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

by Mary Annaïse Heglar

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? 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. While she has multiracial roots as well, 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.

Two generations ago, Michelle 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.

Between those two factors, the Post stated the election of Barack Obama and the attention paid to Michelle Obama. They could have begun 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 Condi was a single woman who had “authority,” but was ultimately a puppet. Michelle is the partner to the leader of the free world, much in the vein of 1990s 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 Tami Roman?

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

  • http://www.aol.com Shandy

    What a great article and so true. I do not take any of these stories that have been in the mainstream press about black women seriously. Where has the interest in our lives been before Michelle. There have been no stories about missing black women, our health, our success in education, our business leaders and our day to day lives. It is patronising and they are nearly all negative, as if trying to say that Michelle is the exception you will never have a life like hers.

  • http://gravatar.com/nubiahbella Nubiahbella

    Just for information, Barack’s Father was from Kenya and people there have been raped, forced to servitude, stripped of their culture and humanity it was called colonialism.

  • Anansa

    Please don’t use the Essence Music Festival and the creatures who cheered for Tami as a barometer for the masses.

  • http://www.aol.com Shandy

    Theo I think you miss the point. Tami and Michelle have nothing in common. Tami has built a “career” based on an image producers want to sell. Michelle is a lawyer, mother and First Lady an image that the mainstream press rarely want to show of black women and never thought they would see. Most Black women look up to Michelle most look down on Tami and her fellow Basketball “wives”.

  • Ms. Information

    Great article…..I agree…we are all being thrown in this homogeneous pot of grits….there is motive behind it…they want to break us down….I have never seen any race of women come under this much scrutiny…why do they care so much?

  • Bump Mediocrity

    In reference to Michelle Obama I believe the mere presence of her is a threat to the culture of power.

    The mere fact that Barack gives Michelle the utmost respect; that he truly sees her as his equal is quite threatening to the American establishment. The plethora of articles on the “dire straights” of the black woman are written to keep the balance of power in check. After all. They can’t have us ALL thinking that we can be Michelle Obama. We can’t have black men loving, respecting black women, having healthy black babies and raising healthy black families. Cause truth be told: White people hate that. They don’t like being left out of anybody’s equation because they’re control freaks.

    There is a need for the culture of power to feel emotionally validated by our statistics. Hence the articles. It’s their comfort; their social security and a prerequisite for their self-esteem.

    Sisters. Know how America works. America makes its dollars off of toxic dysfunction, chaos, drama, and scandal. And the Obamas are as clean as a whistle. *Crosses Fingers it stays that way*And for the first time in American HIstory a First Lady has it all: style, grace, intelligence, compassion, smarts, sex appeal…its crazy.

    Michelle Obama truly is a total package.

  • TickTock

    I am so glad to see this article! Thanks for writing it. :)

  • my_reply

    This is a great article! People don’t know what to do when there is a black woman who is not a mammy, or a Sapphire, or a Jezebel. Look at all the black women that America likes. They all fall into the stereotypes. Beyonce and Rihanna gyrating on the stage are okay. They’re jezebels. Overweight black actresses get plenty of work alongside their slim non-black costars because America likes that they are mammies. Shows like Basketball Wives and Love and Hip Hop are being created left and right because those women are Sapphires. When was the last time you saw a fit, darker skinned black woman, who was feminine and pleasant on a Network TV show with a big part on the show? How many others are there like her?

    Look at Michelle Obama and Oprah. They didn’t fit into the mammy/Sapphire/Jezebel stereotype. It made people nervous. They waited and waited for them to slip up and show their “true colors.” As soon as one of these women slips up and shows some emotion and gets rightfully angry, something they would excuse or find feisty in a white woman, they were quick to use against Michelle. The conservatives call her an angry black woman. You know you’ve made it in life when get called an angry black woman. That’s the stereotype that they’ve created for fit black women with careers and self respect. They can’t say congratulations you’ve overcome a lot of things. They still have to hold you back by labeling you an angry black woman. They wait for you to get rightfully angry and label you that. America didn’t know what to do with Michelle Obama. They still try to make her seem catty. Remember that book a couple of months ago? They called her fat because she’s got hips. They called her overbearing saying that she was always in the way and influencing poor Barack. America loves these articles about black women. They’re supposed to put us in our place. Also Americans are race obsessed and obssesed with vanity. Insulting a black woman and especially about her appearance is sure to draw in readers for page clicks.

