Not even President Obama is above taking a selfie in the least appropriate selfie-taking venue possible. While attending a memorial service for Nelson Mandela in South Africa, Obama posed with British Prime Minister David Cameron and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning Schmidt. It is probably a bit tacky for these world leaders to pose and preen together, but they are only human. We are all helpless when we have such photographic power in the palms of our hands.
In the already widely circulated image, Michelle Obama is sitting to the president’s left, staring into the distance. In two other images, the first lady looks in the president’s direction as he speaks with the Danish prime minister and then looks straight ahead. The media (and everyone else) have reacted, trying to frame Michelle Obama as “angry” or “disapproving” when maybe she wasn’t even paying attention to her husband being silly with his world leader friends.
At the Washington Post: “The first lady looks stern — dare we say disapproving? — throughout.” In the New York Daily News Michelle Obama “sat at a distance, as if in disapproval of the digital display.” Someone at Business Insider quipped, “That stare can kill.” The headline at The Huffington Post boldly declares “Michelle Obama is having none of it.” Over at D.C. political blog Wonkette, “Michelle Obama Pissed, Y’all.”
On and on the punditry goes, ascribing very specific, historically racialized narratives to what Michelle Obama is thinking and feeling in one candid moment. Setting aside how sad it is that this story is even being reported as a “story,” we have no possible way of knowing why Michelle Obama isn’t grinning and posing and presenting herself the way people apparently expect her to at a memorial service for one of the most beloved world leaders of our time. Has it gone unnoticed that in these images, she’s the one person acting like she’s at a memorial service?