Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Sojourner Truth and a Call to Arms? Maureen Dowd and David Brooks on Michelle Obama's Sculpted Biceps

Originally posted March 8, 2009, but reprinted, as Michelle Obama has just honored Sojourner Truth today.

Courtesy of Maureen Dowd’s column, pundit David Brooks (author of the wickedly funny Bobos in Paradise, though I don’t share his politics) thinks that Michelle Obama’s bare arms are passive aggressive (my term, not his; he tells her to “put away Thunder and Lightning”).

His implication is that Mrs. O just isn’t feminine enough.

As Dowd writes, there’s a feeling in Washington that “Michelle should stop wearing sleeveless dresses, because her muscles, combined with her potent personality, made her daunting.” And daunting is not feminine.

Just like women athletes are expected to engage in an elaborate apologia for their muscles by dressing in hyperfeminine garb (think of tennis players here), so Brooks is asking Mrs. Obama to be more womanly, less of a physical presence.

All this talk about women, arms, and femininity reminds me of the 1851 Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, when Sojourner Truth, freed slave and travelling preacher, stood up, and, with her very tall presence, addressed the crowd’s perception of “true womanhood”:

“That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud puddles, or gives me any best place!

“And ain’t I a woman?

“Look at me! Look at my arm! [here she rolls up her sleeve and flexes her bicep; my italics]

“I have plowed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me!

“And ain’t I a woman?”


But while Sojourner Truth was speaking of an African American woman’s muscle formed from physical labor, Michelle Obama’s muscle is different: her physical muscle is the product of disciplined workouts, but it also speaks to considerable metaphorical muscle—Obama’s academic muscle honed at Princeton and Harvard; her corporate muscle developed through her lawyerly work.

And that kind of muscle was not displayed, say, through Jacqueline Kennedy’s soft, white arms, which are often called upon as Mrs. Obama’s cultural referent, but which were never, to my knowledge, considered intimidating or overly sensual.

The political confusion over Michelle Obama’s arms, then, touches on a number of unarticulated historical questions: Who can be considered a woman? What kind of physical muscle should a woman have? What kind of metaphorical muscle should she be able to wield?

Rather than fearing Mrs. Obama’s muscle, wouldn’t it be great if people took a page from Sojourner Truth, saying, “Ain’t she a first lady!” in collective agreement.


K.Line said...

Wow - the role of first lady is so fraught with political complexity - and sexism! Can Michelle do nothing right? I mean, she didn't ask for this limbo of a job. I say she should flaunt the arms (and whatever else she feels like) if only to prove that the strength of a woman is in doing what suits her.

WendyB said...

Her arms looks great, I think she's doing everything right. If you listen to everyone's opinion, you'll be totally paralyzed.

Thumbelina Fashionista said...

Great post. I've been seeing and noticing her ubitiquous muscled arms, wondering when the backlash would take place. These critics need to get a grip. Femininity isn't defined anymore by weak arms (just look at Rosie the Riveter--and that was a long time ago!) or quiet mouths. She is an impeccable role model for women: she's fashionable, she's intelligent, she's muscular, and she's accomplished. And yes--you can be all of these things and still be "feminine."

Belle de Ville said...

I think that Michelle looks elegant and first lady like, with bare arms or not. Why can't the media focus on the real problems that President and the First Lady face and not on how they dress.

La Belette Rouge said...

I am inspired by her fantastic arms to add some push-ups to my minimal routine. I want my arms to frighten Republicans.

"Ms. Cornelius" said...

Listen, if I had arms like that, I'd show them off too. At our age that takes a LOT of work!

David Brooks is a whiny twerp who has also written some of the absolutely worst prose it has ever been my misfortune to read.

My hometown paper got rid of Molly Ivins when she was terminally ill to put HIM in her spot. I've never forgiven them.

I really like it when she uses those arms to give terrorist fist bumps to people.

Mary-Laure said...

Mr Brooks is pathetic. Passive aggressive? Oh please. He should talk to his therapist, as he obviously has a problem with strong women (in all meanings of the word).

Michelle Obama's arms are beautiful. I want the name f her trainer!

Iheartfashion said...

I bet Michelle Obama could take David Brooks any day! I think her arms are great, inspiring even.

iveoma said...

That was lovely..

Cath said...

La Belette Rouge: LOL, beautiful! Gives me new inspiration at the gym.

KatieGirlBlue said...

I love Michelle. She is beautiful, smart and powerful - physically and intellectually. She's a hell of a role model for the many, many American women who feel powerless because they ARE powerless, who don't stand tall with their heads high and shoulders back, who aren't proud of their bodies.

Think of how different we'd be if we all felt good about ourselves. Think of the confidence we'd project!

LOVE your blog!