What Michelle Obama's Muscular Biceps Reveal About Race in America

A few days ago, Maureen Dowd disclosed some revealing opinions from fellow Times columnist David Brooks about Michelle Obama’s arms. But is this really the way to save the New York Times?

Since publication of Dowd's op-ed, which included Brooks' suggestion that Ms. Obama should “put away Thunder and Lightning,” the blogosphere latched onto the story like a pack of pitbulls, terming the whole affair "Sleevegate."

To me, the fixation on Michelle Obama’s arms is the equivalent of Southern hospitality—saying one thing when you mean another. For a country whose baby boomers grew up seeing black women in popular culture as either racial militants or hyper-sexualized bodies, the extensive conversation on Michelle Obama’s fashion choices poorly masks the ideological anxieties surrounding the country’s first African-American first lady. In a "post-multicultural" world, Sleevegate should stand as a useful reminder of just how distorted conversations on gender and race still are in public discourse.

It begins with Dowd’s defense of Michelle Obama’s bared arms:

"Let’s face it: The only bracing symbol of American strength right now is the image of Michelle Obama’s sculpted biceps. Her husband urges bold action, but it is Michelle who looks as though she could easily wind up and punch out Rush Limbaugh, Bernie Madoff and all the corporate creeps who ripped off America."

Dowd shoots back at Brooks’ arm-phobia with a solid strike grazing Limbaugh and Madoff and in the process and initiating a whole pile of defenses provoked by the Sleevegate fallout.

Meanwhile, over at the Huffington Post, Bonnie Fuller defended Michelle Obama as a female “superhero” ready to take on Brooks’ right-leaning critical gaze with "because if there's one thing this country needs right now besides a strong and principled president instituting change, it's a superhero, and the non-sexist American public will take a female one."


Her colleague across the room Keli Goff called out “the fashion elephant in the room in any discussion of Michelle Obama's wardrobe choices: namely that she's not only tall and muscular, but she's a tall, muscular, brown-skinned black woman.”

Finally, somebody said it.

Michelle Obama is a brown-skinned black woman, and all these discussions of her muscular arms, her sleeveless fashion choices, her superhero status, her “vanity and power,” and her “thunder and lightning” enter a euphemistic lexicon of phrases and words used to repress any realistic discussion of race. The irony of course is that the obsessive discourse surrounding Michelle Obama’s fashion choices only points directly to lingering cultural anxieties regarding her race and gender as the lens through which we view her unprecedented role in American history.   

It’s worth looking at Maureen Dowd’s closing remarks on the case of Michelle Obama’s arms:

"Her arms, and her complete confidence in her skin, are a reminder that Americans can do anything if they put their minds to it."

Is Dowd’s last-minute reference to Michelle’s “confidence in her skin” an intentionally ambiguous acknowledgement of the first lady's racial identity? Does the tendency for media to avoid the issue of race undermine the possibility of a realistic discussion of issues that matter? And what would happen if Michelle Obama’s arms--or Dowd's for that matter--were disentangled from euphemism—what would that reveal about our culture?

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