Sara Baartman Discussion

Chapter Ten

Under Cuvier’s Microscope:
The Dissection of Michelle Obama

in the Twenty- First Century

Natasha Gordon- Chipembere

Who might be a part of a terrorist cell?
. . .
Whose fist- knocks may summon the devil from hell?
. . .

Michelle

Rah! Rah! Smear! Rah! Rah!
“A Smear- Cheer for Michelle Obama” (Trillin 2008, 6)

***

Ludicrous as the opinion may seem, I do not think an oran- outang
husband would be any dishonour to a Hottentot female; for what are
those Hottentot. They are, say the most credible writers, a people
very stupid and very brutal. In many respects they are more like beast
than men; their complexion dark, they are short and thick- set, their
noses flat, like those of a Dutch dog; their lips very thick and big their
teeth exceedingly white, but long, and ill set, some of them sticking
out of their mouth like boars tusks; their hair black, and curled like
wool . . . taking all things together, one of the meanest nations on the
face of the earth. (Long 1774, 353)

This is the language one engages when climbing the precipitous
slope connecting the legacy of the colonial [British and Dutch]
“encounter” with the KhoiSan peoples of Southern Africa in the
fifteenth century with contemporary popular culture discourse
on the First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama. My
chapter posits two arguments, namely that nineteenth- century

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Natasha Gordon-Chipembere166

European scientific racism etched a language that became the
cornerstone for representations of Sarah Baartman, which in
effect was transferred onto millions of African and African disa-
poric women’s bodies, culminating in the current display, discus-
sion, and dissection (ala Cuvier) of Michelle Obama. Secondly,
I suggest that Michelle Obama has succeeded in disrupting this
lens and language through the ownership of her body. The last
two years (2008–2010) of international media flurry has solidi-
fied the schizophrenic relationship the North has had with black
femininity. Placed on the dissection table of the Western gaze,
Michelle Obama’s body has been serrated with questions of
her human- ness by the simple nature of her black womanhood
(Barack Obama’s dissection is not nearly the same as Michelle’s
and gender plays a central role in the difference. See Karlien van
der Schyff’s (chapter 9) for a focused discussion of gender and
exhibition spaces).

As First Lady, Michelle Obama has been left to defend herself
in the face of, what I consider some of the most insidious, racist
castings of the twenty- first century. She has been charged with
epithets ranging from being “ape- like” to a “terrorist” to a “bit-
ter, angry Black woman” to President Obama’s “baby mama.”
These blatantly disrespectful, linguistic cartwheels have reached
profound and frightening proportions. The most startling is the
fact that such discourse, in both print media and the blogosphere,
exist without someone pulling in the reigns. Michelle Obama’s
final months on the presidential campaign trail with her husband
and his first year in office produced a plethora of voices who
indulged in the absolute freedom of airing their most intimate,
racially disparate thoughts without censure. Historically in the
North, very few had the ability to protect the black woman’s body,
especially in the hands of white ownership. Michelle Obama has
taken on the fight and thus far she remains a disquieting figure
among mainstream narratives of perceived black womanhood.
With her class status and education, Michelle Obama becomes
an elusive and thus a troubling figure to mediate and control.
Thereby, the mere possibility of her presence as First Lady war-
ranted such a reactionary response, one that continues to equate
her with her enslaved forebears of two centuries ago, despite her
modernity.

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Under Cuvier’s Microscope 167

I suggest here that the negative, visceral reaction to the possi-
bility of her as First Lady and the later celebratory role as “fash-
ionista” and domestic “Mom- in- Chief” are all part of a silencing,
insidious trajectory of objectifying her in ways that most white
first ladies (besides Hillary Clinton who was rendered masculine)
have escaped. Michelle Obama’s blackness distinguishes her and
makes her body (one that has been historically viewed as available
and expendable), the landscape upon which the American pub-
lic inscribes their most virulent frustrations about the emerging
power of blackness and the possibilities about the “end” of white-
ness. Though many assert that with the election of Barack Obama
the United States has moved into a “post- Black”/nonracial sensi-
bility, clearly the particular attacks made on the body of Michelle
Obama indicate that race and racism in the United States remain
at its core.

