Michelle Obama set tongues a wagging last week when she told People magazine that if she could trade places with anyone in the world, it would be with pop star Beyoncé. Several websites took issue with the first lady’s choice of role-reversal candidate, and many African-American blogs expressed shock and rage at her “apparent lack of thought” given the brevity of the question.
Of course, their objections come from a very real place and ultimately stem from the lack of appropriate role models for women of color and the reinforcement of the idea that all black role models must be athletes or entertainers.
Still, as someone who writes frequently about the impact of negative images of African-Americans in the media, I can honestly say I have no problem with the first lady’s declaration of admiration for Beyoncé. I realize what clearly many others seem to forget—that not every moment is a teachable one.
The first lady was speaking to a magazine that focuses heavily on entertainment, so she chose to hypothetically trade places with someone she not only appears to have a good friendship with, but who also is a true entertainment icon. Has everyone forgotten Beyoncé singing “At Last” to the first couple at President Obama’s inauguration? Or how she works with the first lady on her Let’s Move! program and recently penned a letter to her thanking her for being a role model for her and Jay-Z’s daughter, Blue Ivy?
Yes, it would been have wonderful to hear Michelle Obama say she’d like to trade places with amazing African-American women such as Mellody Hobson, president of Ariel Management, or Felicia Fields, group vice president of corporate services at Ford Motor Co., but I know those names simply wouldn’t have resonated with readers in quite the same way as Beyoncé’s. And let’s face it: had Mrs. Obama mentioned a woman who wasn’t a household name, she would have surely been accused of being out of touch or too highbrow for the average American voter. That’s a message her husband’s campaign can ill afford to send during this hotly contested–election year.
The first lady was speaking to the masses, and the masses know, love, and celebrate those with familiar faces and recognizable names. Which means women like Hobson and Fields only get limited attention from the mainstream press and rarely grace the covers of major magazines, no matter if those publications are black- or white-owned. These are the times we live in, like or not.
I’d understand the criticism more if the first lady didn’t host an annual conference honoring exceptional females during Women’s History Month each year. That event brings together women of all walks of life, careers, and backgrounds and connects them with young girls they can influence and mentor. I’d also understand the criticism more if Michelle Obama didn’t have the highest approval rating of any political figure in the country or if she didn’t have degrees from Princeton University and Harvard Law School.
Had the first lady said she’d wanted to trade places with singer Nicki Minaj or reality star NeNe Leakes from The Real Housewives of Atlanta, that would have been cause for concern, but she didn’t. Instead she chose someone young, fabulous, and hip. As author Rebecca Walker points out, “Who doesn’t want to be Beyoncé? Mountains of talent, a doting husband, and the mother to a new, beautiful baby. She is the quintessential embodiment of the American dream.”
The Huffington Post didn’t quite see it that way. In a scathing piece posted May 29, a blogger took the first lady to task by dissecting Beyoncé’s educational background and anything else they saw fit and suggesting that the Grammy Award–winning singer hadn’t completed high school and lacked the smoothness and etiquette of singers of the past like Diana Ross. Her clothes were harshly critiqued, as were her steamy performances in videos and concert tours. While I understood the reporter’s overall point in terms of better role models, it seemed unfair to go after Beyoncé in such a cutthroat way. From all accounts, the 30-year-old singer has handled massive fame and fortune with relative ease and few missteps. That’s no small feat—and the same cannot be said for a good deal of her peers. So why all the uproar?
By saying she’d like to trade places with Beyoncé, Michelle Obama was simply saying she likes to have fun at times, and Beyoncé sure does seem to have great deal of it in her videos and concerts. Have you watched the video for “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)”? Good times.
My guess is, Mrs. Obama was also saying something even more substantial with her answer. Michelle Obama has powerful intellect, a stunning figure, a wonderful family, and an address that indicates she’s the wife of the leader of the free world. Why would she want to trade places with anyone? Odds are, she probably doesn’t.