EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is part of The Nation’s special issue on Barack Obama’s presidency, available in full here.
“Was I too loud or too angry or too emasculating? Or was I too soft, too much of a mom, not enough of a career woman?”
—Michelle Obama, to a crowd of black college graduates at Tuskegee University in 2015
Many of us remember the New Yorker cover from 2008: A cartoon Michelle Obama fist-bumping her turban-clad husband, her hair in an Afro. She was drawn as a militant figure in combat boots and a black shirt, a machine gun slung over her shoulder. This cover illustrated the fear and racism that the soon-to-be first lady confronted on the campaign trail in 2008. While Michelle Obama was initially maligned for being too radical, too aggressive, or, as I interpreted it, too strong, she has since become one of the most popular figures in American politics. In a Gallup poll this past August, she enjoyed a 64 percent approval rating, significantly higher than either spouse featured in the 2016 presidential campaign. (Michelle polled higher on average than Hillary Clinton did as first lady, though, notably, lower than both Laura and Barbara Bush.)
How has Michelle Obama stayed popular when so many Americans consider being political and black controversial? Over the last decade, she has transformed her image from one meeting the harshest stereotypes of black women into one that has broad appeal. She has assembled a public face that inspires deep emotions in women across America, while remaining particularly important for black women.
At the heart of my own feelings about Michelle Obama is the tension between respectability and the authentic representation of self. This push-and-pull defines many black women in the public sphere—yet none have struck a balance between them under more scrutiny and to greater effect than the first lady.
Respectability emanates from the portraits of her seemingly perfect family, her (mostly) uncontroversial initiatives, her beautiful clothing, her hair “laid like the Indian Ocean”—all curated in a way that allows her to navigate the politics of a nation that still hasn’t dealt with its racist history, institutions, and expectations. It is power via assimilation.
Representation, in turn, lives in the moments when she pulls back the curtains of comfort and respectability and reveals a political, social, and economic truth that we all experience as black women. When she speaks as a career woman who combatted racism to make it through school; when she talks about the life prospects of young black girls in inner-city Chicago; when she draws on her personal story, Michelle Obama strikes a nerve that resonates with my own experience and that of many others. These aren’t the moments that make her politically popular with two-thirds of Americans. These are moments made possible by her respectability.