Just weeks after Republican pundits and radio shock jocks, Meghan McCain, and some mainstream media like The View rallied around Gov Palin’s children over David Letterman’s joke, The Free Republic Blog and its commenters made extremely racist and sexist comments about the First Family, and 10 year old Malia Obama in particular. In so doing, they showed little concern for the rhetoric that “children are off limits” or that “girls and daughters” need to be protected against media sexism.
According to the Vancouver Sun, an image of First Lady Obama talking to daughter Malia was accompanied by the caption “To entertain her daughter, Michelle Obama loves to make monkey sounds.” The linking of the wife of the President of the United States derogatory eugenicist visions of black people is not new. However, the response to that image and the one above featuring 10 year old Malia Obama and her body guards by a blog, known as a “the premier online gathering place for independent, grass-roots conservatism on the web” (free republic) and a key oranizing/fundraising site for the Republican party, highlights the conflation of sexism and racism in the party ranks. Comments like:
- A typical street whore
- Wonder when she will get her first abortion
And others referring to the Obamas and their children as “ghetto street trash” were allowed to stay up on the site for a full day before complaints by researchers made the moderators take them down. There was no apology issued. Nor was there any similar outcry from Republicans so ready to stand up for “young girls” and “daughters” a few weeks ago when we were talking about Palin’s children now that the sexist attacks were aimed at young black girls living in the White House. Why the disparity on a site that claims it does not support racism and has certainly posted comments condemning sexism aimed at Palin and her family?
Worse, according to the Vancouver Sun, the first 100 comments continued a vein of disparaging all of the women in the First Family unchecked, including not only the comments above but reference to Michelle Obama’s mother as “free loading” and Michelle Obama as “mammy” and “witch.” These comments engender a continued completely unrealistic depiction of the First Family as living unfairly off of tax payer money, that includes criticism of them for traveling as part of international affairs required for the job of President and Michelle Obama’s clothes and accessories. No similar complaints were ever levied against the other 43 First Ladies or their children, in fact President’s wives from Eleanor Roosevelt to Laura Bush have all been praised for their involvement in foreign affairs as good will ambassadors who shine a light on particular causes as well as accompany their husbands on critical diplomatic events. These other First Ladies, have all been seen as key players in the establishment of rapport with foreign leaders and in working hard on key issues like women’s health, children’s issues (education, health, safety), and human rights. During the primaries, Hillary Clinton pointed to the role of the First Lady in foreign and domestic affairs as a key learning ground for experience to lead the nation and even her distracters have praised what she gained in these years as part of her import to smooth foreign relations in the present administration. Yet Michelle Obama has been consistently singled out as an illegitimate presence on the international stage by Republican critics. Her travel is seen, not as a critical part of foreign relations, but as an unfair vacation on tax payers dime. Her clothes are assumed to be bought by tax payers as if she were a “welfare waif,” as implied by many of the comments made on the Free Republic site. No one, left or right, has stopped to point out that Michelle Obama was a successful lawyer and university administrator prior to entering the White House and likely owned a purse or two before arriving in DC.
The criticism of the Obamas as some how impoverished and exploitative has been so severe that the Obamas themselves paid for the remodeling of the girls rooms despite a 43 president long tradition of having those renovations made out of a taxpayer fund. In fact, Republican former First Lady Laura Bush suggested remodeling of the girls rooms when the Obamas visited the White House and explained that there is a fund specifically set up for the upkeep of the home and any renovations. Many First Ladies have taken it upon themselves to redecorate, as have some Presidents. Jackie O was praised for the extensive remodeling she did during her time in the White House and still is to this day. Why are questions of spending being applied to the Obama family that were never applied to other First Families if not to paint Michelle Obama as the ultimate welfare queen and to express longheld anxiety of the supposed advancement of black women at the supposed expense of “hardworking [white] Americans.”
There is something profoundly dehumanizing about the targeting of women and young girls to make an essentially unsubstantiated and illogical argument about the legitimacy of the Obama administration. The conflation of racism and sexism to demean Malia Obama and the rest of the Obama women is no less heinous than the targeting of Palin’s children during the presidential campaign. One cannot help but notice the disparity in the response to demeaning comments made about then 17 year old Bristol Palin’s real life sexual activity and reproductive choices and the projection of those same issues on to pre-adolescent Malia Obama, who is neither sexually active nor pregnant.
When Republicans rally for the rights of “young girls everywhere” the reason why such decrees ring false, is precisely because they fail to mean all girls, everywhere. Often it feels as though they are attempting to consume feminist rhetoric in order to regurgitate it back in its “proper” hegemonic imaginging in which girls are once again pink-cheeked cherubs awaiting white Knights. As more proof, the website in question returned the comment section in tact after only a momentary suspension and the sexist and racist onslaught of comments about the Obamas continued, including comments about people getting or wanting to get guns. No such threats were made against Palin’s children and it made national news and had Meghan McCain lividly denouncing the “liberal media” from her position ” as a daughter and a young woman” both in print and on television. Where is Meghan now?
But before anyone gets smug about the Republican “evil” in our midst, are Republicans anymore guilty than they myriad of liberal feminist blogs who have said nothing about the attack on 11 year old Malia? Where are the bloggers who spent so much time documenting the sexism against Hillary Clinton during the primaries and demanding that sexism be removed from politics once and for all? Why are they not as outraged by the attacks on Michelle, her mother, and her children? Why are the WS skills they use to deconstruct the sexualization of girls, the eroding of reproductive freedom, and the vilification of working class women not being combined to discuss how the Obama administration is being attacked through the perpetuation of the mythic pregnant young black welfare queen and its projection first on to Michelle Obama and now her 11 year old daughter? As a women’s studies scholar, I must return to this question even in light of Republican sexism and racism because I am deeply concerned about the ways that the demeaning of women of color continues to be seen as a racial issue and not women’s issues even when the form of attack is clearly about key feminist issues like: reproductive choice and sex work. If liberals re unable to see the Obama women as women, or evenly briefly after a woc has pointed it out, can we really blame anyone else? And why are we still failing to mean ALL women when we organize, teach, or learn about women?
Ultimately, some Republican comment makers and liberal bloggers forced the Free Republic to take down the thread. The decision, which both corrects the offense while also hiding it from public record, comes way too late to hide the truth of racism and sexism in N. America. The fact that this time that racism and sexism occurred at the expensive of a young child should highlight how deep these oppressions run in this country, all the more so because similar perpetration against children in Philly is weighing so heavily on many of our minds. While we are demanding an end to sexism and racism and hypocrisy on the Right, we should also take some time to combat it on the left, and to ask ourselves why children (anyone’s children) have become the battlefield of choice.
If you blogged about this incident please drop a link in the comment section. If you have thoughts on why we continue to fail young girls of color, let me know.