indigo + cypress

The Michelle Obama Factor: The Media, Myths, and Black Women

By Mary Annaise Heglar

(Originally Published in Clutch Magazine; posted below with edits from the author)

In the past four years, you’ve probably learned a lot about black women. We are eternally single but we refuse to marry outside of our race. We are fat and proud, but we’re also considered the least attractive. And, even though our wild curly hair is not attractive, we are still obsessed with it—and boy, do we spend a lot on it!

As a black woman, I learned a lot about myself that I didn’t know. And I didn’t know it because it wasn’t true. I did know, however, that not a single one of these publications, websites, blogs, or think tanks had been at all concerned about black women four years ago. But suddenly they were about as fascinated with us as a puppy with a slab of bacon.

What changed though? Well, the answer is simple. While we have been here for centuries, we’d never been in the White House before. And the 2008 election gave us our first black president and first lady.

Michelle Obama’s presence in the White House is very different from Barack’s. His multiracial identity, while complicated, does not involve a history of kidnapping, rape, and forced servitude. Rather, it involves consensual intermarriage. Michelle, on the other hand, is the descendant of slaves. Her family history is one that America knows all too well and wants so desperately to forget. In his famous speech on race, “A More Perfect Union,” Barack tellingly drew on Michelle’s background—not his own.

As French  writer, Bernard-Henri Lévy, said during the 2008 election, “Obama is, certainly, black. “But not black like Jesse Jackson; not black like Al Sharpton; not black like the blacks born in Alabama or in Tennessee and who, when they appear, bring out in Americans the memories of slavery, lynchings and the Ku Klux Klan — no; a black from Africa; a black descending not from a slave but from a Kenyan; a black who, consequently, has the incomparable merit of not reminding middle America of the shameful pages of its history.”

Michelle has no such merit. Yet, two generations ago, she would have been “The Help,” but now she is Jackie Kennedy. Her very being challenges every myth about black women—we are fat, ugly, angry, stupid, and (now) single. Michelle is slender, a health nut, poised, smart, and happily married.

The Washington Post was perhaps the least subtle of all the news outlets that were hot on black women’s trails. In the midst of their “Black Women in America” series, they released a statement on why they chose this topic. They mentioned Dick Cheney’s 2004 statement regarding AIDS and black women and the sheer mass of data mined from their own survey of black women. Really? Cheney’s well-echoed and anything-but-original statement didn’t spark interest until six years later? Also, their survey was conducted in 2011—when black women were already a hot media commodity.

In between those two factors, the Post stated the election of Barack Obama and the attention paid to Michelle Obama. They could have began and ended the list right there.

Michelle has undone centuries of terrible PR and outright lies. She single-handedly brought successful, well-rounded black women out of the shadows. No longer the invisible women, they now meet with the Queen of England and hula hoop on the White House lawn. She is the First Lady, the face of American womanhood to the rest of the world.

And this is different from Condoleezza Rice, who also broke glass ceilings within full view of the nation and the globe. Black people embrace Michelle, but they saw Condi as a race traitor. Further while Condi had authority, she was at least perceived to have been used as a token and a mask for the Republican Party and the Bush Administration. Michelle is the partner to the leader of the free world, much in the vein of 1990’s Hillary Clinton.

Unlike Hillary, though, Michelle’s  time in the White House has been marked by an unprecedented show of disrespect—unparalleled by any other First Lady’s tenure. A Congressman mocked her “large posterior” to a constituent and a Washington, D.C. cop has threatened to shoot her on sight. Toy makers have even made replicas of her daughters that show anything but a resemblance. And she is still haunted by the shadow of the angry black woman every time she shows a spine or an opinion. The nation’s hostility toward black women is determined to die a slow death.

Michelle is a walking contradiction. And, since they cannot look away, the media launched a full-on investigation into black women’s lives. How could it be that they’d had this demographic wrong all along? Were black women more like Michelle, or more like Tami Roman?

At the end of their probe, what did they find? Well, in January the Washington Post conceded that black women are just… complicated. All they had to do was ask us.

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5 thoughts on “The Michelle Obama Factor: The Media, Myths, and Black Women

  1. Mary and Camille, you’re inspiring. You know what you want and you’re doing it. It’s beautiful to see.

  2. richard murray on said:

    your article is informative, but I wonder your prediction, or at least insight into possibility? If President Obama losses the coming election, and Michelle Obama is now a first lady, what will the media do to her? Will they simply stop the chatter about her? Or, will it increase? What are your ideas.

    • Hey Richard,
      Thank you for reading! I think that’s a very interesting question but I am not very certain of my predictions.I think that Michelle is likely to remain a celebrity in her own right for quite some time. I think she is in the vein of those First Ladies who have captivated and perplexed the American and international audience in a way that she will be hard to let go of. Similar First Ladies have been Jackie Kennedy, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Hillary Clinton. The media really never let those ladies out of their sight. And I think that is dialed up to 11 given the barriers that Michelle has broken.

      I certainly believe that she and her children will always be darlings among black media outlets. And I think within that circuit and within feminist outlets, there is a real hunger to hear Michelle’s own, unadulterated, unedited opinions. You can only be so candid when you are the First Lady. So I think there is a real hunger for a tell-all book or interviews with no-holding-back.

      So I think the fascination with her will live forever, the scrutiny will ratchet up for the next few years and then may simmer but will never dissipate. I honestly can’t be sure, and I am both excited and nervous to find out.

      What do you think?

      • Richard Murray on said:

        I think many Black invested, if not necessarily owned, media outlets will focus on her indefinitely. I am not a fan of biographies so I haven’t read her husband’s book but she seems more distanced from the public display of family secrets, from my vision. I think the Black community is always on a knife, albeit quietly and untelevised.

        I think if a negative assault occurs toward her it will be proof of the continuity of problems that Black women and more over Black people face when involved in certain social realms within the USA. The best thing she has going for her is that she isn’t a young angela davis.

  3. Richard Murray on said:

    oh, and thanks for writing 🙂

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