“that one” vs. all those classy, stylish, correct (white) first ladies of yesteryear (emotions via britney)

oh, hello, we back.

2019 is already 🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥.

in updates on this mess, i wrote the new england historical society a very proper, emotionally detached, peer reviewed email taking research-based issue with their masterpiece, “Using Jim Crow-era Race Laws And Assorted Racist/Misogynist Writings Of Cecil Beaton, We’re Gonna Half-Assedly Argue That Jackie Kennedy Was The First Black First Lady And Michelle Obama Totally Doesn’t Count Because Black People Are Not Fully Human.”

(be real: i soooooo should be writing headlines for the daily mail. this is the genre in which i most excel.)

somewhat not surprisingly, though i had hoped for their better angels, they have not written me back.

and LO. we are here again.

not exactly in the same place but a street nearby.

and, truly, this is not a neighborhood in which i expected we would keep cruising, but, yo, i’ve got this phd in american first ladies, so, upon noting that this shite is apparently rife, i feel compelled by whatever the humanities equivalent of the hippocratic oath is to relentlessly dig in.

this is not the daily mail. this is a january 10, 2019 op-ed in the daily times– which, as best i can tell, is the delaware county daily times, out of swathmore, pennsylvania.

it seems straightforwardly enough about political disagreement:

“bleeding-heart liberals” kinda gives it away.

full disclosure: it is unlikely this author and i politically agree.

but that is not what i am writing about here. what interests me is the rhetorical choices, the system and historical moment in which they are occurring, and what they tell us about the status of first ladies in american life now.

the op-ed itself is a fairly boiler plate compliant about “filthy rich” liberal celebrities (a recognizable crowd, tho who knew jimmy kimmel was their standard bearer?!) who don’t get it and think all conservatives are dumb and all conservatives are “filthy rich, drug users”…

this argument begs the question of whether, if people on both sides of the political spectrum think everyone on the other side of the political spectrum is “filthy rich”, our time would be better spent asking why so many of us are so very poor…

but that’s a question for another day.

i am here to discuss this:

very inconveniently, at this precise moment, an article i have been working on for the last year about this very thing is still winding its way through peer review. so, unfortunately, i can’t point to a peer reviewed piece of academic LITERATOOOOOORE that the institutionally unaffiliated could rent for an hour for $24.95 and say, “lookit”.

what i can do it use microsoft paintbrush and point out that this:

is about race.

increasingly, having looked at the historical evolution of this discourse– what i call the dignity discourse in jackie’s life-narrative– in relation to first ladies across the mid-20th century and into the 21st, i am convinced that this is always about race.

in eloquent rage (2018), brittney cooper writes: “white women’s sexuality and femininity is used not just as a tool of patriarchy but also as a tool for the maintenance of white supremacy” (185-186).

how might that look, you wonder? et voilá: “class, style, correct behavior”!!

it’s easy to see how that’s about femininity, “correct” and “appropriate” femininity. but, to be pedantic for a mo, we need to start training our eyes, especially our white eyes, to see how in being about that this is also very very very often also about race. because, in america, “correct”, “good”, “appropriate” femininity is white.

this seems an especially vital skill to cultivate in a universe where we are so eager to erase the contributions of a Black first lady that Blackness is claimed for jackie using early 20th century race law.

notice how deftly this is done.

notice how race is never once mentioned.

notice how these grafs, bless their hearts, appear totally race-free.

notice how they appear so race-free that i probably sound like a total killjoy/conspiracy theorist for even bringing up the subject of race in this delightfully race-free space.

notice how you would never know that michelle obama is Black just from reading this.

notice how you might not even know she existed because she is not even named. instead, she is…

this last one.


igniting dissension.

no pride.


that one.

notice how, because this is an op-ed that opens with discussion of celebrities, it appears to be a critique of 21st century first lady-ness, particularly former first lady-ness.

former first ladies should go quietly into the night, is the argument. they should not appear on talk shows or write memoirs and have opinions.

um…  wherefore art thou, laura bush?

jackie, lady bird, pat, nancy.

notice who is not here. notice how this list’s exclusions reveal betty, rosalynn, and hillz to be emblems of “inappropriate” femininity.

but notice how their “inappropriate” femininity is “inappropriate” femininity, white style. because they have the power of invisibility.

here, michelle obama has neither the privilege of invisibility, nor a name.

culturally, these names have a power beyond the women who held them. culturally, this position in american life has a power that still isn’t properly acknowledged.

increasingly i’m convinced we need to flip the equation. this is not about michelle obama’s Blackness– that others her, and it lets everyone else off the hook.

this is about the position of first lady’s historical whiteness, the whiteness of the institution and americans’ conceptualization of it.

this is about the ways in which that position, in its embodiment of what it is to be a “good,” “proper”, “classy”, “dignified”, “american” “woman”, continues to enable critiques of inappropriate femininity in the public sphere, which are, in reality, coded critiques of Black femininity.

this is about how, as a result of that long-existing, historical dynamic, we fail to appreciate how the casual rhetorical deployment of these names and ideas and critiques in american media occur within and work to support a broader structure of racism. and, in doing so, empower some truly gross, white supremacist shit in american culture.

