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.
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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A guide to making difficult conversations possible—and peaceful—in an increasingly polarized nation.
- How can we reach out to people on the other side of the divide? Get to know the other person as a human being before you get to know them as a set of tribal political beliefs, says Sarah Ruger. Don't launch straight into the difficult topics—connect on a more basic level first.
- To bond, use icebreakers backed by neuroscience and psychology: Share a meal, watch some comedy, see awe-inspiring art, go on a tough hike together—sharing tribulation helps break down some of the mental barriers we have between us. Then, get down to talking, putting your humanity before your ideology.
- The Charles Koch Foundation is committed to understanding what drives intolerance and the best ways to cure it. The foundation supports interdisciplinary research to overcome intolerance, new models for peaceful interactions, and experiments that can heal fractured communities. For more information, visit charleskochfoundation.org/courageous-collaborations.
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