07/02/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Bad, Mad Michelle

"She Bad! She's Black! And she's angry!"

Does this sound like an ad for one of those 70s blacksploitation movies where dark-skinned chicks in big Afros went around kicking male butt?

Maybe. But it's how a lot of people these days are trying to represent Michelle Obama. It's rather like the plot of The Hulk, but with different hues. The Princeton-educated, flowered-frock-wearing mommy of two suddenly turns into a distaff black version of Stokely, Huey, Che and Willie Horton, spelling doom for Whitey, the US of A and the capitalist system.

An email has been circulating on the web purporting to dissect Michelle's senior thesis at Princeton, in which she wrote thoughtfully about straddling two worlds -- one of the privileged Ivy Leaguer and the other of the South Side of Chicago, where she grew up. "My experiences at Princeton have made me far more aware of my 'blackness' than ever before," she wrote, and went on to ask, "Does immersion in an elite white institution draw black people away from their community?"

You'd think she was channeling Huey Newton, the way some on the right responded. Sean Hannity of Fox News claimed that Michelle had written that "blacks must join in solidarity -- the belief that blacks must join in solidarity to combat a white oppressor."

But in fact, Michelle wasn't expressing her own opinions at all. She was describing how some black students felt at Princeton in the 70s, and their reactions to the Black Power movement.

It's interesting to note that when Bill Clinton ran for president in 1992, critics went back to try to dig up Hillary Clinton's Wellesley thesis, an examination of the tactics of the legendary community organizer Saul Alinsky. (The White house asked Wellesley to embargo the paper in 1993, and the college complied. It was un-embargoed in 2001. )

You'd think Hillary had penned an updated version of the Communist Manifesto, the way some on the right responded to what they were sure was in the paper. She was called a Marxist, A socialist, a radical, and un-American. In fact, a Boston Globe assessment found the thesis nuanced, and said that "While [Rodham] defends Alinsky, she is also dispassionate, disappointed, and amused by his divisive methods and dogmatic ideology."

(There's this strange paranoia on the far right that the Ivy Leagues are just chock full of kids plotting to deliver the republic to some sinister foreign entity, be it the Trilateral Commission, the Elders of Zion, the Commies or maybe these days, Osama bin Laden. )

Michelle Obama offers to the right a pair of stereotypical images that go far back in history: the Scary Black and the Scary Woman. Barack Obama is so cool, laid back and, some say, so "elite" that it's hard to Willie Hortonize him. What's he going to do, mug you and take away your arugula?

So Michelle becomes the surrogate for the scary black.

Conservative columnist Mychal Massie wrote:

"Compared to the eloquent grace of Jackie Kennedy, Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush and yes, even Rosalynn Carter, she portrays herself as just another angry black harridan who spits in the face of the nation that made her rich, famous and prestigious. The dichotomy and depth of loathing is stunning."

And a Michelle Malkin column was titled: "Obama's biggest general election liability: His bitter half."

Fox News depicted her fist "dap" with her husband the night he won the nomination as a "terrorist fist jab" and the conservative National Review depicted Michelle Obama with an angry scowl on its cover, calling her "Mrs. Grievance."

There was even a malicious -- and untrue -- rumor that Michelle had given a speech in her church in which she had used the word "whitey."

In the other half of the "scary" equation, Michelle Obama embodies female -- rather than black -- power. The myth of feminine evil holds that female power is unnatural, dangerous, perilous to public order and frightening to men. The Scary Woman dates far back into history, to the notion of women as witches, channeling unearthly powers, and to the legend of Medusa, with a hairdo of snakes and a steely glare that kills men on the spot.

In fact, a contributor to the right wing website Newsbusters invoked both of those images in referring to Michelle.

"Her eyes say it all... remind me of an angry snake... if that witch makes it to the WH(God forbid) you can bet your bippy we are going to have a co-president..she wears the pants in that family."

The same sort of stereotypes were applied to Hllary Clinton. In the course of her public life, Hillary has been called, in print, Lady Macbeth, the Wicked Witch of the East, a harridan, a virago and The Yuppie Wife from Hell, to name just a few. Recently, She was compared to Glen Close as the murderous career woman in Fatal Attraction -- by an NPR political editor no less.

Even Elizabeth Dole, once a darling of the press, seemed to morph into a harridan when she decided to run for president in 1980. Before she ran, it was hard to find an article that didn't present Dole as accomplished, capable, and charming. Suddenly, seeking high office, Liddy Dole was described as over-ambitious, chilly and nasty under the "syrupy" Southern accent. Here's Time describing her with her staff: "If a staff member is lax, the unlucky individual gets the LOOK -- set jaw, icy stare -- and is frozen out." (The Medusa stare again?)

Will these moss-laden stereotypes work against Michelle Obama? Not if her performance on The View was any indication. She was charming, funny, decked out in a fetching black-and-white flowered dress, and chatted just like any proud mom about her two kids. She's also submitted her favorite cookie recipe to womens' magazines -- shortbread with a twist of lemon.

What is this American obsession with cookies? Hillary Clinton got in trouble over it and Cindy McCain caused a stir by presenting a cookie recipe that seemed to be cribbed from a Hershey's website. Would the Republic collapse if a woman candidate for president or first lady said, "Yeah, I open the mix, pour in some water and stick them in the oven"?

When that day comes, maybe we will retire the stereotypes about women and power to the dustbin of history. For now, however, they bloom like the darling buds of summer.

Boston University journalism professor Caryl Rivers is the author of Selling Anxiety: How the News Media Scare Women (University Press of New England.)

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