11 thoughts on ““that one” vs. all those classy, stylish, correct (white) first ladies of yesteryear (emotions via britney)

  1. It’s interesting, especially vis a vis the profile you suggested that I look at on Jackie. Arguably, Michelle Obama is doing what quite a lot of people wanted Jackie to do, no? Or maybe times have changed, and Jackie’s seeming elusiveness is now considered de rigour – even glamourous – for outgoing First Ladies. (That’s not even getting onto race, which you’ve deconstructed here…)

    At the same time, I can’t help but wonder what precisely people would look for in a former First Lady’s memoir? If Jackie had written one, would be people be nearly as interested in her talking about her husband’s efforts to integrate schooling or his attempt to reach a détente with the USSR as they would be in whether or not she had an affair with Bobby after 1963 or how much shorter Onassis was? I know this is deviating a little from the subject at hand, but I’d just like to get your take on the above.

    • you bring up a really interesting point here that i glossed here, which is that this op-ed does seem to be a response to obama’s memoir (though it isn’t 100% clear on that because the language is so coded and it opens with kimmel, so it’s not clearly signaled). i don’t know if outgoing first ladies have necessarily always been elusive (though in vacating the public stage of the presidency, they do immediately tend to become far less visible than they were, which may contribute to a sensation that they are elusive)… there’s a precedent for not speaking negatively about the people who come after you in the post, which seems to be what the writer is getting at here. but it has also been standard for former first ladies to write memoirs- every single one since jackie has done this. obama’s (which i’ve not yet finished reading) is very candid, usually so perhaps, which is quite a contrast to, say, clinton’s post-first lady memoir (‘what happened’ is a different story), and does seem to break some rules as far as white people’s expectations of first lady memoirs being benign, relentlessly positive reflections. again, i think race plays enormously into all of this, because one of the major contributions of obama’s memoir is its artful and detailed recounting of mid to late 20th-century, everyday american Black life.

      the jackie elusiveness that you mention is totally in play with melania trump right now though and, i would argue, works in her favor, as it’s a very sympathetic media narrative.

      i do sometimes wonder if jackie had written a memoir, if she’d still be as famous as she is. how much of her ongoing celebrity hinges upon the fact that she made limited attempts to explain herself? that said, we seem to willfully ignore the interviews she did give, so maybe her actual words don’t interest people that much and it wouldn’t make a difference at all. we still would choose the jackie we want. i do love the idea of a tell-all memoir on marriage to a much shorter man though!!

      • It would certainly be quite a read! People would still choose their own Jackie, as you’ve mentioned – whether it’s golddigger!Jackie, unwiselyinlove!Jackie or gringophobic!Jackie. At least, these seem to the most popular interpretations of her Greek life. And that’s leaving aside the brouhaha over Bobby and Ted Kennedy and Nureyev and I think I’m losing track of who was supposed to have shared her bed. I do think that if Jackie wrote a memoir, her celebrity would be dented to a degree – but seeing how she so often ends up the clotheshorse for other peoples’ projections and fantasies, there would be a certain mystique around her regardless.

        It’s interesting that Melania is using this technique. In all fairness to her, when she married Trump, she was very likely not expecting him to run for president, let alone win – so you could say she doesn’t need to fain lack of interest in First Lady duties. The issue I guess is when the public (most notably the alt-right) start using her detachment as proof of her superiority (especially as a white woman, even if not strictly a WASP) over Michelle Obama, whose perceived over interest in politics shows that she’s another Angry Black Woman in their eyes, and thus not proper, and thus evidence of black people being inferior (at least, I assume that’s what is going on – I’m not American, so feel free to correct me here), and the vicious cycle continues ad nauseum.

        Deviating from the topic slightly, why do you think it is that people have so eagerly jumped on the Jackie x Bobby affair bandwagon? Especially considering all the other ones the dailymail is hellbent on uncovering? It’s not that I’m questioning the existence or lack there of of the affair – more the emotional investment the public seems to have in it.

  2. “the clotheshorse for other peoples’ projections and fantasies”… what an excellent turn of phrase! 🙂

    i think you assess the melania situation well, though i would add the nuance (at least in my take anyway) that the ability to be mysterious is itself a privilege of whiteness here, because i don’t think that the narrative applied to melania would be available to michelle. much like DJT and the fast food this week- as many people pointed out. (this is not necessarily to say that this is exclusive to the trumps- these things are perhaps especially vivid/visible in the trump context but white presidents and first ladies throughout history have been forgiven things the obamas would not have been.)

    ah, the sex lives of dead people! this is the big question and, i’ll be honest, for all my looking at it, i truly do not know. i mean, if i were constructing an argument i’m not entirely prepared to stand by (!), i’d say that there is a case to be made for the trend dating it to 1964, when a right-wing pamphlet published claiming the kennedys killed marilyn monroe. norman mailer, supposedly unaware of that pamphlet, basically injected steroids into those claims with 1973’s Marilyn and then, post-watergate and the church committee’s revelations about jfk’s sex life in 1975/1976 (i was so tempted to daily mail it up and call them ‘sexcapades’!), everything just exploded from there. that’s all related to the kennedys specifically, but i think it ties into a broader cultural trend of talking about sex and love lives more openly (which, in turn, connects to a broader trend in america towards talking about everything more openly) and maybe that contributes to this continued craziness about dead people’s bed-hopping? also, it sells papers and gets clicks?

