Sexism, racism, and classism are a tricky cocktail. Each ism on its own is toxic, but in combination they tend towards the sort of gross Frankenstein’s monster variety of discriminatory attitude. This trifecta of terrible allows any number of intersecting reasons to belittle women, and ,obviously with racism, women of color particularly. Michelle Obama has been, throughout her husband’s presidency, subject to sexist/racist attacks that range from the subtle to the vomit-inducing. If you imagine that the 2016 president race might give people reason to turn their attention to new targets then you, like me, are extraordinarily wrong.
This brings us to Michelle Obama v. Melania Trump. It is beyond me that this is actually a thing, but since it’s a thing and because the thing is coming from both the right and the left I thought we’d address it. Two competing memes (at least) have been floating about. I’ll show them in the order that they appear to have been created though I came across them in reverse order:
Let’s start with how it would be disrespectful to call any woman named Michelle, “Moohelle” (does anyone else think they meant Moochelle?), let alone the First Lady of the United States. As a person whose name has been consistently mispronounced and misspelled from a very early age for both innocent and malicious reasons, I can attest to the fact that having someone intentionally distort your name is unpleasant. It sticks with you. Your name, even if your name is pretty common, is yours. It is a part of your identity. It is unkind to distort a person’s name or to call them by a name with which they do not identify.
Next, inasfar as I can tell, the only way that either of those two pictures relates to class is that Michelle Obama is clearly on vacation in Hawaii and Melania Trump is obviously a model. Vacationing in Hawaii is not cheap, therefore Michelle Obama must, and in fact does, belong to a higher than average economic class. Models of Melania Trump’s caliber make pretty large sums of money and thus she also occupies a higher than average economic class. That’s irrelevant though because this isn’t about Michelle Obama portraying indications of a class lower than the one to which she belongs, it’s about her being black. If Michelle Obama were white it’s hard for me to imagine this picture being an issue for anyone. She looks, as a friend said “like a mom vacationing in Hawaii.”
For the second part of the first meme, it would appear that, to the creator of this meme if no one else, a classy woman is an empirically attractive, scantily clad (probably white) woman. This version of a classy woman is fully comfortable using her sexuality as a commodity, something that would not be considered classy if that person were not white. Were Melania Trump black or perhaps a Latina, her picture would be layered with other preconceptions. What does or does not have class is more than a little subjective of course, although, in the popular culture of the modern United States, Donald Trump’s excessive use of the word “class” has rendered it almost meaningless. Being classy is, as one blogger puts it, “rooted in social class.” Using the word class in this way is itself classist. It places a value on behaviors and appearances associated with higher economic or social class therefore inherently devaluing behaviors and appearances associated with lower economic or social classes. What this portion of meme indicates is not about Melania Trump so much as the meme creator theirself (likely himself). A classy woman here is a woman, likely white, willing to present herself for sexual objectification. The question is, would Michelle Obama be treated to the same adulation were she to behave similarly and the answer is almost certainly no. This is not a guess. Remember when all hell broke loose because Michelle Obama dared show the full length of her arms in an official picture?
If we were less thoughtful people, we might be tempted to conclude that only one of these two pictures is harmful as a commentary. We are, however, clearly very thoughtful people and so we know that the second meme, while appealing to our liberal bias, is also slut-shaming Melania Trump. In the second meme Michelle Obama is pictured at her best in terms of attire, in a stunning gown at some sort of gala event. Hey look, we’re still judging Michelle Obama, an Ivy League educated attorney, based on how she looks. The second Michelle Obama picture is saying “this is what a First Lady is supposed to look like.” Given that Melania Trump is a super-model and extremely wealthy I would guess that you could find a picture of her looking gorgeous and empirically First Lady-like in a nice dress. Check it out…
…I put approximately 20 seconds of effort into find this picture and that includes inserting it into this post. She’s like a latter day Jackie O, that one. Certainly the United States has never been treated to a spouse who is also a super-model, but look at France. Melania Trump is no less First Lady-like than former French First Lady/Singer/Songwriter/Model, Carla Bruni. But instead of focusing on the fact that literally anyone can dress in a way that appears to conform to what we feel a First Lady should look like, Melania Trump is pictured, once again, looking seductive and this time possibly nude. The message sent here is “hey look at Melania Trump parading around without her clothes on! What shocking behavior! How beneath the position of First Lady!”
To be honest they could have used the same picture as the first meme to similar effect. I would point out, however, that Melania Trump is a super-model and it is her bread and butter to look super smokin’ hot, mostly so that we will feel compelled to buy things. That’s what super models do. They pose in pictures and those pictures are used to sell you on a standard of how women should look and usually also on a particular product. Melania’s body is her own and she gets to show it off or not, for money or not, as she sees fit. Does modeling as a profession come with some pretty big issues for a person who advocates gender equality? Yeah, you bet it does. Nevertheless, Melania Trump gets to make her own adult decisions about what to do with her body. The bigger point is, you do not need to slut-shame Melania Trump in order to elevate Michelle Obama. Michelle Obama doesn’t even need you to elevate her.
Instead of elevating Michelle Obama by slut-shaming Melania Trump, maybe our liberal response could be something a little more like this…
Stop perpetuating a patriarchal standard that dictates what behavior is or isn’t appropriate based on gender/race/class/etc. It is not okay.