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The tricky path forward for Michelle Obama

By John Blake, CNN
  • Criticism of first lady's vacation may underscore deeper challenges
  • Black bloggers say Michelle Obama triggers "uppity Negro" stereotype
  • Blogger: "White people are not used to seeing a black woman in this position"
  • Historian: Another first lady knew how to connect with struggling Americans

(CNN) -- To some she is a self-made woman and a global superstar.

To critics she's an "angry black woman" ashamed of her country.

Now she's been called a modern-day Marie Antoinette.

What role will history ultimately assign to Michelle Obama? It depends on the choices she makes during the tricky road ahead, some say.

The nation's first lady was recently criticized for being insensitive when she took a luxury trip to Spain with the economy still recovering from a brutal recession. During her husband's campaign, she was depicted as an Afro-sporting terrorist on a magazine cover and called a bitter, unpatriotic woman for saying she was proud of her country for the first time in her adult life.

First ladies have come under fire for everything from their words to their choice of clothes and china. But Obama's role as the nation's first African-American first lady adds a racial layer to the microscopic scrutiny her predecessors endured.

Some of the criticism may be driven by partisan politics. But others say the attacks are rooted in white resentment of the "uppity Negro." They say there is no precedent for a Michelle Obama: a wealthy, independent black woman representing America who is not an entertainer.

"There are so many white people who are not used to seeing a black woman in this position," says Aminah Hanan, a Chicago blogger and managing editor of "She's the face of America, and they can't process it."

Others, though, say recent complaints about her behavior have nothing to do with race. Sue Thompson, a corporate consultant and blogger at, says Obama's vacation choice makes her come off "as defiant and to-hell-with-you".

The gold standard for all contemporary first ladies is arguably Eleanor Roosevelt, who defied traditional roles assigned to women, but also knew how to connect with ordinary Americans during another time of economic turmoil, the Great Depression.

"She went into the coal mines, she visited farmers, she visited people in relief lines and was photographed doing this," says Gwyneth Williams, a professor of political science at Webster University in Missouri who specializes in gender issues in politics.

She comes off as defiant and to-hell-with-you.
--Corporate consultant Sue Thompson on Michelle Obama

"She had been involved in social activism before she was even married, and pushed some aspects of the New Deal on her own."

Why we focus on her arms

Roosevelt, though, didn't face a 24-hour news cycle in which talk radio, bloggers and partisan news shows are primed to assail Obama.

Obama's challenge, some scholars suggest, is preventing her opponents from turning her strengths into weaknesses. One of Obama's strengths is her vitality.

Since she hit the national stage, much of the press has focused on her toned, athletic arms. Other widely distributed photos highlight her physicality as well: her height, her ease at skipping rope and running with kids.

Obama may be the most athletic first lady the country has seen. This is jarring to some people who are accustomed to older and more demure first ladies, says Laura Hertzog, director of diversity and inclusion programs at Cornell University in New York.

"Mrs. Bush's style was a more subdued, traditional one," Hertzog says. "Mrs. Obama's youthfulness and glamour may seem dissonant with the public's image of what a first lady looks like, particularly in the minds of older members of society."

Obama's independence can also alienate some.

It is big part of her story. She is a self-made woman who rose from a working-class background to become an Ivy League grad and hospital administrator who made good money, all before she met her husband.

Obama's independence annoys some people, who think the first lady should not be too vital, says blogger Hanan.

Hanan says people were offended that Obama didn't have a poll done beforehand to see how her trip to Spain would play with the American public like the Clintons once did. Nor did she find it necessary to be with her husband on his birthday.

"It's like an unforgivable crime: How dare you be comfortable in your own skin and chart your own course?" Hanan says. "She's not asking someone if I can take my daughter to Spain. She didn't take a poll. She just went."

The 'uppity Negro' syndrome

Obama, though, isn't the only first lady to be criticized for being too glitzy during hard economic times, says Webster University's Williams.

When President Reagan assumed office in 1980, Nancy Reagan was accused of being a "glamorous spendthrift" by the press because she bought new White House china, reportedly worth $1 million, during a recession.