  • FunkyHairChic

    Very well-written piece! I couldn’t be prouder of the Obamas! This is what our community needs to see and read about. Thank you for sharing!

  • isolde3

    @Heglar

    Condi Rice was a puppet, but Michelle Obama isn’t? Oh wow, aren’t we reaching? Michelle Obama tows the party line for her husband just like everyone else on POTUS’ staff and cabinet. Her appearances, platforms, media requests, etc., are all vetted through the White House. FLOTUS is only autonomous in her choice of platforms as long as those causes do not negatively affect her husband’s approval rating. No matter what qualms I may have with Rice, calling her a puppet because she isn’t the boss’ wife does Rice a disservice. There’s no need to disrespect Rice in a piece such as this to uplift Michelle Obama.

  • http://www.aol.com Shandy

    Truly you speak the truth and have written a great comment.

  • http://www.facebook.com/dalwhitmore Dalilah Whitmore

    Theo,

    To find something entertaining and to support them are two totally different things. Does everyone who watches Johnny Knoxville support or identify with that buffoonery? I am one of the African-American women in the age range you spoke of and I can say though I watch Basketball Wives occasionally it is not because I like any of them. It is purely for entertainment purposes, the same reason I watch any tv show or movie. Nor can I say I identify with any of them beyond being a woman and being black.

  • Child, Please

    “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.”

    Here’s where I disagree. Just as many people feel the negative stereotypes portrayed on television aren’t an accurate representation of all black women, I don’t think one woman living in the White House can change the media’s outlook overnight let alone three or four years. I get why black women are so quick to praise Mrs. Obama, but let’s be real. Her existence in the White House – no different than Condolezza Rice – only heightened the criticism black women receive on a daily basis. I personally wish the conversation around the first lady would have stayed on her intellect rather her figure, but leave it to the public to politicize the female body.

  • Renee

    This was a great article. I was thinking about this very topic the other day. Why is it over the past 4 years there has been an intense focus on every aspect of black women’s lives? I have seen the headlines and read most of the stories. From our dating, supposedly low marriage rates, black women not finding a man, black women being unattractive, the behavior of black women, and more the obsession is mind boggling to me. No other race is dissected to such an extreme like black people. This has always been the case in American history. Everyone is an expert and has an opinion on blacks as if we are a monolithic group that is so easy to generalized. Even predominately black blog sites, newspapers, and magazines have taken on the phenomenon of trying to figure out the complicated existence of black women. I’ve grown tired of it and basically tune it out altogether. It is sickening and all I can do is shake my head. Black women and our existence is no different from any other race of women and their problems. Yet ours is magnify and often misrepresented to fulfill yet another ugly stereotype about black women.

  • Chic with LaShic

    My exact thoughts!

  • Melissa Jenkins

    Black womean complain on blogs all they want. The problem is that we did not complain in the media. Had we been complaining about the negative press about black women 4 years ago there would not have been so much! For so called “strong black women” we lay down and take a lot.

  • TickTock

    To digress slightly, I think the saddest thing about this phenomenon is that some men and women (of our own) have begun to believe it. If you go to Youtube, you will see that the majority of the “Don’t date black women”/Black women this, Black women that”, you will see that next to none of them are dated before 2008 (or 2007, when the Obamas began campaigning).

    When I was in highschool 4 years ago, I remember there being guys (and for that matter, girls) who had preferences for other races, which is fine. What I don’t remember is the outright bashing of black women specifically. That’s because it didn’t exist (to this degree).

    Like I said above, great article, and I hope this reaches as many people as it can. We can reverse this, as long as we keep in mind that this is not an “accident”, this is a concentrated effort to keep Black people, and Black women specifically in a neat, non-threatening box.

  • S.

    Best comment I’ve read on Clutch, hands down.

  • S.

    I only disagree with you about Oprah.

