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.


Val said...

"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. "

wtf??? My first time stopping by your blog and I have to stop right here. How insulting. Not just your usage of the term "Mammy" but of Oprah. Call her what you want but Oprah has consistently supported minorities financially and otherwise throughout the years and is a strong advocate for children, rape victims etc.

Zora said...

Respectfully, the on-going project of the Oprah Winfrey show is to affirm the lives of middle-class and elite white women -- their aesthetic, their norms, their culture, their problems... This is what Mammies do.
Oprah regularly talks about hating her nose and her hair. In an interview with Diane Sawyer some time ago, she confessed that she wished that she were white. This isn't a criticism, it is a fact. For this, Oprah has become hugely successful.
None of this negates the good work that Oprah has accomplished (that is not the subject of this post). If you think critically about the role of Mammies in American society and in popular culture, however, you will see that the title of mammy fits.
It was tremendously revealing when Oprah began to actively support the Obamas, particularly against Hillary Clinton. A huge part of her fan base expressed feelings of betrayal. (did you read any of this?) Oprah herself was shocked that her fans were so upset that she would chose to support a black man over Miz Hilry.
Even if Oprah does not see herself as a Mammy, a significant portion of her fans relate to her as such.

Val said...

Zora - it's her show. She can do whatever she likes. The question is what does she do when no one is looking.

Take the opportunity to look at what she has done for the black community, for children, women and rape victims.

As a woman - I could care less about the color of someone's skin. I have many "sisters" not all of them black like me. That is a good thing.

Now that I know where you are, I will continue to stop by to see what's on your mind and hopefully will learn a few things along the way.

gordon gartrelle said...

Outstanding piece, Zora.

I agree that if Mrs. Obama were heavier, the interest in her appearance and fashion wouldn’t be as great (though the right would be even more fixated on her supposed unattractiveness), but several different Americas are responding to Mrs. Obama’s image in various ways.

The fashion elite and mainstream media representatives have markedly different responses to Mrs. Obama, though both groups are comprised mostly of wealthy, connected whites. Because the former seeks to cultivate elite status by distancing itself from the masses and the latter courts mass appeal by trying to connect to the everyday woman, the two groups have competing views of Mrs. Obama’s style.

Despite these differences, I don’t think that either group desires a mammy.

Fashion elites don’t want a mammy; they want a thin white woman who shares their fashion sense. They wish they had a Nicole Kidman to play out their heroin addict Barbie doll fantasies. Mrs. Obama’s blackness offends them, but what offends them even more is her curvy physique and her insistence on shopping off the rack.

The mainstream media folks aren’t criticizing Mrs. Obama’s style, however; they’re embracing it. Their bizarre, retrograde discourse that paints Mrs. Obama, a brilliant career woman AND dedicated mother, as little more than “the Mom in Chief” slash “fashion icon” is borne of something entirely different.

I think this is their way to avoid the reality you describe so eloquently: their inability to understand someone who doesn’t fit their preconceived notions of black womanhood. Instead of learning something, instead of complicating their narratives, they revert to their old ones about elegant white women—they just try, awkwardly, to squeeze Mrs. Obama into the lead role. This has the added bonus of making themselves feel good because they think themselves as colorblind enough see a black woman as “the new Jackie O.”

Anonymous said...

Thank you. This is my first time reading your blog, but I ABSOLUTELY love it. And, thanks for setting record straight when the white GIRL thought she could stand up to an informed Black woman. People who know so little about their own history will get it wrong every time. Enough on that one.

MO is out-of-box, and they don't have the tools to put her back. Trust me, MO, like most Black girls who read magazine or see other Black women in church every Sunday knows what she is doing. Trust me!!! Almost any Black woman who has some fashion sense could rock in what MO is wearing - pencil skirt, double strand pearls, etc. MO is teaching in her every move, people better get out pens and pads and take notes!!

Paul said...

Fascinating analysis, Zora! Do you think there's some chance Michelle Obama will become a role model for people of all pigment persuasions? I can imagine her having a very positive impact.

Flower gyrl said...

I really appreciate your take on the media and fashion world's treatment of the First Lady. As a feminist Latina I am definitely loving having such an incredible role model. I was also brought up in a working-class Midwestern family, so I think her rise to the White House speaks to many kinds of Americans on many levels.

Anonymous said...

I discovered your blog via a link from a New York Times article, and want to assure you that there are plenty of white women like me, who think Michelle Obama is fabulous -- for so many reasons, not just her clothes. Her clothes, her style, her comfort in her own body, however, are absolutely terrific. I love that she is not embracing the big-name designers, that she is looking for the new, the different, the designers on their way up. I don't want her called "the new Jackie O" -- because we had one of those. Now we have a woman who dresses for herself and is willing to take risks that not everyone will agree with. I don't always like her choices, but I love that she is out there embracing other looks.

Will she become a role model for people of all pigment persuasions, as your last poster, Paul, asked? I can't imagine otherwise. She (and the president, too) is a role model for ANY kid in a middle-class family who wants to do well, go to college, make a difference. If that's out-of-the box (going back to what Anonymous said), then that's a box we can get rid of.

She's rocking the world, and lots of us white folks think it's about darn time the world is paying attention! Go, Michelle!

Vee (Scratch) said...

Zora, great post.
I'm not worried about Michelle Obama because I'm sure she can handle it, I'm just wondering how the Obama daughters will percieve the constant scrutiny and criticisms.

