Pride and Prejudice: Discussing Michelle Obama’s Body

Tamura Lomax

If Michelle Obama's body makes us proud, why not shape our enthusiasm with a critique of the status quo, which continues to treat her as an object by fragmenting her to her parts?

The
recent cacophonous chorus surrounding Michelle Obama’s derriere is undeniably
troubling.  Yet, to be quite honest, it
is also strangely gratifying to me. 

I
recently read Salon’s feature piece "First Lady
Got Back
."  Taken aback by the
implicit oxymoron between the words, "First Lady" and "Got Back," I sat for
hours pondering all that this cluster of words signified.  For instance, what does it mean to place "first
lady," which designates a "respectable" social position, with "Got Back," a
sexist epithet coined by rapper, Sir Mix-a-Lot, in his hot song, "Baby Got Back," in the early
90’s?  And, what does it mean to inscribe
these words on to the body of our very first African American First Lady? 

The
deployment of both "lady" and "back"
can be viewed as problematic.  First,
discourses about mythologized "ladies" didn’t initially include black
women.  A "lady" was a woman or wife who
innately possessed such virtues as delicacy, piety, beauty, politeness and
gentleness.  Black women, who were not
seen as "ladies," "women" or wives, were historically not privy to such
designation.  Historically speaking, this
was a term reserved for white women.  And
let me just say upfront, this was not necessarily a compliment.  As I understand it, "lady" was just as
imprisoning as the more derogatory terms used for black female slaves–just in
a different way.

Secondly,
there is a long history of discourses regarding harmfully reductive views of
black women’s "backs."  Black women have
been pathologized and objectified because of their "backs," which, by the way,
come in all shapes and sizes just like those of other men and women.  Sir Mix-a-Lot’s hit song, "Baby Got Back," was only
the tip of the iceberg.  The cultural
chorus regarding black women’s bodies, particularly their fragmented backside,
had been singing for centuries.  Sir
Mix-a-Lot simply joined in.  Or did he?

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To
be sure, the mass production of "Baby Got Back" via radio and television took
ongoing essentialist discourses about black female hyper-sexuality to new
dimensions.  The constant reproduction of
the gyrating images became a source of social studies on black female
sexuality.  This was obviously deeply
problematic.  However, as stereotypically
reductive as this song and video was, in its own way, it also celebrated black
women’s bodies.  Sure, this so-called
celebration reproduced every stereotype about black female sexuality
possible.  And, by fetishizing black
women’s privates, reduced them to mere objects, namely their butts.  This was absolutely damaging.  However, it also did something else.  Through the process of representation (via
video imaging), which presented black women’s butts as evidence of
stereotypical difference (regarding black female sexuality), many black women,
including myself, strangely found a sense of pride in our bodies, specifically
our butts.  Thus, while Sir Mix-a-Lot
(and others) reassigned mythical legacies to our behinds, some black women were
re-imagining themselves as subjects with beautiful bodies.

However,
it is important to realize that this was not everyone’s experience.  Nor was it likely the experience of those
like Sir Mix-a-Lot who commodified black women’s bodies for his own use and
enjoyment.  Nor is it likely the
experience of many of those who have
joined in the chorus regarding Michelle Obama’s butt.  Deployment of terms such as "lady" and
"back," without some sort of critical analysis is irresponsible at best,
particularly in reference to black women. 
Even if Obama’s butt makes us beam with pride every time her beautiful
body sashays center stage, we cannot ignore the effects of the obvious
"blackening" of the already historically
brimming noun, "lady," when placed together in a title like "First Lady
Got Back."  There are serious
implications to consider here, namely the pathologization of our first African
American "First Lady." 

In
short, if we are not more careful in our utilization of language and not more
forthright in our criticisms of the language of others, we run the risk of
reinforcing historical ideals of black female sexual savagery at the highest
level.  This is very dangerous.  So, if Michelle Obama’s body makes us proud,
why not shape our enthusiasm with a critique of the status quo, which continues
to treat her as an object by fragmenting her to her parts? Obama is a
subject–more than a body, and, more than a butt.  Inscribing her with words without carefully
evaluating their operation first is
beyond distressing.  It is death
dealing.  Not just to her, but to all
women.

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