Last summer I wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post titled, "Black. Female. Accomplished. Attacked," in which I addressed the New Yorker Magazine's controversial and offensive depiction of Michelle Obama as a gun-touting, afro-wearing, fist-bumping Angela Davis 60's radical. The magazine cover generated great outrage among many Americans, but black women found it particularly offensive since it employed the worst stereotypes of us found in our American pop culture; the ultra ethnic (afro wearing), aggressive, angry, radical, controlling, and overbearing black woman.
At the time, Michelle Obama was a very controversial candidate's wife who was seen as outspoken and strident and a political liability. She was attacked for writing a candid thesis on race at Princeton University, and for saying that "for the first time as an American she was really proud of her country."
At the time, she had not yet had her 2008 Democratic Convention make-over (e.g. the soft blue pastel dress, perfectly coiffed hair, and warm speech emphasizing her husband as a man and her love of family.) That moment seems to have transformed her from the straight talking, tough, sister-girl from the South side of Chicago, to the more demure figure. It was the beginnings of the Jackie-Kennedy-meets-Laura-Bush kind of First Lady we now see in her today.
But this was not just some typical political makeover: Michelle Obama's approval ratings are now in the stratosphere -- 76% according to Gallup before the Europe trip. She seems to have won the hearts of Americans, and now Europeans, across both racial and political lines. As someone who listens to conservative talk radio from time to time, even the most conservative of radio-personalities now embrace her as a "great first lady and great mom." Consider also the following from CNN's cranky Jack Cafferty "My Crush on Michelle Obama":
I think I am developing a crush on America's first lady. Michelle Obama is more compelling than her husband. He's good, but she's utterly fascinating. Mrs. Obama has blown away the stale air in a White House musty from eight years of the Bushes. It's like the sun came out and a fresh spring breeze began wafting through the open windows. It's the people's house, and Michelle Obama totally gets it. So much so that she has taken to inviting people in from the streets to see her home. Nice touch -- one completely lacking in her recent predecessors.
Why the dramatic shift in public opinion?
In the last two and a half months, Mrs. Obama has had the unique opportunity to single-handedly correct and contradict a litany of tired stereotypes about black women. She has had to do it by showing how to successfully hold down a career and nurture a family at the same time; by being beautiful and compassionate. By showing that we are not what people tell us we are -- loud, angry, intimidating, overbearing, etc. We are not a group of women who shake their booties on BET videos and who have their babies out of wedlock with various different men as the fathers.
Mrs. Obama has done more than just become America's first black first lady. She has softened the edges for all professional black women. She has exposed the country to the "other" side of sisters. She has quietly shown black men that having a strong black woman at your side is an asset, not the albatross that so many brothers seem to think it is. She has gracefully demonstrated that the qualities that matter in a relationship have little to do with physical characteristics, social standing or material wealth, and everything to do with the honesty, loyalty and respect that people have for each other.
And that's why she is the most popular woman on the planet right now.