By Jenn M. Jackson, Water Cooler Convos
You may or may not have heard a recent interview on NPR by political correspondent Ari Shapiro at the Republican National Convention. In the clip, Shapiro discusses Obama with likely Romney voters to get a picture of the sentiment toward President Obama at the event. One comment that garnered criticism and created a major uproar came from a woman named Bobbie Lussier.
When asked about President Obama, Lussier explained “I just – I don’t like him. Can’t stand to look at him. I don’t like his wife. She’s far from the first lady. It’s about time we get a first lady in there that acts like a first lady, and looks like a first lady.” Really? Michelle doesn’t “look” like a first lady? What did that mean exactly? Could it be because every first lady to date has been a white woman?
See here for the full airing:
Listeners to the original airing of the interview denigrated Shapiro because they believed he didn’t do a good enough job of putting these words in context. They noted that it not only was offensive to Blacks but it was also “a gross breach of our social contract with soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines.”
Shapiro had the opportunity to re-interview Lussier just this week. He asked her to clarify her comments for the listeners. Here is the exchange:
Shapiro: “You said something to the effect of, you were very unhappy with the president and first lady.”
Shapiro: “And you said she doesn’t look like a first lady. …”
Lussier: “No, she doesn’t. She doesn’t look or act. I mean, can you imagine you know, Kennedys or the Bushes or anybody doing pushups on the floor? I mean you know. That’s just not a first lady.”
Shapiro: “A lot of people wondered if there was a racial undertone to your comments.”
Lussier: “No it’s not. I don’t care what color she is. It’s just she just doesn’t act and look like a first lady. I mean she’s more about showing her arms off. … I think that’s very inappropriate for a lot of functions that she goes to.”
Shapiro: “So do you mean it’s an issue of modesty?”
Lussier: “Yeah. It’s respect and … for being in the White House.”
Shapiro: “Fewer sleeveless dresses, fewer pushups …”
Lussier: “They talk about more like her dresses and how she looks and stuff and her arms and whatever.”
Shapiro: “People talked a lot about the dresses that other first ladies wore for sure.”
Lussier: “Well, yeah.”
Shapiro: “You look a little frustrated.”
Lussier: “I am. I just hope Romney wins.”
Huffington Post produced a piece on this detailing the comments and where they may have come from. But, what might be most striking about this is the development in visual politics that is implied. On one hand, there is an obvious assertion that the original comments were meant in a racially slanted way. That Lussier was in effect saying that Black women don’t look like first ladies. In contrast however, there is the second point that maybe the general listener or reader may not have enough information to truly understand what Lussier meant by the comments.
But, then, there is a third way to slice this pie. What Lussier is really getting at with her comments is that there is a conception of what a president or a first lady is supposed to “look like.” Or, maybe, it is a misconception. To date, the prototypical image of the President has been a white Anglo-Saxon male. And, since no previous president has been married to a woman of minority status, the archetype of a first lady has been a middle- to older-aged white woman. How could Michelle Obama ever really “look like” a first lady? And, how could she really “act” like a first lady? Being fit really hasn’t been a thrust of first lady-dom in the past. And the “Dougie” certainly wasn’t something you’d see Laura Bush or Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis do during their tenure as FLOTUS.
But that doesn’t make it wrong. We ought to challenge this misconception rather than embrace it. With an ever changing American identity, shouldn’t we be okay with not “looking like” we used to? At this point, shouldn’t that be the goal? We cannot be sure what Lussier meant. But we can be sure that there is a specific voting bloc in this country that doesn’t like the Obamas because they don’t “look” the part. For a generation of Americans, Michelle Obama will be the first First Lady they know. And, we should respect that however different it may be from our experience. It is a new American experience we are living in. And, shockingly enough, we’ve had a new American first family for four years now. It’s beyond time to accept it.