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Bummed Out: The Complicated Politics of Rear Views

November 20th, 2008 by Celeste Fremon

michelle-blue-dress.jpg

Alright. Let’s begin at the beginning. The whole kerfuffle started on Tuesday
when my pal Erin Aubry Kaplan caused something of a stir with the cover story she wrote for Salon. The article, you see, was about Michelle Obama’s…um….well… her butt.

Here are some clips:

“…..There is a certain freedom in the moment – as in, we are all now free from wondering when or if we’ll ever get a black president. Congratulations to all of us for being around to settle the question.

But what really thrills me, what really feels liberating in a very personal way, is the official new prominence of Michelle Obama. Barack’s better half not only has stature but is statuesque. She has coruscating intelligence, beauty, style and — drumroll, please — a butt. (Yes, you read that right: I’m going to talk about the first lady’s butt.)

[BIG SNIP]

Lord knows, it’s time the butt got some respect. Ever since slavery, it’s been both vilified and fetishized as the most singular of all black female features, more unsettling than dark skin and full lips, the thing that marked black women as uncouth and not quite ready for civilization (of course, it also made them mighty attractive to white men, which further stoked fears of miscegenation that lay at the heart of legal and social segregation). In modern times, the butt has demarcated class and stature among black society itself. Emphasizing it or not separates dignified black women from ho’s, party girls from professionals, hip-hop from serious. (Black women are not the only ones with protruding behinds, by the way, but they’re certainly considered its source. How many gluteally endowed nonblack women have been derided for having a black ass? Well, Hillary, for one.)

But Michelle is bringing those two falsely divided minds together in a single presentation — finally, unity for the real world!

The rest is a happy and appreciative hallelujah written with a lovely sense of exuberance and humor. It is also an intelligent essay on issues of body image, race and women, all done with a light touch. Erin is and always has been a good writer. And this kind of political-meets-the-highly-personal is where she particularly excels.

At least that’s what I thought when I read it.

To say that not all Salon’s readers had such an upbeat reaction would be to understate the matter considerably.

Many in the crowd were quite aghast.

“This article was stupid, vapid, and demeaning and not even funny, nor ironic in any sense of the word,” wrote an outraged reader in what turned out to be one of the tamest of the comments.

But the angry response to Erin’s boo-tay bantering did not limit itself to Salon.

For instance, Mary Katharine Ham at the Weekly Standard primly tisk-tisked.

“There was a time when a female writer would have relished a female public figure’s words being examined instead of her anatomy, but now that we have left behind that provincial trope…”

Kevin Williamson at the National Review spoke witheringly from his no-doubt very lofty perch. “Talk about a race to the bottom,” he sniffed.

Meanwhile, things got so heated back at Salon itself that editor, Joan Walsh, who had assigned the piece, felt compelled to step into the fray

…To whoever said I’m to blame, thank you too,” she wrote in the comment thread, “ because I totally am. I have loved Erin Aubry Kaplan’s writing since before I joined Salon, and I’m proud of this piece. If having a black president and first lady is going to narrow what we talk about, wow, that would be sad. But I promise it won’t — at least not on Salon.”

Yet amid the self-righteous fruit throwing, there emerged out on the blogs some very thoughtful—and thought-provoking—commentary from other black women. Some liked the piece. Others were very torn about what Erin had written, like this from the blog What Tami Said:

A happy side effect of an Obama presidency will be that it may help to “normalize” blackness. Malia and Sasha Obama’s fuzzy twists and cornrows may normalize girlpie hair.

[SNIP]

But…but…but…why, in perhaps black women’s finest hour in this country, must it still be about…the butt.

[SNIP]

In the end (no pun intended), the article gave a bunch of folks license to talk all up under a black woman’s clothes, speculating on her body parts. To borrow a phrase from Joe Biden: That’s not change; that’s more of the same.

Still others found themselves to be quite upset by the Salon article. For example there was this from a twenty-something black woman who blogs as Sylvia M at Comments From Left Field. :

Do not, do not, do NOT reduce a black woman to her body parts. We are no longer on the auction block. We are no longer museum exhibits. If you deign to respect a black woman as a full human being, do not celebrate her accomplishments by pointing out the nappiness of her hair or the fullness of her booty.

