10.09.08

The Politics of Michelle Obama's Hair

Why she's so much cooler than Hillary and Condi.

Sometimes there’s a difference between beauty and beauty queen. And last night, on The Daily Show, Michelle Obama emerged to show us just where that line might be. Unfailingly generous in her assessments of the McCains and the Palins, she was graceful even when pressed by Jon Stewart about what would happen if Barack Obama were to win the presidency, “but you lose to Cindy McCain.” She laughed warmly: “We don’t want that to happen.”

Stewart was getting at something crucial. There has been a kind of sub rosa contest in the media depiction of our potential first ladies that always seems to pit surface versus substance. “We become part of the filler” Michelle observed wryly.

But Michelle Obama may be the first politically visible American woman to have actually combined surface and substance into one package. And what I love about her is that she looks so unencumbered by it all. It is not that she diminishes the sacrifices it took to deliver her to this threshold; it’s that she seems genuinely relaxed and happy in her role as lawyer, businesswoman, wife and mother.

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She seems unbothered by hair hang-ups, make-up issues, clothing crises. She always seems minimally but perfectly made up; she isn’t afraid to wear flats; she lends a certain class to the most inexpensive of outfits. And even her hair—usually such a politically fraught subject for women of color! Between the Scylla of Condoleezza Rice's good-little-girl page-boy, and the Charybdis of Angela Davis's 1960's Afro, Michelle Obama’s looser style provides a breezy, refreshing kind of Golden Mean.

Between the Scylla of Condoleezza Rice's good-little-girl page-boy, and the Charybdis of Angela Davis's 1960's Afro, Michelle Obama’s looser style provides a breezy, refreshing kind of Golden Mean.

Her optimistically upturned flip reflects an attitude that’s subtly but powerfully liberating. When I graduated from law school in the mid-1970s, African-American women’s hair was constantly being scrutinized for signs of subversion: the more “natural,” the more dangerous. So we pressed our hair flat with the weight of other people’s expectations and waited for times to change.

While curly hair, twists, short Afros, and corn rows are all much more prevalent and tolerated these days, those choices are still publicly interrogated to an unseemly degree. Lani Guinier, Bill Clinton’s nominee to head the civil rights division of the Justice Department, was deemed radical in part because of what some commentators called her “strange hair.” Similarly, when Rep. Cynthia McKinney changed her hairstyle to corn rows, Capitol security guards blocked her way, claiming they didn't recognize her as a member of Congress.

Most recently, in the most discussed New Yorker magazine cover ever, what stood out for me was that Michelle Obama’s putative politics were satirized via…an Afro! Angela Davis hair. Yes, friends, the hairdo that crossword puzzle enthusiasts find regularly described as a four-letter synonym for the fashion sensibility of protesters, armed revolutionaries, and frat boys yukking it up in “fright wigs.” We’re talking unequivocally, implacably, no bones about it, political hair. Regardless of how differently the real Davis may wear her hair today, her coif is remembered as a mathematically precise series of explosions, of radioactive microwaves pulsing outward from the sun of the universalized angry black scalp.

I don’t believe that we are anywhere near a “post-race” or a “post-feminist” moment, but I do think that Michelle Obama models a kind of post-“thank-God-A’mighty-free-at-last,” post-Condi, post-Hillary, and definitely post-assimilationist aesthetic. Looking good, but thinking about more important things.

That's new in the public sphere. Political wives are so uniformly stiff and long-suffering that I always feel terribly sorry for them, so erect and beady-eyed with the glaze of patient insincerity, tricked out in Chanel suits and chunky gold jewelry, seated on the dais behind their husbands, ankles crossed demurely.

Political wives, if you haven’t noticed, are almost always white, and not just because there are relatively few black politicians. Black political wives reflect the degree to which African-Americans are politically liberal but overwhelmingly socially conservative: so traditionally stay-at-home that they’re doomed to invisibility. I mean, how often do you see Jesse Jackson’s wife? Did you even know that Al Sharpton is married?

Iconic black female faces in public life are few and far between, and they’re usually not married. They’re widowed, like Coretta Scott King and Betty Shabazz; or they’re single and childless, like Condoleezza Rice. It’s hard to be seen as a trophy wife, or a beauty queen, when you’re simultaneously figured as strong as an ox, epically tragic, and pious enough to curdle the promiscuous streak that supposedly runs hot in the blood of “your kind.”

Sometime during the 2004 presidential election season, a friend gave me a startlingly lifelike Halloween mask of Rice. Truth be told, I didn’t have to reach far for the rest of the costume. I just threw on one of the obligatory little business suits with which my closet bulges, and which mark me—and her—as hardworking, obedient, thoroughly buffed and totally no-nonsense. Add pumps, pearls, et voilà!

At first it was great fun wearing the mask to parties, with its enormous bobbling head and the serious set of its primly pressed plastic lips. But after a while it felt sad. Despite the fact that our politics could not be further apart, there was enough of myself tied up in the public image of Rice that my impersonation ultimately became the personification of my own anxiety about identity. Like me, she was raised to “style” racial redemption by studying so hard in so many disciplines that no one could ever, ever challenge whether she was “intelligent enough” or “well-qualified.” See her do a double axel in ice skates! Hear her play extremely difficult passages of Brahms! Good Lord, she speaks Russian! She’s safely asexual! She’s miraculous!

Her parents resembled mine, who in turn resembled a whole generation of zealously ambitious black parents who spent much of the 20th century suing for access to better education. Like Rice, my credibility has always been dependent on modeling the most amazing departure from a welfare queen that anyone has ever met.

In contrast to these images of dutiful severity, Michelle Obama is of a somewhat different generation; she embodies something I find both dignified and quite liberating. A big part of it is seeing a highly educated, professionally accomplished black woman center stage who is smiling and sure of herself and who is also loved—who’s in a good, happy relationship with a real hero of a husband.

A few weeks ago, the same friend who gave me the Condoleezza Rice mask presented me with a beautiful, hand-crafted papier-mâché Michelle Obama mask. The expression is radiant, sparkling, alive. One eyebrow is slightly raised and it has a mischievous little smile. My mood grows calmer and happier when I put it on. I don’t just want to wear it to parties; I want to walk down the street in it, as though announcing, “Here is a whole new side of me.” With that mask on, I fluff the ends of my hair into a structured but insouciant flip. I dig out strings of beads so impertinently large that they could never have been spat from the mere entrails of an oyster.

There is something about this exercise that makes me feel very young again, dressing up in my mother’s high heels, practicing for transformations to come. Of course, this isn’t literally about Obama’s hair or her clothes. It’s about something deeper. It’s inspirational to see her upbeat, off-hand elegance, so unsaddled by anxiety, so unmarked by the effort of conforming and erasure and overcoming. Her beauty seems to telegraph an inner radiance of well-honed intelligence and gentle self-assurance. It’s a look I’m working on.