I find much of this troubling public response surrounding
Michelle Obama’s Green Garden agenda and “Let’s Move” pro-
gram for fighting Childhood Obesity. People do not know what to
do with her! Michelle Obama has unconditionally claimed her body
as whole, as beautiful, as black and without shame (see Gabeba
Baderoon’s chapter 4 on black women and shame for a fuller dis-
cussion) while planting lettuce in the White House garden or mak-
ing football moves in partnership with FIFA and South Africa’s
World Cup’s reps in Washington, DC during March 2010. The
statement is clear—Michelle Obama owns her body. She is also in
a consistent struggle with those who have historically assumed the
ownership over black womanhood (from the colonial male gaze to
Cuvier’s dissection of Sarah Baartman to the Trans- Atlantic slav-
ery to the modern day genital testing of South African track star,
Caster Semenya). I suggest this is a brazenly defiant statement in
the face of a Western gaze whose underbelly pines with the desire
to metaphorically lynch her. In owning her personhood and serv-
ing as an active agent of her blackness, Michelle Obama uses the
tactic of responding to these attacks through action, reminding
others of her humanity, which is in constant question because of
her blackness. I ultimately suggest that Michelle Obama disrupts
this trajectory of dehumanization, through a direct movement
from an assumed silence to implicit, directed, and historically and
culturally grounded “alter” acts of celebration and liberation.

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Natasha Gordon-Chipembere168

Oh, Sarah Baartman

Jennifer Morgan notes that the British representation of African
(Khoisan) women’s bodies, in particular their genitalia, became
part of a larger racialized ideology of difference:

Confronted with an African they needed to exploit, European writers
turned to black women as evidence of a cultural inferiority that ulti-
mately became encoded as racial difference. Monstrous bodies became
enmeshed with savage behavior as the icon of women’s breasts [and
genitals] became evidence of tangible barbarism. (1997, 192)

The Khoisan peoples (comprising many nations including Khoi,
San, Griqua, and Quena) are indigenous to the Southern African
region. The general European perception of these people was that
they were stammerers, and thought to have no language, voice, or
literary traditions. Essentially, they were beasts, thus informing the
conditions under which Baartman was subjected. The presumption
of inferiority about the Khoisan people by the Dutch and British led
to eventual genocide. Pieterse further states, “Speculation amongst
naturalists about the missing link dated from the beginning of the
eighteenth century . . . and it was the Hottentot . . . [whom many
scientists] considered to be the missing link between apes and
humans” (1992, 41). S.G. Morton, in 1839, labeled the Hottentots
as the “nearest approximation to the lower animals . . . the women
are presented by [European travelers] as even more repulsive in
appearance than men” (quoted in Wiss 1994, 13). German writer,
Gotthold Lessing wrote in 1766:

Everyone knows how filthy the Hottentots are and how many things
they consider beautiful and elegant and sacred which with us awaken
disgust and aversion. A flattened cartilage of a nose, flabby breasts
hanging down to the navel, the whole body smeared with a cosmetic of
goats fat and soot gone rotten in the sun, the hair dripping with grease,
arms and legs bound about with fresh entrails. (Quoted in Aduonum
2004, 290)

Here begins a documented entry point for the black body that must
be controlled and contained; Michelle Obama struggles against its
legacy, as she attempts to define new terms of black personhood.
The uncontrollable, wild black body lingers in contemporary

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Under Cuvier’s Microscope 169

perceptions of black women’s sexuality throughout the African
Diaspora, which by default brought their humanity into question.
As European naturalist discourses, which codified racial differ-
ence, gained strength in the nineteenth century, new categories
were constructed in which one’s morality and humanity were
linked with one’s biological makeup. Wiss concludes “by such a
process the sexual difference of Hottentot women came to signify
a form of racialised difference so extreme as to create a new, and
devalued racial type” (2005, 11). The “classical” European body
was morally sound by virtue of its civility. The grotesque body,
in this case Baartman’s, was designated to the margins, a night-
marish construction external to the “normal” European form.
According to Wiss

The classical body—as closed, homogeneous, and symmetrical—came
to be perceived as marking out the identity of progressive rational-
ism itself. These binarily opposed body types constructed the ideal
bourgeois self as individual, progressively rational and self- contained
against the body of the outsider as plural, regressive and incomplete.
(1994, 12)

Thus the non- European, captured, labeled, and exhibited, was
viewed within these categories of difference and pathology that
lent permission to the “salvaging” work of European colonialists
and others who sought to save the souls of “wretched” Africans.
Baartman’s otherness fixed firm the European positionality of
being the norm. Baartman, not seen as an individual woman with
a voice or history, became the entryway to a “systemized radi-
cal otherness—the exotic and foreign other as an example of [her]
race” (Wiss 1994, 13). Rendered monstrous, the “Hottentot Venus”
was a fabrication based on what was beyond the intellectual limits
of Europeans at the time. Baartman/Venus is a myth necessary
for the European imaginings of righteous self- representation and
morality.