There are many other reactions still to be found scattered across the web, some celebratory, some snarky, others genuinely pained—all making it clear that what Erin brought up is anything but a simple issue.

As I said at the beginning, when I first read the story I liked it. I still do.

Even as a skinny-ass, middle-aged white girl, I identified. I understood that, in the end, the article wasn’t about butts—Michelle Obama’s or otherwise. It was about the delight in seeing in the White House a dynamic woman who seems to fully inhabit herself on a multiplicity of levels, including her girly-girl, clothes-loving, sexy self. The sight is, for many of us anyway, incredibly cool, and surprisingly freeing.

But saying all that aloud in a public forum, as it turns out, is complicated. Very complicated.

Posted in gender, Obama | 30 Comments »

30 Responses

  1. WBC Says:

    “When she walked, it looked like a couple of mature hogs wassling under a blanket.” One of the comments that got comment after comment on that comment — but clearly, hit the mark.

    Okay, I get it and I think the Aubry piece is right on and kind of brave in that she’s saying what blacks have traditionally said only amongst themselves. And that’s a big step forward.

    Also I think this flap is very much a generational thing (look at how many YOUNG white girls wanted to look like JLo and 6000/year had big butt implants) — at least as much from the black side as the whites. That’s explicitly articulated, too, as in, “We can’t have the first important black ass look like that, we’ll all become laughingstocks.” Forgetting that half of America looks worse, Hillary right behind (pun intended) them. Another reason she and Bill were “the first black President” and First Lady? (Bill’s love of McD’s fries and pulled pork and his own generous proportions right up there with Hill.)

    Still, although she was DOA and good riddance for reasons OTHER THAN her looks, it was utterly unfair that Sarah Palin got such a bum rap just because she was cute and did NOT have a big bum.

  2. Woody Says:

    Some people (reg) make a living out of being offended over everything. Ignore them. Life is what it is, and there’s no reason to pretend differently.

    I’m reminded of “Maude,” an old tv series about an outspoken New York liberal. At a party, she’s talking to a black man and says something which obviously skirts making mention of his race. Somewhat puzzled, he responds, “I’m black,” to which she says in astonishment, “I didn’t notice!” Right.

    Political correctness kills open discussions and tries to make villains out of people meaning no offense, just wanting to be normal, and have fun.

    People, races, cultures, religions, experiences, mental states…they are different, and there’s no reason to pretend that we’re all the same in all areas.

    - – -

    A waiter comes over to a table full of Jewish women and asks, “Is anything all right?”

    Q: What do the rhabbis do with foreskin after a circumsicion????
    A: Give it to the gays for chewing gum!

    A black woman was filling out forms at the welfare office. Under “Number of children,” she wrote “10,” and where it said “List names of children,” she wrote “Leroy.” When she handed in the form, the woman behind the desk pointed out: “Now here where it says “List names of children,” you’re supposed to write the names of each one of your children.” “Dey all named Leroy,” said the black woman. “That’s very unusual. When you call them, how do they know which one you want?” asked the welfare worker. “Oh, den I uses the last names.”

    Q. How many Democrats does it take to screw in a light bulb?
    A. Just one, but it really gets screwed.

    Q. What do you call a Mexican in a three piece suit???
    A. The defendant.

    A man goes to a psychiatrist. “Nobody listens to me!” The doctor says, “Next!”

    Going to war without France is like going deer hunting without your accordion. – Norman Schwartzkopf

