Should Michelle Obama's booty be off-limits?

A round table discussion on Erin Aubry Kaplan's controversial piece about the "assets" of our future first lady.

Published November 19, 2008 9:17PM (EST)

On Tuesday, Salon ran a story by columnist and Essence contributing writer Erin Aubry Kaplan called "First Lady Got Back." In the story, Kaplan expresses her liberation at seeing a black woman of power and beauty -- with what pop culture has come to refer to as a "boo-tay," one of the greatest signifiers of African-American womanhood there is -- in the White House. The piece generated, well, a bit of controversy.

"This is demeaning, vacuous tripe that doesn't even work as satire," wrote herrblue2, one of 400 and counting posters in the letters section. Meanwhile, on Open Salon, blogger TeenDoc wrote, in response to another offended Open Salon blogger, "I am shaking my head as I read the kerfuffle raised by outraged majority women over an article that clearly meant something different to this sista."

As the editor on Kaplan's piece (and the editor of Broadsheet, incidentally), I believe the story is a celebration and a love letter -- an eloquent one, at that -- a reminder that Barack Obama is not the only member of the soon-to-be first family who has transformed the way Americans feel about themselves, a reminder that Michelle Obama is nothing less than a stunning example of womanhood. Additionally, as I worked on the piece with Erin, she convinced me that it reflected an important conversation  going on in a certain sector of the black community.

But where I see a story about sexual freedom and racial pride, many others -- many others I admire and respect, by the way -- see something hateful and sexist. Off-bounds. Just plain wrong. Broadsheet has received several (angry) e-mails asking why we had stayed silent on the issue. "Joan Walsh must have all you ladies bound and gagged in a broom closet," read one that came in this morning, going on to decry the egregious sexism of the piece.

I wanted to hear what other Broadsheet writers and frequent contributors thought. The responses of those who cared to (and had time to) e-mail me their take on the story are posted below.

Kate Harding: I hadn't even seen the story before I started reading critiques of it at blogs like Racialicious and Michelle Obama Watch, so I was predisposed to be bothered by it -- and I am. However, I'm not sure I would have been bothered by it all on my own, without having seen how much it hurt black feminist writers I really admire.

There are a few reasons for that: the blinders of white privilege, of course, plus my fondness for Salon and inclination to give pretty much everyone who writes for it and is not named Camille Paglia the benefit of the doubt. But the one I actually had to think hard to recognize was this: On some level, I feel an unearned intimacy with the Obamas, fueled by the way they've been presented and have presented themselves. I would like to have a beer with Michelle and Barack. I'd like to take Malia and Sasha to the movies and out for ice cream. I want to play with the dog they don't have yet. So a discussion of Michelle's ass didn't automatically strike me as wildly inappropriate (except insofar as I always hate the focus on prominent women's bodies), in part because I have this impression of her as someone I would totally hang out with. And the women I hang out with talk about our asses.

Problem is, I have no business feeling like that. I can understand why I feel this way -- I've been reading about, hearing about and watching the Obamas daily for two years. I'm a Chicagoan, and we all feel a connection to our hometown guy and his family. Whatever respect I had for the office of the president in and of itself has been shattered by Bush. But for me, this controversy is an excellent and necessary reminder that the Obamas are neither my peers nor garden-variety celebrities. Among other things, they're now tasked with proving to the world that Americans really do want to be represented by serious, thoughtful people -- so a little extra decorum is indeed called for here. Bottom line (ha!), no one should be publicly discussing the future first lady's ass, even to praise it. But some of us needed a kick in the ass to realize that.

Mary Elizabeth Williams: No matter how much we may put our hands over our eyes and ears and be all la la la, we only notice race and gender when it's convenient,  the physical is political. And maybe it's my own Caucasian intellectual density at work here, but it seems a little simplistic for any of us to assume that race is just about color. Is it OK to celebrate that an African-American family is moving into the White House, but not OK to suggest the first lady-to-be has a particular African-American body type? Does it diminish her work and her stature to seek identification in her physique? Would the conversation be less controversial if it were about her hair? Is it automatically wrong to even talk about such things?