Qureshi explains how Cuvier’s writing and observations of
Baartman contain their own pornoerotic perspective:

During the [three day] examination at the Jardin de Plantes, Cuvier
pleaded with Baartman to allow an examination of her tablier; but she
refused and took great care to preserve her modesty. Cuvier only suc-
ceeded when her cadaver lay before him. His meticulous description of

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Natasha Gordon-Chipembere170

the tablier, including its length, thickness, and appearance folded and
unfolded, takes up a long passage that is graphic and violating . . . and
makes clear that Cuvier’s attempt in scientific resolution of the tablier
was a personal triumph. (2004, 243)

Hobson adds that the European fascination with Baartman’s but-
tocks and genitals were not for scientific purposes as much as they
were for hidden erotic desire (see Ilaria Oddenino’s discussion on
pornography and the erotic in chapter 7) where white audiences,
both male and female, projected their own sexual desires to exploit
the black female body as a means to create racial superiority. Sheila
Meintjes adds:

The history of this woman’s life is one saga of the humiliation and
brutality of the colonial experience. It captures the bizarre fascination
of colonial scientists with the anatomical differences between racial
types . . . scientific racism. (2002, 1)

The black female body became a location for the forbidden. These
notions continue to be etched into the language used in Western
popular discourse on the body of Michelle Obama; two hundred
years later, one encounters a black female body as a site for the
unspoken, forbidden, monstrous, and hypersexual, the body that
needs to be “redeemed” (or killed) by the civilized observers in
the media, acting as mouthpieces for the American (and world)
public. Indeed the media, using the “world” as shorthand, dis-
guises the extent to which intellectuals and journalists assume to
know/ represent public opinion, when in fact they shape the way
people are thinking on an issue. Media analysts drew attention to
Michelle Obama’s physique and made it a necessary problem for
the average person to absorb and dissect.

The Metaphorical Lynching of
Michelle Obama

Because of her sudden (and may I suggest highly unexpected)
emergence onto the international public stage, Michelle Obama,
as potential First Lady, had no place within the imagination of
the dominant culture. Caught unawares, the immediate visceral
response to Michelle Obama, as black woman, as educated, as

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Under Cuvier’s Microscope 171

intelligent wife and mother, was rage. How dare she?! In the freedom
of cyberspace, a viral lynching (see image at http://kathmanduk2
.wordpress.com/2008/05/23/michelle- obama- lynching- from- the
– dailykos/) began of Michelle Obama as she was “exhibited” in
cartoons, dissected across front covers, and made “terrorist” in
newspaper headlines.1 The alacrity with which, in particular, the
American media sunk its frothing teeth onto the body of Michelle
Obama, I suggest, is equally as severe as what Baartman’s body
experienced under Cuvier’s microscope and dissecting knife. It is
this particular language, etched into Western racist/sexist scien-
tific memory, which supplied the unrestrained approval that the
universal exhibition of the African/diasporic black woman’s body
was par for the course, dead or alive as it was with Cuvier and
other Naturalists in 1815. From “liberal” scholars to political
pundits to journalists to bloggers, there were no barriers between
those who had the right to engage the body of Michelle Obama.
Her body and therefore her person, as black woman, becomes the
territory of all those who could see it, access it, and dissect it. Who
protected Michelle Obama’s personhood/body during the Obama
Campaign and subsequent first year as First Lady? Why did some
Americans feel they were within their First Amendment rights to
display a cartoon lynching Michelle Obama? The image has a Ku
Klux Klan–based warning intimated that the black body, in this
case Michelle Obama’s, was always the property of whiteness and
one false step beyond its boundaries would lead directly to the
noose and tree.2