    You know you’re from California if:
    1. Your coworker has 8 body piercings and none are visible.
    2. You make over $300,000 and still can’t afford a house.
    3. You take a bus and are shocked at two people carrying on a conversation in English.
    4. Your child’s 3rd-grade teacher has purple hair, a nose ring, and is named Flower.
    5. You can’t remember . Is pot illegal?
    6. You’ve been to a baby shower that has two mothers and a sperm donor.
    7. You have a very strong opinion about where your coffee beans are grown, and you can taste the difference between Sumatran and Ethiopian.
    8. You can’t remember . . is pot illegal?
    9. A really great parking space can totally move you to tears.
    10. Gas costs $1.00 per gallon more than anywhere else in the U.S.
    11. Unlike back home, the guy at 8:30 am at Starbucks wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses who looks like George Clooney really IS George Clooney.
    12. Your car insurance costs as much as your house payment.
    13. You can’t remember . .is pot illegal?
    14. It’s barely sprinkling rain and there’s a report on every news station: “STORM WATCH.”
    15. You pass an elementary school playground and the children are all busy with their cells or pagers.
    16. It’s barely sprinkling rain outside, so you leave for work an hour early to avoid all the weather-related accidents.
    17. HEY!!!! Is pot illegal????
    18. Both you AND your dog have therapists, psychics, personal trainers and cosmetic surgeons.
    19. The Terminator is your governor.
    20. If you drive illegally, they take your driver’s license. If you’re here illegally, they want to give you one.

    How do you know when your staying in an Arkansas hotel?
    When you call the front desk and say “I’ve gotta leak in my sink” and the person at the front desk says “go ahead.”

    Q. Why does Mexico’s Olympic teams do so poorly???
    A. Any Mexican that can run jump or swim is in the United States.

    No offense intended. Lighten up. Enjoy life for once.

  3. Woody Says:

    I don’t want to offend anyone or be politically incorrect, but does anyone see something strange about the looks of this Oregon mayor? He’s for change.

  4. reg Says:

    My argument with this article is that it’s behind the curve. A line like “the reality is that black aesthetic is a huge part of American aesthetic and American culture, from fashion to music, language…It’s time that we admit all this and give it its place” could only exist in 2008 in a publication as past its expiration date as Salon. (The thing had gotten stale under David Talbott, but I give him credit for forseeing the possibilities of internet journalism early on if not fulfilling them, but Joan Walsh is more an undertaker than editor.)

    The deal with appreciating Michelle’s butt is one of context – I’ve engaged in this discourse with certain of my buddies and my wife, but I also know when and where it might not be welcome. I’ve never been impressed with people who focus on stuff like this in the course of committing journalism (like that creepy Robin woman who writes on style for the Washington post, or Maureen Dowd way too often.) That said, the uproar is also pretty silly. Everyone who has an interest in this issue has already noticed, more than likely back in 2007, given it full and due consideration in the relevant “salons” (more than likely literally, as in beauty shops) and moved on.

  5. reg Says:

    “Some people (reg) make a living out of being offended over everything.”

    This from the fountain of fake outrage, offeing up links to every rightwing crank with a crazy beef. Can’t be said too often Woody – you’re a rancid, boring piece of shit. Dead man walking…

  6. reg Says:

    Uh oh – I made the mistake of clicking the link to “genuinely pained” and found that reaction to be more on the order of “total, unhinged hysteria.” I do have to give some props for the person who managed to incorporate the words “Joe Biden” into this discussion.

  7. Ward, I'm worried about the Beaver Says:

    http://www.erinaubrykaplan.net/photos.htm

  8. reg Says:

    Woody walked into a bar with his wife. The bartender took one look at her and said, “Aren’t you the woman I had sex with last night.” Woody’s wife said, “I’m not sure, there were so many.” The bartender said, “I don’t really recognize you either but I’m sure this is the pimp I handed the cash to.” Woody’s wife laughs and whispers to the bartender, “Be careful what you call him. He thinks he’s my ‘accountant.’”

  9. Listener Says:

    Well, so much for the tags…

    Celeste, Joan Welsh should be Joan Walsh.

    I have a premium subscription to Salon and will continue to have one as long as Glenn Greenwald keeps writing for them. However, I hadn’t looked at Erin’s article until I saw it mentioned in your threads. Read it yesterday. I have the same response today, as I had yesterday.

    (1) It offers an interesting perspective. One I hadn’t considered because I’m part of the white, European-ancestry, rapidly diminishing majority. [To which I say, Hallelujah.] The whole perception, and the attendant discussion, is off my radar screen out here in white-bread Colorado. [Lots of things are, which is why I read a California based blog; yours and Salon.]

    (2) Damn! As a runner, I’d kill for Michelle’s glutes.

