Obama is that she is not only comfortable with her body, but she also seems to like it. Michelle dresses to accentuate a body that she is obviously proud of. Her clothing is cut to show off toned arms, shapely legs and womanly hips. She wears bold colors that complement her dark skin and make her stand out in a crowd. She favors designers who are American but who are not necessarily designing for a white elite. From the beginning, it has been clear that Michelle Obama asks herself two questions when she gets dressed: What do I like? and What looks good on me?
Our first lady doesn't wear dowdy pantsuits to cover her hips or mid-section. She doesn't don black, brown or grey ensembles to facilitate her disappearance into the background. She passes up non-threatening pastels. She doesn't seem to concern herself with what others might be wearing. She seems to give a damn about what others might find proper.
A recent Women's Wear Daily article criticized Michelle Obama for not patronizing the major American designers. The author deemed her unpatriotic: "Save for a recent digression to Michael Kors, Obama continues to show zero interest in the big guns of American fashion, those whose names resonate around the world, and who collectively employ thousands of people." If you consider the style and advertising of the "big guns," it should not be surprising that Obama isn't flocking to them. Designers such as Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Oscar De La Renta and even Carolina Herrera have centered their aesthetic on a WASP ideal. (The biggest irony has always been that none of those major designers are even remotely Anglo-Saxon or protestant.) Their preferred base of consumers is located within eight or nine blocks on the upper-East side of New York City. Other than stylized conformity, what do they have to offer our first lady?
The truth is that Michelle Obama isn't particularly daring in her fashion choices. If you move past the colors, prints, and independent labels, her clothing is actually conservative. Thus, her preference for J.Crew. The hemlines are low and the cuts are classic. Stylistically, the comparison to Jackie O. is more than fair.
While Michelle Obama clearly owns her own image and makes her own choices (for better or for worse), observers are quick to credit fashionista Ikram Goldman with the first lady's style. Of course, our worldly, educated first lady has no means of knowing on her own about designers like Watanabe, Alaia, Thakoon and Toledo. The thought seems to be that she is, after all, only a black girl from the south-side of Chicago. One writer argues in response to a New York Times blog posting, "It is oddly , and you guys will go up in arms when I say this, as though everyone knows better what this unsophisticated (in the fashion sense of sophistry) woman of color should do and wear. The CFDA and it’s senior members feel it’s their domain to teach Michelle the ropes. You never heard them doing the same with the other non women of color who inhabited the White House. There was a bit of nagging Hillary to clean herself up, but nothing to this degree. It smacks of a very insidious form of racism." Another writes, "This idea that THEY know best and Mrs. O can’t figure this out on her own is silly. The attitude underlying this is a general one about BLACK WOMEN in the fashion industry (note, I didn’t say women of color)."
I have always said that racism is about the power to define and to other. The focus on Michelle Obama's appearance is a last ditch effort on the part of some to assert power over her, to sum up her worthiness on the basis of her looks. It is taboo to openly talk about her race, so they resort to focusing on the loud colors, the "big Butt," the "massive arms," etc. Give it up folks! It's not working. Michelle Obama and millions of other black women around the world could give a damn about what you think. Your norms are not ours. It is your problem if you can't engage us based on what is in our minds rather than what is on our behinds. What is unfortunate is that the more Obama resists the criticism, the greater the efforts will be to tear her down. Her appearance should not be on her list of battles.