Concurrently and reminiscent of the now infamous caricatures
and aquatints of Baartman in London circa 1810, Michelle and
Barack Obama made the front cover of The New Yorker maga-
zine in July 2008. Michelle, dressed in army fatigues, sporting an
Angela Davis–inspired afro and holding an AK47 issues the famous
“terrorist fist bump” to her husband, indicating their associa-
tions with all that is “foreign,” “evil,” “anti- American,” “Islamic/
non- Christian,” and ultimately subhuman. The media was at war
with these black people who presumptuously felt they too could
have a space in the American landscape of power and wealth. The
visual representation and the assumptions undergirding this image
was that Michelle Obama was the initiator of the fall from grace,
like Eve bearing the apple. After much damage control around
intention and humor, The New Yorker quickly removed the image,

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Natasha Gordon-Chipembere172

though it was forever a visual imprint of what the media wanted to
shape around the Obama ascension into the most powerful couple
“in the free world.”

Sarah Baartman’s Legacy in the
Twenty- First Century

A legacy of demeaning Western representations of black women’s
bodies continues well into the twenty- first century. Sadly, many
African diasporic women have internalized this oppressive stance,
which, similar to Cuvier’s methods with Baartman’s postmortem
body, neatly dissects their body parts in order to attract—and pos-
sibly gain stardom from—a capitalistic male gaze. Most appar-
ently involved in this process are contemporary African American
models and music video “dancers.”3 Though many black women
identify with the historical figure of Sarah Baartman, questions
about the beauty potential of the black female body remain. Today,
black female bodies are widely excluded from the Western domi-
nant discourse’s celebration of beauty, yet visible in marginalized,
sexualized forums, namely hip- hop music videos and black male
magazines that are semipornographic in nature.

Contemporary black male hip- hop artists and white producers
corroborate with historical myths of the hypersexualized black
woman’s body, refusing to challenge ideas of “grotesque” or “devi-
ant” black female sexuality. These men, in an attempt to capital-
ize on black women’s bodies, which are already encoded with a
legacy of lascivity, reduce black women to one essential body part:
their buttocks. From 2 Live Crew’s 1989 album “As Nasty as They
Wanna Be” to SirMixaLot’s 1992 rap, “Baby got Back,” hip- hop
has sanctioned the pornographic exhibition of fragmented black
women’s bodies through the mainstream music industry. Inherent
in this exhibition is the implicit act of silencing black women and
their realities; they are simply body parts of sexual fantasies.
History repeats itself. What I argue here are two major points,
namely that a eurocentric gaze continues to objectify and exhibit
African and diasporic women’s bodies, marked from the legacy
of Sarah Baartman’s exhibited body (alive and dead). This rac-
ist, patriarchal “othering” has sought to undermine and silence
any resistance by black women. Secondly, I suggest that there is

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Under Cuvier’s Microscope 173

no other contemporary Western discourse most encroached in this
language of dissection and silencing as that found around Michelle
Obama. It is this language of deviance and hypersexuality that
has permeated media and the blog space without discretion. The
American public, which initially hated Michelle Obama during
the campaign because of her perceived “anti- Americanism,” has
now shifted to a collective “ohhhhh and ahhhh,” celebrating now
the most “famous” and “beautiful” woman in the “free world.”
What is most interesting is that in more superficial and current
public popular culture discourse on Michelle Obama, she has now
been set apart from other black women in order to be diffused and
“digestible’ to the dominant culture (essentially silenced).

A closer look problematizes how Michelle Obama reached such
iconic status in less than one year—her rise to pop culture fame
rivals the meteoric fame of Michael Jackson and Elmo combined!
From the website www.mrs- o.org, which tracks the fashion prowess
of Michelle Obama, to the countless books, magazines,4 the repre-
sented body of Michelle Obama (her rear, her bare arms and legs,
and the politics of her straight hair) is everywhere. If not properly
interrogated, this coating is incredibly dangerous because it paci-
fies the general public into thinking that the initial sentiments of
racial hatred and objectification have passed and now it is “accept-
able” for the dominant culture to “idolize” Michelle Obama. The
insidious nature of racism slips past the average American media
consumer but a stronger analysis of current discourse on Michelle
Obama assures that the attack is long from over. The exhibition of
Michelle Obama across the American imagination relates directly
to the entrenched assumptions around how black women’s bod-
ies are allowed to enter into this “imagination” and made visible.
Michelle Obama is readily accepted and understood only as a fig-
ure that must remain silent and happily domestic for her to main-
tain her place as First Lady. Making her a “fashionista” is simply
a diversionary tactic.