    My kingdom for a preview button. Any chance I can get you to delete the previous comment? It’d be an act of charity, Celeste. ;-)

  10. Irv Mudderman Says:

    Funny joke above reg! Celeste, thank you for your post, you see I sell silicone hip and butt enhancing pads. My silicone hip and butt enhancing pads are removable for easy cleaning, they are a great body shaper, perfect to create the shapely, curvy figure you ladies desire and men love to see. My product is heavy-duty and super comfortable silicone padded when using with panties. The panties designed for using with my silicone hip and butt enhancing pads are also available upon request to quote, which are constructed from spandex/lycra/nylon and has two pockets to hold my new silicone pads. Anyone else who is on the thin side can email me for pricing.

  11. Woody Says:

    One for others:

    The black talks with white: – I do not understand; explain to me, please… When I was born, I was black, I have grown – black, when I sunbathe I am black, when I am hot – black and when it is cold – black, when I am ill I’m black and when I shall die – also shall be black… And you, white… Here you, when were born -you were pink, when you sunbathe – you are brown, when is hot to you – you are red, and when it is cold – you dark blue, when you are ill – you are green, and when you will die, you will be grey… And, after all it, you have the nerve to name us colored?

  12. Celeste Fremon Says:

    Thanks, Listener. I read over that post a couple of times and never caught the typo. (There are likely others too, but name mispellings are the worst.) Fixed now. (And the duplicate post is gone.) Thanks again.

  13. Aunt Bee Says:

    Woody the Self-Important Moron.

    People like Woody honestly believe that they have ‘listeners’ who actually care what they think about the various topics they rant about in their blogs and on others. They believe that their opinions matter in the grand scheme of things. They are typically idealists who believe that one-person-can-make-a-difference bullshit applies to them personally or that they are somehow more enlightened than the rest of us schmucks. They tend to be rather self-involved or often highly opinionated about one particular subject area (politics, jokes, etc.) and feel that their random meanderings on the subject are justified by their profound and unique insight into it. Truth is, nobody really fucking cares what these people think. Woody and people of his ilk deserve to be sodomized with a red-hot poker and slowly eaten alive by army ants.

  14. duck season, wabbit season Says:

    Woody the ego stroker.

    Lets not forget the ego strokers. . . A feeling of zero self-worth leads these commenter’s to reach to the void for validation of their lives. In real life, these dumbass’s probably do the same thing to everyone they meet. They tell you about their day, they tell you about something they did, all in the hopes that you’ll provide them with the sort of approval their Daddy never gave them. These commenter’s listen to the silence and assume that nothing is better than someone saying something bad about what they’ve done and, like a fourteen-year-old with a Hustler, masturbates their self-esteem to the rhythm of the keyboard clicks. These commenter’s are often depressed, sad, lonely, and angry. . . basically a fucking looser who needs a reality check written in whatever comes out when they get a steel-toed Redwing to the temporal lobe.

  15. Woody Says:

    The Aunt Bee that I know would never use words like that.

    I’m not out to change the world. I just enjoy discussions with people who don’t have the same views that I do, which would be more interesting than those like me if the left-wingers could use some arguments other than calling me names and attacking me personally. So, when the lefties come back empty, as they ususally do, I guess that I win.

  16. Aunt Bee Says:

    The Aunt Bee dat I know would never use werdz like dat.

    I’m not out ta change da world. I just enjoy discussions wiff peeps who don’t gots da same views dat I do, which would be mo’ interesting than those like me if da left-wingers could use some arguments other than calling me names an’ attacking me personally. So, when da lefties come back empty, as dey usually do, I guess dat I win.

    Yeah Woody… You win again. Remember, elbows off the table and don’t slurp your soup.

  17. Woody Says:

    Bee, I see that you’re using the “Ebonics Translator.” You might also try The Dialectizer, which gives this result in Jive talk and gives this result.

    I’m not out t’change da damn wo’ld. ah’ plum enjoy discussions wid sucka’s who don’t gots de same views dat ah’ do, which would be mo’e interestin’ dan dose likes me if de left-win’ers could use some arguments oda’ dan callin’ me dojiggers and attackin’ me sucka’ally. Slap mah fro! So, when de lefties mosey on down back empty, as dey ususally do, ah’ guess dat ah’ win. ‘S coo’, bro.