    Oprah got rich off of being a “mammy” to middle age White women who need their self-esteem validated by a (seemingly) asexual Black woman. Oprah spent her whole career caring more about White women and their children and they paid her for it

  • S.

    I disagreed with that too

    Plus, whenever there’s a Black person who doesn’t fit the typical Black stereotype they get automatically put in the “exception” box. I’m sure many non-Black people view Michelle Obama that way

  • A.

    While PART of this article was the truth, why is it that in the past 10 years, stories involving black women told by black women harp on being raped in slavery? Espcially when trying to broach a “serious” topic. Add in lynchings with that.

    No really, I’d like an answer if anyone can. Because this angle seems to be pimped out the most by black women unfamiliar with their family histories beyond great grandparents, and no ACTUAL accounts of anyone that they can point to who were the products of rape, or were raped themselves. I know for SURE most of ya’ll can’t even point to a grandparent who knew someone who was lynched. So why are so many of ya’ll sitting these topics as perpetual victims?

    My guess is that so many of ya’ll DON’T have any real familial history to point to, or just learned some “black history” in a freshman college course and use these examples as a poor method to “amp up” the level of discussion. I don’t see Korean chicks going on and on about how their women were abused during war. I don’t see Latina chicks going on and on about the near extinction of of some of their people.

  • Ravi

    I concur. too easy to make certain individuals exceptions while leaving prejudices and stereotypes largely intact.

  • Ravi

    the rape of slave women was so pervasive and systemic that anyone with any slave ancestry is quite likely to be a product of such rapes to some extent. The estimates I have seen place the amount of European admixture of the average African-American at between 15% and 25%.

    You are correct that most people, not all, don’t have knowledge of their own family history, but that shouldn’t matter. I don’t think anyone is really claiming to have personal or first-hand knowledge of rapes and lynching, for the most part. I think the point is that the legacy of these interactions and of white supremacy more generally is still alive today. I do see Koreans as well as Chinese women complaining about the historical oppression and rape at the hands of Japanese. I also have a great many Latina friends that do go on and on about the butchering of their people at the hands of Europeans. i guess what you hear is shaped by who you are exposed to.

  • comment

    This article, your comment and some of the others are so on point. Many of us have been making these correlations for years, it’s so obvious that the attack on black women began right after Michelle O took her seat as first lady. That was a major spark of the black woman empowerment movement building up steam.

    One thing I love about black women is that we don’t lay back and allow ourselves to get stomped on, we fight back.

  • http://gravatar.com/nolakiss16 binks

    +1 But the powers that be doesn’t want us to realize how much power we hold and how much we are truly worth in the grand scheme of things not just as black women but as black individuals in general.

  • http://flavors.me/ivywriter Kellea Tibbs

    This is a great article, very well written. I hope Michelle gets to see this. We also need to make sure Michelle Obama is being discussed in Women’s Studies and African American Studies programs across America. When I was in undergrad in the 90s, I took a class called the Black Woman. If Michelle Obama had been the First Lady then, I could only imagine what our discussions would have been like. Fascinating!

  • Ms. Information

    +1

  • Ms. Information

    Yes!

  • edub

    I disagree as well. Michelle represents only HERSELF. To me, it reeks of desperation to see black women hitch their wagon to Michelle Obama as if she, alone, can change the perception of black women. I completely get why we are so enamored with her–this lady has it going on! However, it is completely disingenuous to project her wonderfulness on er’body else. That is delusional. Without a doubt she is inspiring but she, in no way, can be generalized to black women as a whole. She represents a particular black woman–herself only.

  • comment

    IMO a lot of reality TV featuring angry & proud black women is a part of the attack on black women as a whole. If you’ll notice, most of these shows really started picking up in popularity right around the time obama was elected.

    I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen black people, particular black men, complain about how reality TV is making ALL black women look bad. No, only to the small minded folks who can’t seem to grasp that there are different types of black women out there.

    Mob wives, baseball wives and the housewives of NJ/OC/NY act just as “ghetto” and catty as any of the black shows, but folks don’t give them the same grief or associate their behavior with ALL white folks.

