Gracing the front page of magazines is nothing new for First Lady Michelle Obama. However, on August 8, a photoshopped picture of Michelle with her breast exposed appeared on the cover of Fuera de serie, a Madrid-based magazine. The image is the work of artist Karine Percheron-Daniels in which the First Lady is dressed in garb similar to that of enslaved Africans with her right nipple exposed and seated in a chair with the U.S. flag draped across it. While news pundits have been highly critical of the nudity on the cover, the racialized nature of the photo deserves attention.
Exploring the image of a half-nude Michelle Obama reveals the centuries old framing of black bodies as hyper-sexual and racist framing of black women. Racist imagery has long been a part of the dominant racial frame in media. As sociologist Joe Feagin (2010) notes, “A great range of racist imagery, stereotyping, and emotionality was communicated in popular entertainment settings from the early nineteenth century onward.”
One of the most pervasive images is the Jezebel, the hyper-sexual Black woman who uses her sexual prowess to beguile white men. The Jezebel has occupied a unique space within the white ethos as an exploited sexual object feared for her manipulate nature. Analyzing the Fuera de serie cover, the photo of Michelle is laden with Jezebel imagery.
At first glance, one notices the First Lady’s bare breast, suggesting she recently engaged in sexual activity. Further implying erotic intentions is the seductive gaze placed in the photo. Hence, the image asserts it was not Michelle’s intellect or ingenuity, which gained her popularity with Americans, but her sexuality. Such claims are central features of the racist framing of Black women. While the front page of Fuera de serie, is laden with racist framing, the article juxtaposes the first lady’s popularity as an intelligent, classy role model (especially among African-American women).
The troubling issue of the international media’s (in this case Spanish) use of Jezebel framing of Michelle Obama is then explicitly stated in the author’s claim that she was able to not only conquer the love of her husband, President Barack Obama, but able to seduce the American public (“Para conocer de qué manera Michelle ha conseguido seducir al pueblo americano, el periodista Pablo Scarpellini detalle los secretos de la mujer que no solo ha conquistado el corazón de Barack Obama.”).
The dominant racist frame has long be perpetuated through racist imagery. Racist images are central to racist framing because they create visual counterparts to racial narratives. This is the case in Fuera de serie cover. Presenting Michelle Obama as a lascivious Black woman seducing the American public, Percheron-Daniels is reinforcing the narrative of the Jezebel. Such framing is particularly harmful because is reaffirms the dominant racist frame in the international community.