    I’m sorry that you need such translations to understand what I write. However, I, myself, specialize in American English with a touch of Southern. Good luck on your speech progress.

  18. Woody Says:

    Celeste, see what happens when you try to be serious on a topic that liberals don’t like? They turn it into name calling.

    Well, they may forget that in the 1960′s a black singer started this with a song about a woman with a big butt – .

  19. Woody Says:

    Hmmm. that didn’t take. Let me try it again. Bertha Butt

    Then, because of your limit of one link per comment, I’ll make another one for reg.

  20. Woody Says:

    reg, you may want to sneak under your covers when you watch this. You said it was a big turn on for you. Bertha Butt Boogie – Part One

    (Sorry, Celeste. I’m finished. Maybe now people will discuss your post and it’s ground-breaking topic.)

  21. Aunt Bee Says:

    Celeste, send the virgins to wax Wood’s loin cloth.

  22. high brow Says:

    Note to Erin Aubry Kaplan: Nine-dollar words such as coruscating are more impressive when you spell them correctly.

  23. beth Says:

    Why is this writer obsessed with asses? Why is she working out her issues on the home page of Salon? Why would Salon choose to run this as its lead story? Are we really having a discussion about the future First Lady’s bottom? Would this have ever been done to Laura Bush?

  24. Santa Monica Sally Says:

    Kaplan…shut the hell up. You and Tyra Banks!!! Who gives a s—t about the bootie. You’re both disgusting. This is the stupidest mind numbing article I have recently read. If anyone reads this and enjoyed it, I hope your useless eyes fall out!!! Womens lib unite!!! Heal the bay!!!

  25. boring Says:

    What these national commentators don’t know, of course, is that Aubry Kaplan has made a career writing about the black ass. Didn’t she write this piece in LA Weekly as a feature story about a decade ago?

  26. Ahmed Says:

    I, too, liked the piece for some of the reasons that Celestre articulates, and I wish that there were more females here to expand on some of the broader themes of gender, body contructions, white normativity and the issues that this piece is intersted in, as Celeste is correct the butt is simply a signifier. There’s also a much simpler point being made very articulately by Erin and that’s the issue of representation and power. So thanks for the very smart discussion Celeste you did as good of a job as any skinny ass, middle age white girl could be expected to do on this topic

  27. Woody Says:

    Check the fashion statement of the black widow spider. LINK

  28. browne Says:

    How is Erin’s piece brave? I mean come on, this is ground breaking to people here? Non black people have been obsessed with black women’s butt for years. Now thanks to Obama certain people can just let all of the things they have been waiting to say, but knew it was a little wrong can now say it, because they have the “I voted for Obama” card. The new, “I have a black friend” card. Remember Sarah Bartman aka Venus Hottentot.

    That certainly wasn’t black people who took her around and made her a side show freak. And I know the rap video thing, but who owns the companies who funds that crap. And who buys most of it, black people are only 10% of the population if we were the only market for that I’m thinking that rap music would not be nearly so lucrative.

    And who thinks that we black people talk about our butts with each other on a regular basis in the asinine way in which Erin described. Do white people talk about their straight hair with each other, in regards to just it being straight. Do white people talk about their round eyes, just their eyes being round. Why would we talk about our butts with each other and what it means, if we all have the same butt.

    And what if a white man had written this? Would that be ok, to me that’s the test. I’m not giving Erin a pass on this just because she’s a black.

    And to me its not just the racism in the piece that bothers me (and it is racist even if she is black, she’s using her power to reduce a person’s worth owing to their physical racial characteristics) its also anti-woman, anti-feminist and since she writes for feminist magazines and uses that angle I think that she should rethink her role in that, because this is not something a feminist writes. It’s not something that someone who has the job of writing from the black perspective writes. This is not a black person’s perspective this is a closed minded white person who has one black friend’s perspective and that’s why Joan Walsh (editor of salon) is so very proud.

    And my opinion is very close to many women who are feminists of all colors in the progressive blogosphere.

    Browne

  29. "reg" Says:

    “And what if a white man had written this? Would that be ok, to me that’s the test.”

    Now we’re talking “Brave!” (assuming the guy was neither gay nor a member of the Modern Language Association.)

  30. reviews Says:

    Super site darlings. Thanks awfully

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