The FLOTUS and the Twitterverse

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...full text also available at Truthdig

Michelle Obama joined Twitter today (12 Jan. 2012). For some this doesn't qualify as news in a world full of political and economic turmoil. For others, the First Lady’s first tweet -- “Hi Everyone, and thanks for the warm welcome. Look forward to staying in touch with you here. –mo” -- is part of a larger story about stereotyping and how it intersects with race, gender, nation and culture in the news.

In a story that broke after the release of New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor’s book “The Obamas”, Mrs. Obama told CBS This Morning that she will not be reading.

Why? Because she refuses to pay attention to those who portray her as a surreptitious force in the White House, one whose strong opinions lead to conflicts with the president’s team. Mrs. Obama suggested that if we want to know more about her we should turn to her directly. “There will always be people who don’t like me,” Mrs. Obama said, adding that she’s “just trying to be me, and I just hope that over time, that people get to know me.” Perhaps that’s exactly what her 250,000+ followers will get: a backstage pass without the gimmicks of spin and stereotyping.

But there’s more to this story than meets the eye. Take the following remark made by Mrs. Obama in that same CBS News interview: “I guess it’s just more interesting to imagine this conflicted situation here… That’s been an image people have tried to paint of me since the day Barack announced, that I’m some kind of angry black woman.”

Since that day in early 2007 Mrs. Obama has been cast as “her husband’s darker side,” according to D. Soyini Madison, a professor of performance studies at Northwestern University. And as a result she came to represent what many people feared about the president: that he really wasn’t one of us and really wasn’t a patriot.

In a 2009 article Professor Madison breaks down the campaign waged against First Lady’s public image. When Mrs. Obama said she was proud of her country for the ‘‘first time," she was angry and unpatriotic. When she remarked that her husband would be susceptible to risk if elected president because he was a black man, she was unpatriotic and racist. Soon after that Juan Williams, a black neo-conservative on Fox News, warned audiences that Mrs. Obama was "Stokley Carmichael in a dress." Sean Hannity said she was ‘‘bitter’’ and only content when focusing on ‘‘despair and hopelessness.’’

Daily Kos Michelle Obama Image     NYer Obama Cover     Fist Bump or Terrorist Fist Jab?    
The fury raged as the liberal website Daily Kos exposed an image of her as branded and lynched (above left). And let’s not forget the New Yorker’s controversial cartoon cover of her burning the American flag, sporting military fatigues, an afro, carrying a machine gun, and saluting her husband with what Fox News's "America's Pulse," host E.D. Hill dubbed "the terrorist fist jab" (above middle, right).

Now, just as the president is up for reelection, Mrs. Obama is cast as an angry black woman again. It remains to be seen whether the label will stick. Based on the First Lady’s second tweet I don’t think the label will.

And I'm not the only one that does.

I think that the First Lady will be using her Twitter account @michelleobama to present a counterbalancing image to the “angry black woman” stereotype. I hope that these messages might make us think differently about what race and gender really look and sound like by emphasizing her own brand of patriotism and adding new dimensions to what it means to be an "American." More than that, I think she’ll be sending an important message to the press for the new election season: Do report that racial and gender stereotyping exist. Do report that stereotyping frustrates those it affects most. And do remember that journalists are not immune to enhancing those stereotypes, which can make the task of exposing them particularly challenging.

As stories about Michelle Obama’s public image continue to develop, journalists and citizen journalists alike would be wise to approach the topic as an institutional problem and not simply as a public relations issue disconnected from larger political trends. Reporters should also be willing to turn the "journalistic gaze" on themselves and consider how the process of explicitly interrogating racist and sexist stereotypes can reveal the racialization and sexualization of news production itself.

French ELLE Article's Racist Remarks about Obamas Spark Boycott

"If a fashion writer for French Elle is to be believed—and she is not—African-Americans weren't stylish until the Obama family came into office.

"For the first time, the chic has become a plausible option for a community so far pegged [only] to its street wear codes," writes Nathalie Dolivo in a post translated from the magazine's website titled 'Black Fashion Power.'"

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