As Duke students gear up for their first pregame this weekend, they may or may not recall that Malia Obama made headlines in the Daily Mail this week. On Sunday, the 20-year-old was spotted “sipping on an $80 bottle of rosé” with friends in Miami Beach, Florida. This seemingly trivial news story ignited a slew of all-too-familiar criticism of Malia and the Obamas from various corners of social media. In the tradition of bashing the “wild” and “unruly” behavior of political progenies, conservative commentators heavily criticized Malia’s conduct. This proverbial finger shaking by the Daily Mail was by no means isolated. Quickly following Malia’s under-age drinking “scandal,” the Daily Mail reported on a “secret Facebook page” detailing “just how much the former first daughter hates her father’s predecessor.” But the Daily Mail’s obsession—as well as that of many other media outlets—with the leisure activities of Malia Obama runs far deeper than this most recent occurrence. Just last August, the Daily Mail detailed their sightings of the First Daughter smoking an e-cigarette and walking with her then-boyfriend in London. This was further preceded by TMZ reports of Malia “twerking” and smoking marijuana at Lollapalooza 2017. Clearly, the former first daughter is no stranger to the watchful eye of the media.
Malia’s behavior in many ways is typical of many fun-loving college students, yet instances of her “scandalous” underage drinking and appearances at music festivals still draw the ire of critics seemingly obsessed with delegitimizing the Obamas. Part of this fascination can be credited to the long history of surveillance by mainstream news sources of first children. Chelsea Clinton was the subject of much news coverage after her father’s sex scandal with Monica Lewinsky. This continued into her college days as both Clinton’s personal life and her looks drew attention from news outlets and politicians, alike. The late Senator John McCain, for instance, allegedly asked, “Why is Chelsea Clinton so ugly?” at a 1998 GOP fundraiser. Similarly, Donald Trump’s youngest son, Barron Trump became the subject of intense discussion when speculation of Barron having autism gained traction on Twitter prior to his father’s inauguration. At the time, Barron was only 10 years old, and already in the media spotlight.
Another component to the Daily Mail’s consistent coverage of Malia Obama is that it simply follows the trend of news coverage on the Obamas saw during the former president’s time in office. By virtue of being related to the first non-white president, the former first family often received unsolicited commentary on their looks, outfit choices and personal lives. Michelle Obama, a Harvard educated attorney in her own right, was accused of secretly being male by far-right conspiracy theorist, Alex Jones, publicly referred to as “an ape in heels” by a West Virginian county employee and lambasted in an Al Shapiro interview for not looking “like a first lady” after revealing well-toned arms in a sleeveless dress for her official White House portrait. Both the existence and severity of these qualms, amongst others, carry racial overtones that support the idea that black women are disrespected far more than their non-black female peers. Criticisms of Malia in particular are reminiscent of stereotypical media depictions of young black women as being immoral, irresponsible and “ghetto” in comparison to their “well-behaved” white counterparts.
With that being said, most of the feedback on the Daily Mail’s ‘exposé’ favored the young Obama. But the point still remains: despite her celebrity, Malia Obama is not unlike any student here on campus. Here at Duke, we are by no means strangers to underage drinking, partying, or any of the other things that go along with being college-aged. As previously published in the Chronicle, more than 70 percent of Duke students self-reported drinking. Even anecdotally, questions like, “who’s rolling Shoots?” and “where’s the pregame?” echo down halls on Saturday nights—including on East campus, despite its designation as “dry.” In their time at Duke, many students will have engaged in activities they probably would not want to see trending on Twitter the next morning. It is not hard to imagine that despite being the daughter of a former U.S. president, and Malia Obama is no different. While chugging a handle of Aristocrat on a Saturday night, it is easy to feel somewhat grateful that, unlike Malia Obama, for the ordinary Duke student, documentation of their Devines bathroom blackout will most likely be limited to Snapchats among class friends, and not the Daily Mail.
This was written by The Chronicle’s Editorial Board, which is made up of student members from across the University and is independent of the editorial staff.