The Cruel Social-Media Shaming of Malia and Sasha Obama
It’s about much more than celebrity gawking.
“Leave the children out of political discourse” is a common refrain whenever the children of politicians are attacked or otherwise maligned in the media. Unsurprisingly, all bets are off when it comes to Malia and Sasha Obama.
This weekend, at Chicago’s annual Lollapalooza music festival, Sasha was pictured kissing a young man named Matt Metzler. The picture, of course, has gone wide—along with the misguided notion that the Obamas are bad parents for letting their 16-year-old daughter kiss a boy at a music festival. It’s similar to the right-wing’s persecution of her older sister, Malia, where so-called reporters have stalked her at parties to get photos of her drinking and having fun. What it all boils down to is: When are we gonna leave these girls alone?
Unfortunately, we now live in a time where right-wing vultures who refer to themselves as “reporters” spend their time hunting for any behavior from the left that they can judge and deem “inappropriate”—which is ironic given their decided lack of reporting on the actual hateful rhetoric of many right-wing media figures and our own president. But there will always be those types of hypocrites eager to feast on others for page views. One problem we aren’t fully addressing in the Sasha and Malia leaks are that a lot of them seem to be coming from the girls’ inner circles.
It’s apparent that the person who leaked the image of Sasha and Metzler was a friend. It was shared via Snapchat, with the caption: “Matt gonna get Sasha Obama.” Either it was a friend of both of theirs or at least a friend of Matt’s—one he felt comfortable enough having around him and the former president’s daughter. It’s eerily similar to last year, when Malia was caught smoking a joint at Lollapalooza, and two years ago when Snapchats of her playing beer pong during a visit to Brown University materialized online.
After the Brown incident, Malia received an apology via The Brown Daily Herald. The paper’s editorial board wrote: “The motivation to take these pictures was obvious: Being at a party with the president’s daughter was an exciting, unexpected moment that many of us wanted to share with our friends. We often do not think about our tweets and Snapchats reaching anyone besides our friends and followers, and certainly not news outlets with wide circulation like BuzzFeed. Many Brown students were surprised and embarrassed to see themselves cited in the articles, as other Brown students posted them on Facebook with disappointed captions that criticized their peers for not simply leaving the 17-year-old alone on her college visit.”
The apology concluded with: “It is a shame that Malia was unable to visit Brown and enjoy herself at a party without several news headlines coming out about it the next day. While it is understandable that so many students were excited about her visit, it is likely that few of us would enjoy having strangers take pictures of us while we were unaware and post them on the Internet. Malia did not choose to grow up in the White House, and it is unfair that everything she does at just 17 years old is subject to such harsh scrutiny.”
The party itself was full of predominantly white students, which can’t be ignored when discussing the social circles that the Obamas have found themselves in as young women. While their parents might have grown up in diverse cities like Chicago and New York, Malia and Sasha grew up in the White House. As the daughters of the president, they were forced into a social circle that is far less diverse with regard to race and social status than their parents, so their general makeup of friends tends to lean more white than black.
Would the Obama girls growing up in a black space have prevented these leaks? Perhaps. People who relate to you on a cultural and social level tend to not treat you like a circus attraction and put your intimate moments online for everyone to see. But it must be incredibly hard for Malia and Sasha to develop friendships under such public scrutiny, and it constrains the circles they must continue to move in.
Claudia Rankine wrote about Serena Williams to discuss how the black body is treated in white spaces—how it is commodified, made hypervisible, and turned into spectacle. In her book Citizen, she used Zora Neale Hurston’s words as a point of reference: “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.”
It’s important to think about how black women’s bodies have been historically treated when you see Malia and Sasha constantly being photographed and judged harsher than their white peers. It’s covered in the press not merely because they’re “celebrities”; it’s because the media at large feels extremely comfortable judging the actions of two young black girls while protecting the white children of other politicians, like Barron Trump. It’s why grown men like Donald Trump Jr. are still referred to as “kids.”
Malia and Sasha have been forced to grow up and be treated as adults in the public eye, held accountable for every aspect of their lives. But who will hold the people accountable who find joy in invading the interior lives of young black women for sport?