Michelle Obama, Selfies, and Historical Stereotypes about Black Women

British Prime Minister David Cameron, Danish Prime Minister Hell Thorning Schmidt, and President Barack Obama take a group selfie at Nelson Mandela's memorial. The anger the media projected on Michelle Obama in this photo is rooted in old stereotypes about black femininity.

British Prime Minister David Cameron, Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, and President Barack Obama take a group selfie at Nelson Mandela’s memorial. The anger the media projected on Michelle Obama in this photo is rooted in old stereotypes about black femininity.

Nelson Mandela’s memorial ceremony was held in South Africa this week, and leaders and dignitaries from all over the world made sure to descend on Johannesburg to pay their respects to the civil rights icon. Among those at the memorial service for the first black South African president was Barack Obama, the first black American president (sorry Bubba, you have to relinquish that title). But of course, anyone whose been to any type of memorial ceremony, not least one the size and scale of the Mandela fête, knows that things can get kind of dull. Alas, world leaders are as human as anyone else (though sometimes less so) and they get bored like the rest of us. Hence, President Obama took some time out from the long, drawn-out mourning/celebration to clown around with British PM David Cameron and Danish PM Helle Thorning-Schmidt in a manner that exemplifies the contemporary narcissistic age: they took a group selfie.

A photographer captured the world leaders’ selfie and his images became mildly infamous, raising questions over whether such behavior was appropriate at a funeral. Even more controversy, however, arose from First Lady Michelle Obama’s apparently stern countenance as she cast a steely gaze off into the distance while President Obama and the Europeans goofed around with a cell phone. As Roxane Gay notes in an a perceptive article for Salon, the press quickly assumed that Michelle Obama was angry at her husband’s behavior. “The media,” Gay notes, “have reacted, trying to frame Michelle Obama as ‘angry’ or ‘disapproving’ when maybe she wasn’t even paying attention to her husband being silly with his world leader friends.”

Indeed, the Washington Post claimed that “the First Lady looks stern,” while the New York Daily News reported that Michelle Obama “sat at a distance, as if in disapproval of the digital display.” The fact that the First Lady was apparently not angry at all hasn’t dissuaded the media from playing into an old narrative of Michelle Obama as a standard “angry black woman.”

Gay identifies the “angry black woman” stereotype as the underlying theme driving this otherwise non-story about world leader funeral selfies. “More than anything,” Gay writes, “the response to these latest images of Michelle Obama speaks volumes about the expectations placed on black women in the public eye and how a black women’s default emotional state is perceived as angry…She never gets to simply be.” Indeed, the “angry black woman” idea in American culture is a powerful stereotype that’s deeply rooted in the 19th century and the legacy of slavery. The idea that black women are perpetually angry, aggressive, loud, and strong-willed in the most obnoxious ways is a cultural construction stemming from historical circumstances in which black women found themselves at the bottom of American social power structures for generations.

In her book Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America, political scientist and MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry notes how black women’s historical experiences in America, framed through the prisms of racism, slavery,  Jim Crow, segregation, and patriarchal dominance created a “specific citizenship imperative for African American women – a role and image to which they are expected to conform.” Harris-Perry calls this image “the strong black women.” It’s an image characterized by self-sacrifice, devotion to husbands and children, a dedication to endless hard work, and a seeming imperviousness in the face of trials and tribulations.* As Harris-Perry notes, the “strong black woman” image doesn’t consult black women about how they are, rather, it’s a social construct that has allowed American society to define black women in ways that society thinks they are.

Michelle Obama looks angry in this photograph, which, of course, means that she is angry!

Michelle Obama looks angry in this photograph, which, of course, means that she is angry!

Although many elements of the “strong black woman” idea are, on their face, positive attributes, such as motherly devotion and courage in the face of adversity, when this ideal has been externally projected onto African-American women, it’s been warped to embody perceived negative aspects of black female strength, especially black women’s supposed unmitigable anger. This stereotype is an inversion of ostensibly positive virtues because it frames black women’s confidence and assertiveness in the face of domination as evidence of irrational anger. As Harris-Perry writes, “by its idealized description, black women are motivated hard-working breadwinners” whose “irrepressible spirit is unbroken by the legacy of oppression, poverty, and rejection.” Thus, black women who embrace the “strong” identity can imbue it with positive characteristics. When wielded by external sources, however, as in the case with the Michelle Obama selfie snafu, the “strong black woman” often transforms into an irrational “angry black woman” whose anger must be publicly pointed out and critiqued.*

The idea that black women are perpetually angry stems from the 19th century and African-American women’s experiences under slavery. Historian Thavolia Glymph notes, for example, that white mistresses in plantation households characterized black female slaves as “obstinate, self-willed, cross, and dirty” in order to deny the fact that female slaves were not just being “angry black women” but were, in fact, engaging in rebellious behavior that challenged the “civilizing” expectations of the southern slave system.*

“By the late antebellum [pre-Civil War] period,” Glymph writes, the idea that black women were vessels of disorder and filth had become central to southern pro-slavery ideology.”* When female slaves refused to work, when they shouted at or spat on their mistresses, and when they beat their mistresses physically, white slaveholders characterized them as refusing to be “better girl[s].” In the eyes of white slaveholders, black female slaves were merely “angry black women,” not strong-willed individuals resisting the slave system. Framing female slaves’ behavior as merely “angry” or “cross” allowed whites to believe that it wasn’t the system of slavery that was wrong, it was merely black women who were wrong by refusing to conform to that system.

The idea of the obstinate, “angry black woman” survived slavery’s demise and surfaced throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries whenever black women took it upon themselves to assume more public roles and assert their equal rights. This stereotype has legs because it taps into deeply uncomfortable and historically debated notions about what constitutes American social and civic identity. The American system of racial prejudice has, unfortunately, played a major role in every major debate about equal rights and American citizenship over the decades, particularly the debate over black women’s identities as U.S. citizens.

African American women who resisted this system in the 19th century were, according to slaveholders, just "angry."

African-American women who resisted this system in the 19th century were, according to slaveholders, just “angry.”

Even with historical advances like the abolition of slavery and the expansion of equal rights following the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, stereotypes about black Americans in general, and black women in particular, have proven difficult to dispel. Deeply engrained ideas pertaining to the nature of African-American women have yet to be fully banished from public discourse, just as similar stereotypes about black men as shiftless, criminal, and crude continue to shape debate in contemporary society.

The persistence of the “angry black woman” idea is attested to by the fact that no black woman, even one with a law degree from Harvard who’s married to the President of the United States, can escape such a labeling. Of course, the various media outlets thought they were having some light-hearted fun by depicting Michelle Obama as being “angry” over her husband’s funeral selfie. But the fact that the “angry black woman”  stereotype is so universally recognized as to constitute the foundation of a joke speaks to its staying power and deep resonance in American culture. Michelle Obama might just as well be called “strong,” but then, that would be more of a positive than a negative description. Media outlets looking to poke fun at the “angry” First Lady are likely unaware that such a characterization invokes the legacy of slavery, racial inequality, and vastly unequal power structures that have so often been at the heart of African-American women’s experiences, and therein lies the problem.

* See Melissa Harris-Perry, Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), 21, 184.

* See Thavolia Glymph, Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 64-66.

2 responses to “Michelle Obama, Selfies, and Historical Stereotypes about Black Women

  1. I’ve been living outside if the States for over 10 years now and I sometimes forget how race relations are there. But I always find a reminder soon enough. Nice work.

  2. Well, I like to say that when it comes to American history, everything is about race, and even when stuff isn’t about race, Americans will find a way to make it about race. Thanks for the read!

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