By Keri Day
There is a new Obama Factor. And it’s not the President.
Michelle Obama’s recent trip to South Africa inspired me to take a closer look at her expanding role and why she matters more and more on the international political stage. But, let me travel back to the first time I encountered Mrs. Obama.
I first heard her not at a political rally or on President Barak Obama’s 2008 campaign trail, but at a religious service. Articulate and authentic, she stood on behalf of the then presidential-hopeful Barak Obama at a funeral for a major African-American denominational leader. As I looked around, she had clearly captivated everyone in the church. Her genuine concern and care for people emanated from her speech that day. Clearly, she knew how to connect. And I didn’t forget it. As I listened to people’s conversations after the service, I realized that others would not forget her either.
After President Obama’s election and inauguration, Mrs. Obama sparked the cultural imagination of America. From fashion to health, she became a cultural icon of beauty and intellectual prowess, two characteristics that have not historically been associated with black women in America. Black women have been rendered aesthetically and culturally inferior throughout most of American history, often seen as less alluring and appealing through the lens of white Victorian cult of womanhood. Even today, standards of European beauty bombard and affect women of color. Whether turning to the TV, magazines, posters, or billboards, black women are constant receivers of non-affirming subliminal messages. Straight not “kinky” hair is preferable; thin not curvaceous bodies are attractive; light-skin not darker-hue complexions are striking.
The list goes on.
Black women (and women of color) have often battled against such cultural aesthetics in which European standards of female beauty are privileged, European standards that function as a cultural currency of sorts that unfortunately deny black women access within an economy of racial preference. However, I saw something new emerging with Michelle Obama in America’s cultural imagination. This “newness” was America’s cultural willingness to open up to a standard of beauty that moves beyond European models. A willingness to affirm a black woman’s presence as iconic and emulative. A willingness to think outside of the box on what can be culturally appreciated and affirmed. While Mrs. Obama certainly remained a target for venomous racial attacks such as the 2008 July New Yorker cover in which the first lady was caricatured as an “angry,” “unpatriotic,” and militant gun-toting black woman, she has been equally praised as a paragon of style, poise, and intelligence for all women within America and even around the world. While I am not suggesting that racial aesthetic biases ended with the media’s embrace of Michelle Obama, I am intimating that the media’s privileging of a different (and in particular, African) model of beauty is a distinct break from America’s historical and contemporary preoccupation with European beauty.
Similar to her contribution to redefining cultural markers such as beauty, Michelle Obama’s presence also helps to redefine how nation building can occur more effectively in countries around the world. Mrs. Obama’s presence is currently taking on increasing significance in the world of international politics. She just recently took a trip to South Africa, visiting with both Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. What was most memorable to me was her visit to one of the poorest black townships in South Africa: Soweto. Mrs. Obama and her daughters danced with the young women as they sang, “We Are Marching in the Light of God,” and one could not help but feel the intense bond that these young girls and women shared with Mrs. Obama and her children. Although these girls and women in Soweto are mostly poor and impoverished, their humanity has not been diminished in any way or their capacity to dream, though oppression often stands in the way of them realizing their dreams. For young women emerging from racial apartheid in South Africa, a highly successful black woman was certainly an inspiration to them.
And I believe that the rebuilding of nations such as South Africa highly depends on the role of female leadership. Women must be able to take on more influential political and social roles in order for countries to empower primary caretakers of children: women. Countries cannot thrive without cultivating the leadership, labor, and skills of women. For instance, women in Soweto need structural access to resources such as job employment and education for their children. Without the empowerment of women, nations will fail. The “feminization of poverty” around the world in which over 70% of poor people are women and children must be addressed. But these unfortunate statistics cannot be addressed when women are continually repressed at the most basic levels of society, constantly denied access to food, clothing, shelter, work and more. Mrs. Obama gives those such as the girls of Soweto a chance to see a different type of leadership. And this should not be easily dismissed.
In fact, the face that Michelle Obama puts on America should not be underestimated.
Given the ideological battles that are currently playing out in the Middle East and North Africa on the role of female leadership within society, the face of American leadership as a woman of color is symbolically powerful. Egypt is presently experiencing a political and social revolution concerning the roles of women, as educated Egyptian women voice their collective belief that women are critically important to the democratic transition of their country. Just a couple weeks ago, Saudi Arabian women mobilized and galavanized a protest in which women took to the streets and driving cars, directly challenging a deeply enforced societal custom that only allows women to be chauffeured and chaperoned by their male relatives when going in public. In Iraq, women continue to worry about their emerging, transitional government and whether future political practices will continue to repress women or accord greater liberties for women to lead. The jury is still out in relation to whether these protests for gender justice will triumph. However, the power of Mrs. Obama’s presence is symbolically important around the world, potentially inspiring confidence in women of color to discern future possibilities for themselves within their countries who have a long road ahead in relation to recovery, rebuilding, and gender equality.
Even beyond her professed desire, Michelle Obama really does matter on a national and global scale. And this is why she is increasingly becoming the new Obama factor on the international stage. Yet, it remains to be seen how Mrs. Obama will negotiate her growing global presence and its symbolic power.
But one thing is for sure. Women around the world are watching.
Keri Day is an Assistant Professor of Social Ethics at Brite Divinity School, Texas Christian University. She received her B.S. in Political Science with a minor in Economics. She earned an M.A. in Religion and Ethics from Yale University Divinity School and received her Ph.D. in Religion from Vanderbilt University (with a graduate certificate in Women’s Studies). Her work sits at the intersections of religion, feminist studies, critical social theory, and poverty.