The first lady blunted the criticism with a clever comeback.

"At a dinner that involved the press, she put on second-hand clothes and sang the song, 'Second Hand Rose,'" Williams says. "That really defused the criticism."

Williams says she believes some of the criticism of Obama's trip to Spain is driven by something else: the stereotype of the "uppity Negro."

The uppity Negro is a derogatory term for a black person who doesn't know his or her supposed place. During segregation, for example, black landowners in the South who amassed too much wealth or status were sometimes considered "uppity" and driven out of town or murdered.

Williams says some right-wing critics have long tried to portray President Obama as an elitist. Calling his wife Marie Antoinette, the reviled 18th century queen of France who reportedly said the poor should eat cake (when they had no bread), pushes racial and class buttons.

"A lot of the right-wing story is trying to paint Obama as a king or a dictator and this fits into that," Williams says. "And with some people, you can't divorce the stereotype of the 'uppity black person,' with the 'who does she think she is' black person."

Why some women thought Obama 'rocked it' in Spain

We've watched white women, men and celebrities experience that. But we haven't seen a black woman on that scale.
--Blogger Danielle Belton on Michelle Obama

For some black women, Obama is an inspirational figure. They love that she took a luxury vacation in Spain because it shatters myths about black women.

One blogger at says there are four stereotypes that define black women in many American's eyes: the mammy, the matriarch, the welfare mother, and the Jezebel.

But Obama's Spain trip transformed her into a black Jackie-O.

"The response from black women who saw the pictures in Spain was, 'She's awesome; the sister is rocking it,' '' says Danielle Belton, a blogger at, an irreverent site that takes on racial issues and is written by a former journalist.

Belton says few white, or for that matter black, Americans have seen public images of an intelligent and wealthy black woman jet-setting to Europe who isn't an entertainer.

"All of our lives, we watched white woman, men and celebrities experience that. But we haven't seen a black woman on that scale," Belton says. "It's so empowering. It's like we all won."

Cornell's Hertzog says Obama has also tried to fit into the more demure, traditional roles assigned to first ladies.

She's taken on issues like childhood obesity, exercise, nutrition and support of military families -- all "care taking initiatives."

"When, on her trip to Spain, she was presented more fully as the striking, smart, powerful woman that she is, this may have triggered feelings of discomfort in those who, consciously or not, wanted her to stay in the caretaker box," Hertzog says.

No matter what Obama does, she won't satisfy critics, says Belton.

"Even if she decided to be low-key and retire to the White House and knit, people will say, 'What is she doing knitting and why isn't she out there talking to the people?' " Belton says. "She can't win."

'It's sheer political insensitivity.'

She can win if she just shows more sensitivity, others say.

They say Obama deserved the criticism for her trip to Spain, and that it had nothing to do with race.

Thompson, the consultant and blogger, says Obama is oblivious to her constituency, as is her husband.

"Race has nothing to do with it," Thompson says. "Everybody and their brother complained about how well Nancy Reagan dressed when her husband was president, and about the designers and moguls with whom she hung out who were their friends. It seemed insensitive when so many were struggling. It was. It is."

Rachel Weingarten, author of "Career and Corporate Cool," says she's heard from people who voted for Obama "and adore them" but think the first lady's Spain trip was wrong. She says there's a growing disconnect between the Obamas and the American public.

"This trip is that watershed moment where one finds it hard to understand what could possibly have motivated Michelle to take such a lavish trip during such a continued down time," she says. "You just don't want to see your leader and spouse spending in a really indecorous manner when you're scrounging to get your kid a pair of back-to-school pants."

Weingarten doesn't buy the argument that people aren't accustomed to seeing wealthy black women on the public stage.

"We're more than used to seeing Oprah, one of the most influential black women around, spending in ways most of us can't imagine," she says.

But comparing Obama to Oprah misses the mark, says Williams, the political scientist who specializes in first lady history.

Oprah represents herself -- Obama, America.