Like an overwhelming majority of Americans I am a Michelle Obama fan.
For anyone reading this who just said to himself, "Well I'm not one so how dare you say an 'overwhelming majority' of us are," I have a newsflash for you: You're very much in the minority. According to a recent poll the first lady is the most popular political figure of any party and any gender in the country right now. She's so popular in fact, that if things are looking really tight in the fall the president may want to consider asking the vice president to step aside in order to make room on the ticket for his Mrs.
As I have made clear before, I don't consider a presidential ticket featuring the first lady that far fetched, a sentiment that has previously gotten me into a bit of hot water. When I wrote a column titled "8 Reasons Michelle Obama Would Make a Better Presidential Candidate than her Husband," I found out the hard way that President Obama's most diehard fans can be a rather touchy bunch, particularly when it comes to outlining potential Democratic competition for him -- even when it's his own wife. (For the record, I did say "presidential candidate" not "president," something the most outraged critics of the column seemed to miss, even though it was expressed clearly in the title of the piece, but I digress.)
Perhaps it will come as a relief then to some of those diehard fans of the president who felt so threatened by the inference that his wife might be less of a liability on the campaign trail than he is, that she, not he, just made one of the 2012 campaign's more noteworthy blunders. (Click here to see the 2012 campaign's worst gaffes to date.)
In an interview with People magazine to promote her new gardening book, when asked if she could be anyone in the world, the first lady replied "Beyonce."
While I thought it was a slightly odd response, (after all, I couldn't picture Hillary Clinton saying, "Lady Gaga" or "Madonna") I assumed that maybe I was simply being too square. I then shared the article featuring her response with a family member and African-American friend, both of whom are fans of the first lady, and another friend who is not African-American but is a die-hard Beyonce fan. Without sharing my own thoughts first, I asked for theirs. They all reacted with varying degrees of horror.
They were not alone. A quick look at the comments on predominantly African-American news sites, where commenters tend to be fans of the first lady, Beyonce, or both, made it clear that many found the first lady's response troubling, and some found it downright embarrassing. A quick sample of the comments:
"This makes me sick to my stomach if Mrs.O said this."
"I just think that she should have found some other Black woman to praise other than Bey because she is not a good role model."
"And we wonder why our kids are struggling in the streets and schools. All I can do is shake my head on this one - unbelievable."
"I threw up in my mouth a little when I read the title of this article."
There were hundreds of other comments like those above. The widespread disappointment in the first lady's response appears to be threefold.
First off, Beyonce, is pretty, talented, rich and famous, and to top it all off she seems like one of the nicest celebrities on the planet. She is also best known, not for her singing, but for wearing as little clothing as possible while doing it. And as successful as she may be, like many black entertainers before her, she pursued her career at the expense of pursuing an education, and I don't mean college. She never graduated from high school or earned her GED; a topic of discussion that crops up on message boards when she misspeaks in interviews, which, unfortunately, is not an uncommon occurrence.
Beyonce has previously stated that she takes the role of "role model" seriously. More power to her. Our girls could certainly use more role models. Beyonce is to be commended for her work ethic, success, and, as I have previously written, her conscious choice to avoid becoming a statistic by waiting until being married and financially stable before starting a family. But if Beyonce is making the choice to position herself as a role model for young, impressionable girls, she should keep that in mind the next time she shows up on an internationally photographed red carpet in a see-through gown. Or the next time she sits down for an interview and upon speaking reminds us all that she has chosen not to follow in Diana Ross's footsteps by spending some of her time or income on any academic or etiquette classes. (I discovered while reading the terrific memoir Le Freak by Nile Rodgers that Diana Ross was so conscious of what her image represented for all black women that she wanted to make sure she looked and sounded like a true lady, hence the etiquette and charm classes intended to soften any rough edges.)
So when the most influential black woman in the world, armed with degrees from some of the best institutions in the world, names Beyonce, a singer best known for a song called "Bootylicious," as someone she aspires to be, how can we expect young black girls who didn't go to Princeton to aspire to more than that?
Which brings me to the second reason many found the first lady's response troubling. With her ill-chosen remarks Michelle Obama helped affirm one of the most enduring and troublesome stereotypes that every single teacher in a low income, predominantly minority community must battle against every time he or she sets foot in a classroom: The stereotype that the greatest aspiration these children should hold is to be an entertainer, an athlete or rapper (or perhaps an entertainer who marries a rapper.)
To be clear, I have nothing against entertainers, athletes or rappers (at least not rappers whose lyrics are not misogynistic), but I also know that black Americans can be more than that. Unfortunately, not every young black boy or girl does. They may see the president and first lady but for many of them, the White House is a dream beyond reach. A basketball court, or a recording studio seems more realistic -- that is unless the adults in their lives and those they look up to -- their role models -- steer them in another direction. The first lady had an opportunity to do just that during her interview. Instead she steered them back to the R&B stage.
Finally, the other reason the first lady's comments struck such a nerve is because they reinforced a popular conservative talking point that thanks to this misstep is now gaining traction among the progressive base: The Obamas seem a bit too cozy and concerned with the George Clooneys and Beyonces of the world, and perhaps not concerned enough with the rest of us. (A sample comment from The Huffington Post: "I thought the Clintons were really bad about keeping constant Hollywood company... The Obamas have set a new record... truly disgusting... seriously.")
Don't get me wrong. I get that without Hollywood fundraising there is no campaign if you're a Democrat. I also get that every mom would probably fly their daughters out of town to see Beyonce in concert if they could afford to. But most can't. I also get a kick out of having a "cool" first lady and first couple as much as the next person. Like many of you I retweeted the video of the president singing Al Green and chuckled when he mentioned having Jay-Z and Lil Wayne on his ipod. But if the president gave an interview in which he said he wanted to be any of them I would be writing this column about him.
And the GOP would be writing a new attack ad featuring his words. (Think I'm exaggerating? Click here for a previous example of conservative efforts to chip away at the president via his hip-hop and Hollywood associations.)
This is why the president and first lady need to choose their words carefully. Not only is the GOP listening. But there are plenty of kids who may have the potential to become the next Michelle or Barack who are listening too. But they need to be reminded that aspiring to become president or first lady is an option and a worthy goal. Not just becoming an athlete, a rapper or Beyonce.
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