Mentioning Michelle Obama and Nicki Minaj in the same sentence could be considered blasphemous, as they are two women in very different leagues, not even playing the same game. The commonality, however, is the great lengths to which both have been dissected in the attempt to determine how they represent Black women, if at all.
Michelle Obama was immediately the subject of national magazines, newspapers and television shows in 2008, when her husband announced his bid for the presidency. With her elegance, success, intelligence and chic style, we quickly embraced her, reveling in the positive image she created of Black women. She was scrutinized for her graduate school thesis, and her now infamous comment about being proud of America for the first time in her adult life. Painted as a militant angry Black woman, we still preferred that image which resembles the many successful women we knew, opposed to the trite jezebel or mammy figures that dominate the media.
Along comes Nicki Minaj. We don’t quite know what to do with her. Her music aside, some Black women complain that her image is problematic. The conscious, maybe elitist, sisters scoff at her provocative sexuality, animation, and play on insanity. They believe Nicki’s image will contribute to the reinforcing of stereotypes about Black women.
The resounding opinion is, it is ok if Michelle Obama represents us because she’s degreed-up, prim and proper. Nicki can’t represent us because she’s a raunchy rapper. What happened to the mantra that every Black woman probably says to someone weekly: Black women are not a monolith?
Moreover, why do we turn our noses up at anyone in Black culture who doesn’t fit our very limited view of this imaginary ideal woman? We hate Zane but love Joan Morgan. Michelle Obama can stay but Condoleezza Rice has to go. The Black women in “For Colored Girls” are unacceptable, but the ones in “Precious” depict real life. It doesn’t have to be an either/or.
Black people don’t have the luxury of being viewed as individuals in this country. Whatever one of us does is representative of the entire race. So I understand the notion we subscribe to, that whoever is in the spotlight must make the rest of us look good.
However, just as the First Lady may represent women out there who have led similar lives, Minaj represents Black women who relate to her story. And there are those of us, who, if asked to choose between the two, would select neither.
As much as I admire Michelle Obama, I do not relate to her. Her two-parent household upbringing, Ivy league degrees, and state of being happily married with two children while shopping at J. Crew, are all part of the reasons she does not represent me. I’ve never stepped foot in a J. Crew store in my life. Yet, because I’m an educated Black woman, it’s assumed Mrs. Obama is representative of me.
Same with Nicki. I’m a huge fan of her music, can relate to the lyrics—but, as a woman, she does not represent me either.
Undeniably, both are successful Black women; but that isn’t synonymous with being the representation of every Black woman.
We can’t catch a break as Black women. The media capitalizes on the depiction of us as hypersexualized “welfare queens.” Therefore, we oftentimes put unfair expectations on the Black women who become public figures to “represent us right.” But those women didn’t ask to carry an entire race of women on their backs. That load is far too heavy.
Waiting on the media to depict us as the multifaceted women we are is like waiting on our 40 acres and a mule. Change starts with knowing that, although Minaj doesn’t represent you, doesn’t mean she doesn’t represent another woman; and vice versa with Michelle Obama. There is room for both. But there also has to be a visible space for the many other successful Black women, so we do not feel forced to participate in this dichotomy.
And if we insist on viewing these women as caricatures of our race instead of individual women, we are only setting ourselves up for disappointment when those women succeed at being themselves, but fail to please all Black women through their representations.