Remember when First Lady Michelle Obama told People magazine that if she could trade places with anyone, it would be Beyonce? Yeah. Turns out that wasn’t just a fun little pull-quote from a puff piece to promote her new cookbook. A few commentators were rankled by it, citing the Beyonce’s revealing sartorial choices, risque song lyrics, and suggestive dance moves as reasons Obama shouldn’t be so quick to play Trading Places with the pop diva.
In the quote that made the rounds when the story broke, the First Lady was rather specific in stating that it was Beyonce’s singing ability she admired:
“Gosh. If I had some gift, I’d be Beyoncé, I’d be some great singer. The power of music, being able to play an instrument…It looks like musicians just have the most fun.”
It seems clear there that she gave Beyonce’s name as a familiar cultural reference. She immediately follows with, “some great singer.” The rest of her comment isn’t specific to Beyonce; it’s about the musical ability she wishes she had.
Still, the comparison bothered Keli Goff of Loop 21, and she insisted she wasn’t the only one, going on to cite her relatives and online commenters to support her view, before writing:
The widespread disappointment in the First Lady’s response appears to be threefold. First off, Beyonce, is pretty, talented, rich and famous, and to top it all off she seems like one of the nicest celebrities on the planet. She is also best known, not for her singing, but for wearing as little clothing as possible while doing it. And as successful as she may be, like many black entertainers before her, she pursued her career at the expense of pursuing an education, and I don’t mean college. She never graduated from high school or earned her GED; a topic of discussion that crops up on message boards when she misspeaks in interviews, which, unfortunately, is not an uncommon occurrence.
She later expounds:
So when the most influential black woman in the world, armed with degrees from some of the best institutions in the world, names Beyonce, a singer best known for a song called “Bootylicious,” as someone she aspires to be, how can we expect young black girls who didn’t go to Princeton to aspire to more than that?
Goff isn’t alone in her disappointment. In an article for The Root, Demetria L. Lucas also takes issue with the First Lady’s comment:
For a woman of Michelle Obama’s caliber to uplift Beyoncé as a role model, and to speak of swapping lives with her, sends a damaging, demeaning and dangerous message to women and girls. It says that despite education and intellect, grace and power, what really matters is our looks, our willingness to submit and our ability to swivel our hips to sexually satisfy the opposite sex. We hear that message loud and clear every time a reality show airs. We don’t need to hear it from our first lady, too.
Without examining too much of what each writer has to say about why Beyonce is an unfit celebrity for Michelle Obama to want to trade places with, I’d like to point out that each piece assumes that the majority of African American girls look to one or both of these women as the sole or primary arbiters of what they should become. To make arguments like these, you’d have to take for granted anyone else who may have a stronger, more hands-on, consistent influence on the life of an impressionable girl. Like her mom, her aunt, her favorite teacher or principal. You’d have to believe that none of them will look at Obama’s original quote and take it for what it actually was: a casual, offhanded comment about how she wishes she could sing like Beyonce.
Not to minimize either woman’s social influence, but I don’t think many girls who already admired Michelle Obama’s accomplishments and wanted to be like her will now automatically and without thought or qualification, decide they’d rather make their living shakin’ it in a sequined House of Dereon frock for millions instead–and vice versa. I doubt any girl who already wanted to be the next Beyonce will look to the First Lady’s comment to back up her choice.
What do you think? Could the First Lady’s comparison really have such serious fall-out? Or are commentators reading a little too deeply into things?