    • I’m glad to see that I absorbed something from my English Lit. course!

      Yes – it does let them get away with some lack of culture, I think – wasn’t it FDR + Eleanor who served hot dogs to the King + Queen of England on their state visit? And then there’s Mamie with her ‘fairy bread’, although in all fairness, Jackie’s being First Lady right after her probably made the difference all the more marked. I do wonder how much elusiveness a First Lady could have if she was from what America designates an ‘enemy state’, however. Especially if said country was majority white (or considered in the American popular imagination to be majority white), like Russia. Granted, it would be more than if said hypothetical First Lady was from Iran or China, but I can’t help but think that she would need to have the ‘right politics’ to be considered ‘in’ (and not a modern day Lady Macbeth). I.e. she would need to champion American interference in that country’s politics (I write interference because from the perspective of the other country, it would be that, even if from the American perspective it is them saving other country from itself). In fact, I wonder how much elusiveness an immigrant First Lady in general could have, if she wasn’t white (or not ‘correct white’), regardless of politics. Hmmm…

      On a slightly different topic, if I was a biographer I think people would quickly recognise my banging on about culture in my biographies as being a preoccupation of mine!

      It is interesting that it’s usually the right wing who are the first to use the ‘he had an affair with x’ technique in order to disparage a (usually) Democrat president. With Trump it’s probably the first time the Democrats really got involved with this sort of thing (in all fairness, Stormy Daniels was the first to talk about it and the Democrats just amplified her voice?).

      But I wonder if America in general has an issue (or several issues) with the Madonna Whore Complex. It seems to apply it to almost everything – a president / presidential candidate (exhibit A can be the Kennedys), a foreign country / leader (remembering the red carpet rolled out for certain Arab leaders prior to 2011), immigrants (i.e. if you are the right kind of immigrant – white and Scandinavian – you’re a Madonna, but the moment you suggest empathy with, for example, black people or Hispanics or even ‘enemy’ states, you’re off your pedestal). I am sorry for the politics dump here – I tried to avoid it as much as possible as I am trying to escape the subject – but unfortunately for me, politics is tightly intertwined with culture.

      • oh absolutely, the two are very intertwined. your mentioning of the madonna/whore complex seems to bring us back to the sex of lives of dead people- i do find the split in the jackie story interesting… by which i mean the narrative that she was Ideal American (White) Woman/Widow Kennedy and the coexistent, more recent, narrative that she slept with every single man she ever smiled at. it says something- and i’m still not sure what- about where we are as a culture right now that we seem to need her to be both those things.

  3. Ah yes. The Sex Lives of Dead People. I’m sure you could write a PHD on that by now!

    I wonder if the above isn’t mainly some kind of modern myth making, however? I.e. in the sense that it taps into the collective consciousness, and then takes form according to individual biases in a sense – e.g. the JFK / MM affair – the President was young and hot and charismatic and MM was the sex symbol of the age – why wouldn’t they have an affair? So I guess it’s less to do with what actually happened and more about what people think / want to have happened…? Maybe?

    Re Jackie and the Madonna Whore Complex – do you think it could be America’s delayed and sustained reaction to the events of the 60s + Nixon’s presidency? As in, it’s got to the point that it wants to continue to believe in fairy tale-esque stories such as Camelot, but at the same time has a hyper awareness of deceit or perceived deceit, so therefore swings wildly between considering someone like Jackie a Madonna and considering her a Whore (esp. post her Onassis marriage). I guess in the end it’s the same as the above – Jackie did this or that because of these reasons, and this is the correct version of events because the reasoning makes sense to me / that is what I would do if I was her, and since she did that because of this, she is x, y and z (and ditto JFK / RFK / MM).

    At the same time, humans in general aren’t good at accepting both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ existing together in one person / thing, so if a ‘saint’ turns out to have less than stellar qualities, they are automatically designated as being the devil reincarnate by some (and vice versa). It’s almost like humans are uncomfortable with the idea of complexity or nuance in other people’s characters and decisions (and even their own, me thinks)…

    If I have repeated myself ad nauseum I apologise – I’ve spent far too long typing essays! In any case, what do you think?

  4. Pingback: are we really being mean to melania? | finding jackie

  5. Pingback: a brief word on this portrayal of duchess kate’s white fragility | finding jackie

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