Peep Related Post with Quick and Cheesy Sketch:

Anonymous said...

Dear Zora,

I think that it is interesting how people are reacting to the term "mammy." That seems to provoke more reaction than the objectification of Michelle Obama.

It is funny how people want the fact of the Obamas in the White House to erase all of our social and cultural history. Obama was not elected by the majority of Americans but by the majority of voters (most Americans don't vote).

I am a white woman and I celebrate the Obamas on several levels. However, this doesn't negate the fact that many of people still have serious racial hang-ups. We have a lot of work to do as a society.

A lot of the reactions to your piece seem to be very personal. But that is what your blog is about, right? Your point is to provoke discussion.


Zora said...

Hey Folks,

Thanks for all of the comments -- good and bad. Anonymous is correct in assuming that a lot of our writing is intended to provoke discussion. We are questioning what it means to be respectable, to be black, to be middle-class, to be white, etc.

Taken out of the context of the entire blog, I can see how some might be offended by what I wrote. My intention is to engage and not to alienate. Still, I stand by what I wrote.

The reactions have gotten me thinking about writing something on mammy figures and what they mean to us as Americans. I am sure that I will inevitably offend even more readers. Feel free to express your discontent.


Kyra said...

followed a link on Crooks & Liars and love this article. I posted on Huff Post in response to a truly nasty article about Mrs. Obama's clothing choices for this trip. I think her clothes are fabulous and absolutely right for her. As a 50+ white woman who although a newly minted professional type, I had a previous career as a wardrobe consultant and I always tried to get women to appreciate who they were and dress to suit their own figure, not some rule book somewhere. We all have butts and boobs and bellies (some of us more than others!) and need to stand up a culture that has Barbie as a role model.

Ms.Zindzi said...

BRILLIANT! Absolutely Brilliant. Like many of the other commentors, this is my first time visiting your blog but I must say I am very impressed. I LOVE What I have read here. I am somewhat speechless, not sure what to say in regards to this post because, YES, it was that good. I loved it, you hit the name right on the head, I LOVE IT! :-D

I will defo add you to 'Ms★Zindzi's Favourite Clix' on my blog.


Nichelle said...

Oprah regularly talks about hating her nose and her hair. In an interview with Diane Sawyer some time ago, she confessed that she wished that she were white. This isn't a criticism, it is a fact.

I think those are some very serious charges to just casually throw out there. Oprah actually confessed that she wished she were white? She said those words? When? The way Oprah is criticized and scrutinized for every little thing she does, I can't imagine that such a statement wouldn't have gone viral (via video for example) in a heartbeat. Where are the links to the Diane Sawyer interview? When did Oprah tell Diane Sawyer that she "wished she were white?"

It's one thing for Oprah or any black adult (especially raised in 1950s Mississippi like Oprah) to relay stories of wanting to be white when they were a kid. But your phrasing makes it seem like Oprah said she wished she were white as an adult and I just find that hard to believe.

Also, she "regularly talks about hating her nose and her hair." Since when? I haven't had a chance to watch her show as much in the last year or so, but I have followed Oprah for years and such blatant statements would stand out to me - so I am curious about when/where you heard her say these things.

I agree that a lot of people are pissed off that they can't "Aunt Jemima-ize" Michelle Obama (as in place her in the box they have designated and are comfortable with for black women) but as for the "mammy" archetype Oprah is saddled with - she (or any heavy black woman) can't win with that. Any heavy black woman in any situation that appeals to white people in any way will be called a "mammy." And if she loses weight, she will be accused of being insecure and the same people who flung out "mammy" will say "why wasn't she happy with herself in the first place?"

It is a no-win situation, so at the end of the day the Oprah Winfreys, the Michelle Obamas - and the rest of us - will have to just be true to ourselves and do what works best for us.

Unknown said...

This analysis is so dead on. Michelle Obama is an anomaly to white folks, and it is too hard to figure out what to do with her. They can't stereotype her, so they try to find other things to be concerned with. Things that are for the most part irrelevant.

Sean Smith said...

I really enjoyed this piece as well -- in fact, just looking around this blog and its plainly apparent that the writers here are very intelligent and very well read. This blog will be bookmarked for sure. I just wanted to follow up to Nichelle's comment -- the Oprah 'I wish I were white' thing was something that immediately jumped out to me, and it's a claim that I would love to see corroborated. Nichelle's right -- I mean its a huge difference between 'I wished I was white', and 'I wish I was white'. 'I wish I was white' is something I really, honestly doubt Oprah said, but it would certainly be illuminating if I were to be proved wrong. I looked it up on Google with the keywords 'Oprah winfrey diane sawyer I wish I was white' and there were no results that applied to this claim. Otherwise a very good post that I enjoyed

Anonymous said...

Don't listen to them ZO your comments about Hoprah were SPOT ON!! She is a phony and hypocrite who caters to her lily white audience like she was in Gone with the Wind. And frankly that whole 'done so much' for the black community seems highly exaggerated by her people. You should have SEEN the way she cowtowed to white women is her cult I mean audience who were pissed she wouldn't have Sarah Palin on. She had the nerve to do a show for Rhianna yet MOST if not all of the shows she does focuses on stories about white women. I very rarely if EVER see do shows about black women but she is right there when it's Natalie Holloway or Jonbenet.