Face of Controversy

Why Michelle Obama's Mural is About More Than Plagiarism

Posted Apr 29, 2017

When I first saw this headline (“How a mural of Michelle Obama became a lesson on exploitation”) and the accompanying controversial image, apparently depicting Mrs. Obama as an Egyptian Queen (according to the artist of the reproduction), I thought: someone is finally critiquing how she is routinely celebrated by objectifying and exoticizing her appearance. Turns out the controversy was about illegitimate artistic appropriation—to be sure an important problem in its own right, but not the one I hoped was being illuminated. In fact, the author, Britt Julious, after noting Mrs. Obama is “intelligent and classy and beautiful and graceful” pays homage to the likeness: “That Mrs. Obama appeared like a Nubian queen is probably no accident. Grace under fire is a royal accomplishment.”  

To continually emphasize beauty and grace as accomplishments can be read as a form of resistance against a dominant White culture that continues to viciously characterize Black women as animalistic (as in this recent horrifying example), or as either asexual or hyper-sexual. And, recasting Mrs. Obama as royalty of an ancient civilization may function to situate the former first lady as a timeless icon of power and glamour. BUT such a rendering *also* focuses our attention on the surface of a human being-a shift that appears to be more harmful to our perceptions of women than of men. Among two related studies, Heflick et al. (2011) exposed participants to either a waist-up picture of Michelle Obama (in a “non-revealing” dress) or Barack Obama (in a suit), and then instructed them to either write about their appearance or write about them more generally without a focus on appearance. Results showed that focusing on appearance decreased perceptions of competence, warmth, and morality for Michelle but not for Barack. The researchers conclude that objectifying women, in particular, functions to reduce their basic humanity.

It is significant and positive that Michelle Obama was depicted with an emphasis on her face over her body in the particular case of the Instagram/mural image. Research shows that even subtle increased ratios of one’s face relative to one’s body is associated with greater perceptions of competence and power, and is a phenomenon, not surprisingly, more prevalent among white men than Black women. It is also significant that Obama isn’t smiling, as women are routinely expected to do, and do more often than men, particularly in response to gender role expectations. However, the emphasis on beauty and the averted gaze (which sociologist Erving Goffman once referred to as a form of “licensed withdrawal”-albeit to describe a more passive and “dreamy” gaze than Obama’s) invites us to view her as a work of art rather than a person—a “still life” rather than a vibrant and dynamic force. The original image on which this picture was based also focuses our attention on a stylized model-like appearance (was she wearing a slip?). Moreover, embedded within an otherwise richly nuanced homage by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie were pointed references to Obama's physical charactersistics: “She had become an American style icon. Her dresses and workouts. Her carriage and curves. Toned arms and long slender fingers.”

A common erroneous assumption is that Black women are “immune” to body image concerns. Research shows that although Black women tend to report lower levels of body concerns than White women (some of which may be an artifact of European American instrument bias and emphasis on slimness), and may be less likely to compare themselves with White media models, this apparent distinction does not translate into immunity. Research has shown that experiencing wishful identification with self-relevant media models is associated with body concerns for both Black and White women. Moreover, focus group studies reveal that women of color navigate mixed and complex messages about beauty norms that have yet to be captured by more traditional survey methods.

Images are, by definition, reductive; clearly one cannot capture the essence of a thinking, feeling human being adequately in a freeze-frame. And, virtually any image of a public figure could be scrutinized for trivializing or emphasizing the “wrong” thing. However, it is important to call out pervasive patterns in representation when they appear-in this case: women as aesthetic objects, that link up to broader patterns of perception: women as less than fully human.  Regardless of the understandable celebratory and reverential intention, portraying Michelle Obama as a mythologized bust may be doing the former First Lady, and anyone who looks up to her as a role model of intellectual, political, and social life, a fundamental disservice.

References

Heflick, N. A., Goldenberg, J. L., Cooper, D. P., & Puvia, E. (2011). From women to objects: Appearance focus, target gender, and perceptions of warmth, morality and competence. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47, 572–581.

Greenwood, D., & Dal Cin, S. (2012). Ethnicity and body consciousness: Black and White American women’s negotiation of media ideals and others’ approval. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 1, 220-235.  

Awad, G. H., Norwood, C., Taylor, D. S, Martinez, M., McClain, S., Jones, B., Holman, A., & Chapman-Hilliard, C. (2015). Beauty and body image concerns among African American college women. Journal of Black Psychology, 41, 540 – 564.