The XX Factor

As “Angry Black Woman,” Michelle Obama’s Image Comes Full-Circle

On today’s broadcast of CBS This Morning, Michelle Obama contested the portrayal of her behavior as first lady that’s presented in a new book by New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor. According to the Times political blog, Kantor suggests in the book that Obama’s strong opinions and tendency to share them have caused tension within the administration.

Mrs. Obama brushed aside anecdotes from the book telling of friction between her and two former aides, Rahm Emanuel, then the president’s chief of staff, and Robert Gibbs, the former press secretary. (According to the book, she was irritated when Mr. Emanuel put an event in Florida on her schedule without consulting her staff, and Mr. Gibbs blew up during a discussion of his handling of a French book that claimed she had compared living in the White House to hell.)

In her interview with CBS’s Gayle King, Obama rejected the notion that she was a troublemaker, pointing out that since her husband announced his run for office, many in the media have tried to present her as “some angry black woman.” She also noted that she and her supposed enemies are actually “good friends.”  

While I haven’t read Kantor’s book yet, I find it striking that Obama chose to invoke the stereotypical image of the “angry black woman” in discussing her treatment. The racist caricature of the strong black woman who talks too much and emasculates her husband—what some scholars call the “Sapphire” figure—seems to be precisely what is in play here. Furthermore, first ladies are not expected to have a voice very distinct from that of their husband’s, and that restriction places Obama under additional scrutiny.

But, then again, Michelle Obama is no stranger to this kind of characterization. Back at the beginning of Barack’s campaign, her credentials as a successful lawyer and community organizer with an impressive educational pedigree were similarly viewed with suspicion; and comments she made on even semi-serious political topics were called into question. Salon’s Erin Aubry Kaplan captured the mood toward Michelle in June of 2008:

It was established early that while Barack was striving for the middle ground, trying to strike a balance between strength and inoffensiveness, Michelle was the loose cannon who didn’t bother to hide her identity or racial concerns. In the matter of blackness, she was the id to his superego.

Very quickly, political pressures forced the soon-to-be first lady to silence the cannons almost entirely and instead perform the far more palatable script of wife, mother, and domestic goddess expected of her office. Rebecca Traister locates the beginning of this “mommification” precisely at the moment that the only other tough, outspoken woman involved in the presidential contest left the spotlight:

But the day that Hillary Clinton dropped out of the race, the bar for conversation about Michelle dropped precipitously. Suddenly Fox News was calling her “Obama’s baby mama,” and Michelle was on “The View,” jawing about her bargain dress and pantyhose, breakfast foods and childcare. It was back to cookie-recipe land, the antiquated universe from which she has not since escaped. 

And so it seems we’ve been in cookie-recipe land—or perhaps, more accurately, vegetable garden meadow—ever since. But now, with Kantor’s book, the specter of the “angry black woman” is back, but this time her alleged meddling has been going on behind the scenes. 

While I understand the pressures and exigencies of an election year, I hope that Michelle Obama will not allow herself to be muffled this time around. It would be absurd to think that with her experience and intelligence, the first lady would not be a fine sounding board, adviser, and confidant for the president. Far from being a liability, Michelle’s admirable constitution actually strengthens her husband’s case for a second term; in times like these, we need as many smart—and indeed, passionately angry—people in the White House as we can get.