Is Michelle Obama Being Treated Like A Modern Day Sarah Bartmann?


Last night, Larry King devoted most of his show to Michelle Obama. Not her accomplishments, her appearance. (Related: She wears shoes!) We asked Racialicious’ Latoya Peterson to weigh in on this strange, seemingly widespread obsession.

First, Erin Aubry Kaplan wrote about Michelle Obama’s booty for Salon, in an article titled “First Lady Got Back.” Kaplan then penned another article analyzing Michelle’s hair choices, asking “Are we moving toward a black hair moment?” And somewhere along the line, Michelle’s arms – blessed by NY Times OpEd columnist David Brooks as “thunder and lightning” – became a matter of great importance, sparking a wave of commentary about the appropriateness of a first lady who (ahem) bears arms. The countless articles about her complexion [I plead guilty. -Ed.] (and what that said about Barack’s character/race loyalty) added to the mix of the insanity, culminating in a piece dedicated to her “angry” eyebrows.

I’ve been watching this literary dissection take place since 2008 and have still remained with the same question – why does there seem to be an incessant need to give every physical aspect of Michelle’s body the once-over?

Pondering why Michelle continues to be reduced to the sum of her parts reminded me of yet another black woman who was demeaned in the same way: Sarah Bartmann.

Saartjie* “Sarah” Bartmann was one of the Khoikohi people, from what is now South Africa. After being enslaved, her masters decided that certain aspects of her anatomy would be a feature attraction. Bartmann was featured in Europe as “The Hottentot Venus.” Marissa Meltzer summarizes in the Salon review of Rachel Holmes’ African Queen: The Real Life of Hottentot Venus:

They marketed her as a kind of “scantily clad totem goddess,” the Hottentot Venus, sex incarnate. Hottentots, what European traders called the native Khoisan for the clicking sound of their language, “signified all that was strange, disturbing, alien, and possibly, sexually deviant.” She was objectified in the most literal sense, put on display in front of gaping crowds six days a week, doing suggestive “native” dancing and playing African instruments.

Upon Bartmann’s death, her genitals, brain, and skeleton were removed and kept on public display.

In Patricia Hill Collins’ Black Feminist Thought, he analyzes the idea of malleability as it relates to the image of Bartmann:

A prominent White male scholar who has done much to challenge scientific racism apparently felt few qualms at using a slide of Sarah Bartmann as part of his PowerPoint presentation. Leaving her image on screen for several minutes with a panel of speakers that included Black women seated on stage in front of the slide, this scholar told jokes about the seeming sexual interests of White voyeurs of the nineteenth century. He seemed incapable of grasping how his own twentieth-century use of this image as well as his invitation that audience members become voyeurs along with him, reinscribed Sarah Bartmann as an “object…a mallebale ‘thing'” upon which he projected his own agenda. (p. 142)

While Collins framed her critique of Bartmann’s image in the context of pornography, the idea of malleability can be applied to Michelle Obama’s public persona.

Is the reason to keep dicing Michelle up into smaller and smaller pieces to impose some sort of control, or to make her image more palatable? Currently, the approval rating for Michelle Obama is higher than that of her husband; but this was not always so. During the 2008 election, much was made of Michelle’s attitude, her “angry blackness,” to the point where some wondered publicly if she was more of a hindrence or a help to Obama’s campaign.

Now that Michelle is sufficiently examined, presented in small, manageable bites for consumption, some can function, the threat has been as the threat has neutralized. We’ve broken Michelle down, piece by piece – now, we can go back to talking about important things… like the first lady’s sartorial choices.

*I use the term Sarah here. Salon reports that author Rachel Holmes, author of ‘African Queen: the Real Life of the Hottentot Venus,’ notes, “Saartjie (pronounced “Saar-key,” meaning “little Sara”) might not even be the name she was born with, calling the -tjie diminutive suffix a “racist speech act.” In light of this, I chose to use the English version.

Racialicious [Official Site]
Michelle Mania! [CNN]

First Lady Got Back [Salon]
The Michelle Obama Hair Challenge [Salon]
Should Michelle Cover Up? [New York Times]
Dark And Lovely, Michelle [The Root]
Do Michelle Obama’s Eyebrows Look Less Angry Lately? [Glamour]
Venus Abused [Salon]
Black Feminist Thought [Powells]

Earlier: Michelle Obama Is Not A Lighter Shade Of “Trophy” Wife

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