Last week Jimmy Fallon released a modestly funny, very interesting segment from his show. The bit, titled “the history of mom dancing,” features Fallon, dressed as a mom, and First Lady Michelle Obama, sort of dressed as a mom, dancing to a generic light club beat.
Their moves are labled variously as “go shopping, get groceries,” “the hip bump” and “just the hands part of single ladies.” At the end, Obama does “the dougie” and Fallon, unable to follow, walks off in consternation.
While it’s not that funny the bit is remarkable in a lot of ways, and point sto the ways the Obamas are transformative figures. Michelle Obama has described herself as “first mom” and the Obamas themselves are a high bourgeois couple, with advanced educated from elite colleges; prosperous and successful. They have two young kids. She had a career before being First Lady, and she’s managed an aura of glamour and style along with her first mom image. She’s also black, no kidding, and at a various times the right tried to depict her as a some kind of radical white-hating black nationalist (see The Whitey Tape and the thesis.)
The clip casts her as a mom, doing the kind of dancing moms do at weddings. The video minimizes the difference between “mom” and black mom, by locating terpsichorial lameness across racial lines. But it ends by comically reaffirming the old idea that black people are better dancers. Michelle Obama dances well: she’s a bourgeoise mom who can dance “the dougie” well.
The clip normalizes blackness; “the dougie” is fun and bourgeoise rather than threatening and “other.” But the fact that it’s called “the evolution of mom dancing” suggests that Michelle Obama represents an evolutionary progression, an improvement: mom dancing is getting better.
The clip might be accused of simply playing up old stereotypes about black people having “natural rhythm.” But that’s undercut by the fact that Fallon is in drag. He’s a great mimic, and him being in drag sets up the whole thing as performance, not fact. The fact that Fallon in drag gives up and walks away undercuts the essentialist piece. Fallon could do the dougie, his mimicry already makes that clear. Fallon in drag suggests that Michelle Obama is also “in drag,” playing a character. Her dancing is a character, not some kind of essence or natural rhythm. It’s play, not genetic destiny.
It reminded me of “Master Juba,” born William Henry Lane, an african American dancer who frequently mimiced famous white dancers. Juba would deliberately copy the style of his rivals in public contests. The Wikipedia entry on Juba is excellent; historian James Cook has also written about him. Juba’s career and the Fallon clip are both examples of how jokes shift meaning. Ralph Ellison described it as the way African American tricksters “change the joke and slip the yoke.” It’s very much like the phenomenon Amy Wood describes in her book Lynching and Spectacle. Photographs of lynchings were aimed at a white audience. When black newspaper and magazines published them, they changed the audience and thereby the meaning of the photographs. It’s what Dave Chapelle tried to do in his Rick James clip: change the joke and slip the yoke.
The Fallon clip alone isn’t that interesting in and of itself, but it prompted a strange rejoinder from conservative pundit Michelle Malkin, who offered her own clip, “the evolution of liberal dancing.” She’s in a wig, with bangs, a reference to Michelle Obama’s recent haircut.
I found it painful to watch, not because the satire was effective but precisely because it wasn’t. Malkin can’t dance–her movements are awkward and out of time. (I can’t dance either–I’m a terrible dancer. But as Ta-Nehisi Coates commented, I don’t make videos satirizing other peoples’ dancing.) But also there’s nothing “liberal” about the Fallon clip, except for the fact that it normalizes blackness and makes black dance the province of normal moms. And that’s what set Malkin off. What activated Malkin is the fact that Michelle Obama can be depicted as “just like your mom” and also “a slightly cooler version of your mom.”
But to satirize something you have to understand it, you have to be familiar with it. Malkin doesn’t understand how to dance; or the beat; she doesn’t understand poking gentle fun at “mom” dancing. What’s being gently satirized in the Fallon clip is “moms.” Malkin on the other hand wants to attack Michelle Obama. Malkin can’t satirize the dancing, because she doesn’t understand it. In her clip the music is “blacker:” it’s kind of a generic hip hop beat, instead of the bland vaguely techno sound of Fallon’s clip. But her movement is stiff and out of time. Is she satirizing Michelle Obama? But Michelle Obama can dance. Is she satirizing liberal positions? But there’s no tradition of dancing in support of single payer health care. Malkin’s video doesn’t make any sense. There’s plenty to satirize about liberalism. But Malkin can’t figure out how to satirize the normalization of blackness.