Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Is It Wrong to Talk About Michelle Obama's Body? By Tamura Lomax, RH Reality Check.

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 onto 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?

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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