We are corporeal. And the world does form a lot of its opinions of us based on our skin and our size and our sex. We struggle with our self-image and the images projected upon us. We live in a world of blond gossip girls and supermodels and we -- and our kids -- are barraged every day with reasons to loathe ourselves. Ignoring Michelle Obama's ass won't make it go away and it won't cure racism or sexism in our time. We are our brains. We are also our bodies. Even the parts of them we sit upon.

Tracy Clark-Flory: I don't think the fact that Michelle Obama is an incredibly accomplished and fierce intellectual force should render discussions of her appearance off-limits. There's an important conversation to be had about the Obamas and mainstream representations of black beauty and power -- and Kaplan's response is real and valid. But, while I don't disagree with the piece existing, I find it pretty unfortunate that, in this case, it was reduced to big butts. There's a much deeper discussion to be had about Michelle's  importance for black women -- even on a superficial level.

Vincent Rossmeier: So we can talk about Barack's abs, but we can't talk about Michelle's rump? I understand there's a historical racial dimension here that complicates the issue, but the amount of energy and anger this article has generated seems misdirected. Who did it actually hurt? Aren't there more important issues to get up-in-arms about? This wasn't a piece of vitriol. It was an opinion piece written in a lively, comic style. It started a discussion. So why the anger? If we're going to devote mammoth amounts of time and attention to the appearances of our political leaders (and I'm not advocating that, by any means, but we do), then we can't just say the first lady's butt is off-limits. I heard no such outrage about the numerous attacks leveled at Michelle's election victory dress, which to me seemed much more catty.

Amy Benfer: I have to admit, I'm somewhat mystified by the amount of controversy generated by this piece. As a former editor at Salon, I edited many pieces by Erin, and I was a huge admirer of her work before I even came to the magazine. Her piece on Jennifer Lopez's butt was an example of one of the reasons I wanted to work for Salon in the  first place. It was funny, smart and culturally relevant. No one seems to disagree that there is plenty to say about the various cultural and racial meanings that have been attached to the booty throughout African-American history. I can't help wondering if some of the discomfort with this piece comes specifically from some of the attitudes Erin discusses in the piece, as if even mentioning a woman's butt moves her from "dignified black woman" to "ho." Whatever the source, I found this a loving, liberating, kindhearted take on a woman that Erin clearly admires.

Thomas Rogers: I liked the idea behind the article. I have my reservations about certain aspects of its execution, but I think that a discussion of Michelle Obama's curves can -- in terms of their cultural impact -- be justified. The easiest argument to be made against Kaplan's article is that it is sexist to devote that much attention to a portion of a woman's anatomy, especially a woman as accomplished as Michelle Obama. We aren't, after all, spending much time discussing the cultural impact of her husband's rear end.

But to make that point is to ignore the fact that his body, like any man's, isn't imbued with the cultural baggage that women's bodies are. The size and shape of women's bodies remain a constant topic of discussion in American culture for a variety of reasons -- because they are used to advertise everything from perfume to real estate, because of our history of institutionalized sexism, and because they are, to a much greater extent than men's bodies, vulnerable to value judgement.

If popular culture is a place where Americans work out issues of race, gender and sexuality -- and, at this point, it's silly to claim that the Obamas aren't part of our popular culture -- it's inevitable, as Kaplan found, that discussions around Michelle Obama's body will pop up in forums, blogs and so forth. I believe that there is space within Salon to engage with the subject in an intelligent and culturally savvy way.

Do I think that Kaplan pulled it off? Not entirely. I realize she's written extensively about race and body image for years [Ed. note: Kaplan's story "The Butt," published in 1997 in LA Weekly, can be read on her Web site], I would have liked to have been given more context (about her gendered responses to previous first ladies, for example). More important, I wish she had brought more self-consciousness and self-awareness to the topic. But perhaps the visceral response to Kaplan's piece has spurred a discussion that may, in the long run, be more telling than the article itself.

Author Erin Aubry Kaplan will be on "The Kevin Ross Show" tonight at 7 p.m. PST to discuss the article.

By Sarah Hepola

Sarah Hepola is the author of the New York Times bestselling memoir, "Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget."

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