Michelle Obama criticized by press for stern face at Mandela memorial, accused of jealousy

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The Obamas attend Mandela's memorial

(Getty Images)

First lady Michelle Obama has been criticized by several press outlets for pictures capturing her stern facial expressions in a few photos from the Mandela memorial service.

Following a mild uproar over President Obama taking a “selfie” with Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning Schmidt during the same event, attention then shifted to how the first lady allegedly reacted to this cheerful interaction.

Yes, in a press photographer’s snapshot it appears that Mrs. Obama is frowning as she looks on at the two world leaders joking together at a somber event. But according to the person who took the photo, looks in this case are deceiving — both in the case of the president’s social behavior at a memorial and the first lady’s appearance of being anti-social.

“All around me in the stadium, South Africans were dancing, singing and laughing to honour their departed leader. It was more like a carnival atmosphere, not at all morbid,” wrote AFP photographer Roberto Schmidt on his blog. “I later read on social media that Michelle Obama seemed to be rather peeved on seeing the Danish prime minister take the picture. But photos can lie. In reality, just a few seconds earlier the first lady was herself joking with those around her, Cameron and Schmidt included. Her stern look was captured by chance.”

This did not stop outlets ranging from The Huffington Post to The Washington Post — known for their discrimination — from subjectively perceiving first lady Michelle Obama negatively instead of sticking to objectively reporting news.

“The first lady looks stern — dare we say disapproving? — throughout,” reported the Post in a story about President Obama’s smiling selfie.

Popular D.C. political blog Wonkette even indulged in a little Ebonics to paint the first lady in a grouchy light with its headline: “Michelle Obama *Pissed,* Y’all.”

Writing at Salon.com, Roxane Gay got to the root of why it is so popular, even within respected media organizations, to depict the first lady as a stereotypical “Angry Black Woman” — even when such portrayals are based purely on speculation, the antithesis of news.

“More than anything, the response to these latest images of Michelle Obama speaks volumes about the expectations placed on black women in the public eye and how a black women’s default emotional state is perceived as angry,” wrote Gay. “The black woman is ever at the ready to aggressively defend her territory. She is making her disapproval known. She never gets to simply be.”

Almost more alarming is the fact that respected news organizations have jumped on the “Angry Michelle Obama” bandwagon without even a shred at attempted real reporting.

“Many of these articles were just round-ups of people blathering on Twitter, with no analysis or commentary about how they might have no idea what they were talking about,” opined feminist web site Jezebel.com.

Gay also noted that there were multiple photos of the president and first lady smiling and enjoying the memorial together and with others, in addition to an image of “Laura Bush looking unamused while her husband speaks to a beautiful woman in the row behind them.” But did that blow up across the front pages and social media timelines of lauded news gathering organizations? No.

The fact that the entire memorial was characterized by singing, dancing and celebration in a style of remembering Mandela befitting of South African culture was another major detail the mainstream press seemed to forget in this entire tale. Instead the story told was one of the leader of the free world engaging in inappropriate good times with a blonde, blue-eyed head of state, while his hen-pecking wife glared on.

This is a familiar scenario in sit coms, rom coms, and other depictions of womanhood that keep the narrative of women’s lives narrow and predictable in the hopes of telling a good joke.

Gay laments that, “it is black women or caricatures of black women that serve as the punch line,” in many cases.

So do I.

Follow Alexis Garrett Stodghill @lexisb