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

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?

This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.

BepiColombo

Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash
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Lunar surface

Credit: Helen_f via AdobeStock
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