  • simplyme

    I think the point is that there ARE many other Black women out there that are either just like her or are young women on their way to becoming mini Michelle Obama’s ( maybe not on the 1st lady scale). These women are completely invisible. Always considered the “exception”. Ivy League grads, in law school, med school, in stable relationships, women who are healthy, emotionally stable etc. Of course these women exist across the country and the truth is that Michelle is just one of them. One that made it to the White House and now serves as both a representation of some women already existing and an inspiration to all women.

  • simplyme

    @anon Have you been to racialicious.com?. A great site with people of ALL backgrounds discussing race. You may be surprised.

    I also joined a Latino org in college (I was interested in a Spanish Language program at the time) and I will tell you that quite a few talks centered around how the Spanish raped pillaged etc the indigenous people and what that means for their identity and culture today.

    This is what tends to happen when people have an intellectual conversation about a group. They try to understand the current status of said group in the context of their history as a people. This is not a male vs. female issue or an Asian vs Latino vs Black issue. Its just the truth and its had a profound impact on African American history….specifically in this context on the status of Black women and the Black family. So why did that one sentence in the article bother you so much…??

  • edub

    By invisible, do you mean not being adored by white people for everything BUT their intelligence? For all of Michelle’s accomplishments she’s be minimized to what she wears or the circumference of her biceps. I hardly think that is what the slew of professional and accomplished black women want out of life. Invisible, to me, is a relative term. Of all of the accomplished black women I know, I have NEVER heard them claim to be invisible–quite the opposite, actually. But then again, they are not waiting around for an handout of esteem from patronizing white people who will jump at the chance to minimize their relevance.

  • http://Attractionseeker.com Bunmi

    So true! I always felt that as soon as Michelle became a predominant woman in the press, they wanted to attack her and any black woman or girl thinking they can aspire to have all that she has. A great career, family, husband, and joy. I know plenty of Michelles, and they can not be placed into a box.

  • my_reply

    @comment – I have to disagree with you about the impact that shows like Basketball Wives and Love and Hip Hop have on our image. These are just about the only representations of black women on television. Like I said. When was the last time you saw a pretty fit, feminine, and pleasant brown or black skinned woman on a network television show? The difference is that for every Theresa on Real Housewives of New Jersey flipping tables, there are probably five white women on TV being feminine and nice. For every fit and feminine black woman on TV, there are probably three ratchet black women out there on TV. I’m basically saying that white women acting stupid doesn’t hurt their image because the majority of white women shown on TV are pretty and feminine. There are a lot of ratchet white women on TV for sure, but right now, the majority of them are fit, pretty, and feminine. The majority of black women shown on TV are overweight, loud, overbearing, argumentative, or on Maury. The pleasant, pretty, and fit women of negroid ancestry look more like Rashida Jones.

    I agree that people should be smart enough to separate reality TV from reality, but it does hurt our image.

  • Sue

    Thank you for this! It was not until recently that I really understood what colonialism did to my motherland. People were put in “camps” in deplorable conditions, some worked for settlers for a pittance, they were instructed to follow the new ways of the master and lost their culture and identity. Young men were shipped of to fight in the world wars, some never came back and the british gov’t did not even inform their families what happened to them. In Kenya in particular, it is estimated that hundreds of thousands were killed in the resistance movement. This part of history seems forgotten and it’s effects have wrought havoc in Africa over the years.
    Incidentally, the british gov’t is only now acknowledging that atrocities took place, 50 years on:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-18874040

  • Sue

    I think it’s a great article. Condi may not be liked by some people, however I also thought calling her a “puppet” was not quite right. At the very least she is an accomplished academic who probably had to overcome many challenges to get where she is today.

    Michelle Obama may be towing the party line but I do admire how she supports her husband. They really do seem to have each other’s back. Being in the public eye cannot be easy especially for someone who was unaccustomed to it before. She is a great role model IMO.

  • http://twitter.com/shethrives11 SheThrives!

    As a proud member of the Michelle Obama fan club, I loved this article, but I also cringed at the following statement:

    “Black people embrace Michelle, but they saw Condi as a race traitor. Further Condi was a single woman who had “authority,” but was ultimately a puppet.”

