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Michelle, Beyoncé and the Fruitless Politics of Respectability | The Nation

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Mychal Denzel Smith

Mychal Denzel Smith

All the blackness that’s fit to print. And some that isn’t. 

Michelle, Beyoncé and the Fruitless Politics of Respectability


Beyonce performs during the half-time show of the NFL Super Bowl XLVII football game in New Orleans, Louisiana, February 3, 2013. Reuters/Mike Segar

As a non-Beyoncé fan, even I have to admit that her halftime show at the Super Bowl was spectacular. It’s a grand stage built for grand performances, and if there was any doubt before this, she left none after that she is indeed the pre-eminent pop star of her generation. But all some people could see was a sex machine.

Kathryn Jean Lopez, writing for the National Review Online’s blog, was very concerned about Beyoncé’s performance. Lopez wants to know: “Why can’t we have a national entertainment moment that does not include a mother gyrating in a black teddy?” Because over the course of a thirteen-minute display of pyrotechnics, choreography, holograms and ten-piece all-female band, the only thing that really happened was a woman stood on stage shaking her ass, right?

Lopez found the display gratuitous, saying it was “no surprise that men made comments about stripper poles and putting dollar bills through their TV sets.” Instead of condemning those men for making such sexist remarks, it’s Beyoncé’s fault for eliciting that response.

What Beyoncé did was own her sexuality, for herself and no one else, in a public space—and it freaked some people out. Whether you think Beyoncé was “self-objectifying” is a question of whether it’s possible for a woman to publicly embrace her sexuality without being defined by the hetero-male gaze. As a hetero-male, I hope I’m not speaking out of turn when I say: Not everything is about us. In fact, most things aren’t, we just pretend they are so we can feel good about ourselves.

But Lopez seems most disappointed not in Beyoncé, but in the first lady. After the performance Michelle Obama sent out a tweet praising Beyoncé, saying the singer was “phenomenal” and that she was “proud of her.” For Lopez, the first lady’s open adulation for Beyoncé sends the wrong message, as Beyoncé is a role model in some respects but, according to Lopez, an “example of cultural surrender, rather than leadership” in others. Keli Goff advanced a similar argument last year after Michelle Obama told People magazine that if she could be anyone in the world it would be Beyoncé. Goff worried what message that could be sending to the young black girls who look up to the first lady.

First, we have to get over the idea that we can choose for our young people who is and is not a role model. They will identify with whom and what speaks to them directly and helps them make sense of the world on their own. The role of the adults in their lives is to be sure they’re exposed to as many ideas and ways of thinking as possible.

Second, Obama’s embrace of Beyoncé is somehow seen as tarnishing Beyoncé’s own image, but even more so, that of the first lady. In the American consciousness, particularly for conservatives, the first lady should be the embodiment of all the puritanical implications of the latter part of her title. This precludes her from being sexual in any way—even if it’s only vicariously through a famous pop star. When she falls short of those ideals, someone will always be there to publicly admonish her for it.

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The assumption underlying both Lopez’s and Goff’s outcries is that by associating with what they consider less than desirable elements, Obama invites criticism on herself. It’s a long-standing idea among groups traditionally discriminated against in this country that if they present themselves as above reproach—twice or three times as worthy of praise—those in power will have no choice but to see and accept them as fully human productive members of society. It’s a politics of respectability that puts the onus of ending discrimination on those who experience the discrimination, through individual action and responsibility.

But that just doesn’t work. As a black woman, the first lady will come up against many forms of racist and sexist discrimination that replicate themselves in the way she is discussed and critiqued in public. Her accomplishments don’t protect her from these attacks; in fact, the attacks are intensified precisely because of what she has achieved. This is how systems of oppression work, and it's how they'll continue to work until those who benefit from them disavow them and the privilege that is bestowed upon them. No matter the first lady’s actions, they won’t cure racism and sexism.

Lopez says, “I so want the Obamas to be leaders on building a culture of marriage and fatherhood and human dignity.” As public figures, the Obamas already represent all of those things, as do Beyoncé and her husband. But if you’re determined to find a way to blame people for their own marginalization, you will.

Dave Zirin writes about a much less entertaining spectacle at the Super Bowl—the power outage—and what it says about economic inequality in this country.

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