In Salon magazine, Erin Aubrey Kaplan’s 2008 piece, “First
Lady Got Back” became the centerpiece of a discussion that has
its legacy in the nineteenth century. Here were African American
women writing with ecstasy that:

“Michelle- good God . . . has a butt!”; “Obama’s baby (mama) got
back”;

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Natasha Gordon-Chipembere174

“OMG, her butt is humongous!’; It is not humongous, per se, it is a
solid, round, black, class- A boo- tay”. (“Michelle’s booty” 2008)

Patricia Hills Collins identifies “controlling images” (i.e., Michelle
Obama’s oft- displayed rear) as a means in which to distort the
ways black women see themselves and each other (1990, 72). These
images and discourse also create a process of “un- mirroring,” to
quote Janell Hobson, in which struggles for black female subjectiv-
ity constantly grate against the distorted images of the dominant
culture (2003, 88). So, in a breathe, gone are Michelle Obama’s
Princeton and Harvard degrees, her lucrative careers in law and
hospital administration, her political savvy, and territorial protec-
tion of her daughters and family; in its place is a discussion that
renders Michelle Obama into body parts with questions around her
humanity. Sadly, in an attempt at affirmation with the best inten-
tions assumed, Kaplan falls prey to the “un- mirroring” as she is only
able to capture Michelle Obama’s potential in terms of the master
Western narrative that continues to dissect and objectify the black
female body. Kaplan simply exposes herself as a black “pundit”
reduced to mimicry in the struggle to assume media spotlight in the
White- dominated discourse on the Obamas. Once again, nothing
is learned about the personhood of Michelle Obama through this
entire unleashing of the media hurricane. Akin to Sarah Baartman,
Michelle Obama is an observed object who the media takes on and
fills in the gaps of “knowing” based on speculation that is inher-
ently racist and sexist. As much of this is done in cyberspace, the
precedents for censure or moderation are lost to the wind at the
same time that the American and Western public at large has to
discern what to make of black womanhood in power.

Examples of the vilification of Michelle Obama abound. Zoe
Williams, in her article “Michelle and the Media,” stated that
“Conservative [British] press deals with its unease by making
[Michelle Obama] sound like a transvestite, offering the questions
such as ‘is she a woman or a whole person? So hard to say” (2009,
35). Blogger Heather Cross on www.topix.com states:

Michelle Obama looks like an ape! or James Brown’s sister. She is ugly.
Why do some people say she is pretty? Vomit looks better than her. She
has no class and her husband is so gorgeous and the kids are beautiful.
What a nightmare for Obama having to sleep with that woman who
looks like a man in drag! (2009)

9780230117792_12_ch10.indd 1749780230117792_12_ch10.indd 174 6/20/2011 1:43:06 PM6/20/2011 1:43:06 PM

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Under Cuvier’s Microscope 175

Associations with masculinity and animalistic tendencies are
redundant nineteenth- century assertions about the inhumanity of
African women and thus their bodies become a site to be maligned
at will. Blogger Impatient on www.huffington.post comments that
“Michelle Obama has large ungainly legs” while an anonymous
blogger on www.essence.com states that “Michelle definitely has
man- hands. She should be serving ham sandwiches with those
meat hooks” (“Michelle Obama” 2009). In the 2009 issue of Vogue
where Michelle Obama graced the front cover, photographed by
Annie Leibovitz, the article praises Michelle Obama in the same
breath that it renders her unusual. In discussing the cover photo,
the writer admires “Obama’s lithe frame” though “an uncommon
figure for an American First Lady” (Williams 2009). For those
viewers who find the photos compelling, the writing instructs a
self- doubt that not all is well with acceptance of Michelle Obama
as a beautiful woman; she is made strange and singular by the
nature of her black body (suggestions of masculinity are subtle
but must be read) and certainly not the “material” for what a First
Lady should look like.

In early 2009, the discourse took a sudden shift away from
Michelle Obama’s rear, and the controversy raged around Michelle
Obama’s bare arms. Does she have a right to show her arms, which …

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