    Condoleezza Rice held one of the most powerful positions in the U.S. Cabinet for 4 years. No other Black woman has held the Secretary of State position in history and she did not garner her power in the government by marrying the right man. Regardless of your political views on her former supervisor George W. Bush (or those of any one who chooses to respond), please don’t disrespect her by calling her a “puppet”. You don’t know her, what her position entailed, or how hard she has worked to get to where she is. I hate it when black women throw other black woman under the bus just to make a point.

  • JC

    Do you really think it is that systematic though? I mean I have noticed that some people get emotional validation from knowing that other people are disadvantaged. But do you really believe that it is that coordinate? I think it is just ignorance so pervasive that it seems coordinated.

  • Jess

    OMG, Bump Mediocrity – ypur comment alone just brought me back to Clutch Mag. I thought I was done because I felt that so many of the articles were taking on a negative spin towards Black women, but at least there are still commentors like you who have sense!

    GREAT post! in 100% agreement and couldn’t have said it better myself.

  • Mary Annaise Heglar

    Thank you for your feedback! After reading your comment and the others upthread who spoke to the same sentiment and re-reading the article, I agree that “puppet” was too harsh of a word to describe Condoleeza Rice. What I was trying to get at was that I think she was treated as a token by the Bush administration—but I also think she worked very hard to get where she was/is and that she deserved all the success she got/has. I should have made that clearer because now I see that it came across as an attack on Condi’s achievements and her work ethic. As a fellow Birmingham native (not to mention black woman), I am in the dual position of deeply disagreeing with her while also being very proud of her. Clearly, I let my disagreement with her speak too strongly in this part of the article. I’m sorry for that. If I repost this elsewhere, I will remember this as I revise it.

    Thanks to you and others for all the feedback. Unfortunately, I can’t respond to all comments since I have a day job, lol. All the comments here have informed my thinking for the future. I really do appreciate it.

  • Nikki

    Spoken by someone who has never been a college freshman. In order to learn even the smallest amount of Black History in college you have to sign up for a class about it. It isn’t something a freshman at any college in the nation will just pick up.

  • Barbara

    True. Being asexual made Oprah non-threatning to White females’ self esteem of feeling superior.

  • http://commentarybyvalentina.wordpress.com Val

    I have to strongly disagree with the author of this post when she states that all of these studies and stories in the media about Black women are a new phenomena. Whites have been “studying” us for centuries as a way to ‘other’ us and to reenforce our supposed inferiority.

    These same kinds of articles that are in the Washington Post and other media outlets are just the latest in a long history of such. In the 1960′s there was a report called The Negro Family: The Case For National Action by Daniel Patrick Moynihan. And you can go on and on back through history to find these sorts of things about us. I bet one could find thousands of these sorts of studies/ articles without even looking very hard.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Negro_Family:_The_Case_For_National_Action

  • bk_betty

    Uuuuummmmm, I don’t know if the author knows anything about Kenyan history, but kidnapping, rape, mutilation and forced labor ALL happen in Kenya also. It is understandable that Barak wouldn’t want to bring all that up in his public speeches, but please don’t get it twisted. Obviously he wasn’t raised with/ by his father but as a black person growing up in the USA, there is no escaping the weight that inherently comes with color. I agree that people don’t know what to do with Michelle bc she is FIERCE, real and multi-dimensional. That is not an image of black women that America is used to. There is a clear national anxiety about black femininity with Michelle as First Lady.

  • http://www.facebook.com/gwen.kelly.9 Gwen Kelly

    Great comments!

  • http://www.facebook.com/gwen.kelly.9 Gwen Kelly

    Having sometimes thought out loud of Condi being more left of center, your comments are totally on point. Thank you for posting.

  • http://www.facebook.com/myaccessiblelife Deborah (@myaccesiblelife)

    here here, raising my glass on this comment.

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  • felicia

    We are all different and they refuse to recognize it. They want to only white women postive representation. We are all americans at the end of the day its not all about white people. Michelle has been in the office for four more years. So theyll just have to get comfortable seeing her. Our get your bags and move out of American

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