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.