Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Black Ram: Barack Obama and the Othello Complex

Back to the image at hand.

In my last entry, I noted the ways in which this image works to secure and activate the sociopolitical capital afforded to nuclear family in presidential campaigns. Essentially, I thought it might be important to identify the ways in which the democratic candidate running a campaign based on “change” was actually endorses one of the most traditional, most problematic American values: the operation of patriarchy within the nuclear family.

What I want to suggest in this entry is that there’s more at stake in this emphatic focus on the family than merely helping the Obamas fit into the mold of what the picture-perfect first family should look like. There’s more to this than making Obama appear to be just like every other presidential candidate we’ve seen. This focus on the family also works to manage stereotypes about the threat that black men (and their sexual appetites) pose to American society.

I call this anxiety the Othello complex.

If you’re not familiar, Othello was a Moorish army general in the service of the Duke of Venice. Though he boasts noble lineage and countless battlefield feats, neither accomplishment prepared Othello to navigate the social mores of Venetian society. So, when Othello falls in love with and secretly weds the Duke’s daughter Desdemona, it’s no surprise that Venice loses its mind.

The story ends in a murder/suicide, providing us with a cautionary tale about the dangers that arise when a religious and/or racial Other misjudges and transgresses the established social order. Of particular interest is the way in which Venice formulates/characterizes the particular threat that Othello poses to Venetian society. Iago yells “Even now, now, very now, an old black ram/Is tupping your white ewe”. Here, we see that in alerting Venice to the repercussions of the Other's intrusion/integration, Iago enlists the animalistic sexual metaphor of a black ram fucking a white sheep.

The white sheep is actually a metaphor for the virginal white maiden Desdemona, who herself symbolizes the vulnerability of Venice's geographic and conceptual borders. Allowing Othello to cross their national boundaries, Iago indicts, enabled him to penetrate her anatomical boundaries in turn. By wooing her into dishonoring her filial obligations and sullying her with his animalistic "tupping", Othello introduces a significant threat to Venice's nuclear family structure and the purity of its bloodlines. In other words, the sexual prowess of the "black ram" carries with it the potential to destabilize entire social orders, particularly when a white maiden is the object of its desire.

As such, I use the phrase the Othello complex to reference the fear of the empowered black male entering white society with a certain amount of celebrity and deploying that celebrity to trample upon its mores and pillage its women.

Enter Barack Obama.

If we consider the Othello story alongside the stereotypes of black men as well-endowed, hyper-sexual bucks with violent tempers and no capacity for reason, we can glimpse the caricature that the Obama camp must operate against. To establish Barack as a viable black male candidate, it was imperative that the Obama camp generate a public image of him that countered each of these stereotypes. And where better than the campaign website to take up the work of visualizing Barack as a respectable, smiley, family man capable of exhibiting the tenderness required to love his black wife and to raise two young daughters than his campaign website?

This is the context in which I read the image in question. By flanking Barack with his wife and kids, this photograph domesticates Barack as to suspend our fears of the sexual threat he poses to our society. The image insists that there’s no easily-angered Moor here, folks. No belligerent battlefield buck to be found. What we have here is a man who shares one of our most important core values: patriarchy.

This packaging of Barack provides us with many gifts… many assurances of the degree to which the threats he might posed have been neutralized, domesticated and made safe for America. Many of the elements that position him as non-threatening are foregrounded and heralded in the image:

1. He is happily married. So, (presuming no more oval office indiscretions) the precious national resource that is the purity of white femaleness is safe from his untamable libido.

2. He only has daughters. So, we can presume that he will produce no male heir to extend his legacy. (A very real fear given what we’ve endured at the hands of the Bush dynasty.)

3. The blackness of his wife and daughters mark the end of racial mixing within the Obama family. Whereas Obama’s Kenyan father and Kansan mother realized one of our worst fears when they transgressed national and racial boundaries, this image assures us that Barack will spare America a repeat of that disgrace.

So, yes. This image does a significant amount of work to address and minister to anxieties about preserving the purity of white bloodlines and the operation of white supremacy itself. To be sure, this anxiety has not been a nebulous theory circulating on the periphery on the campaign. No ma’am. In a true sign of the times, it came to a head in the form of a viral video. As if the latent, age-old stereotypes weren’t enough, Obama’s candidacy was publicly and irrevocably racialized and sexualized when the world watched a very sexy, very white woman confess her love for him.

The image responds to Obama girl’s now infamous videos:
"I Got a Crush...On Obama"

Wrought with sexual innuendoes (“I like it when you get hard…on Hillary in debates”), “I Got a Crush…On Obama” was an instant internet hit, garnering over one thousand views within the first five hours of its June 2007 posting. In it, the troupe of the white woman incited to sexual frenzy by the virile black buck is deployed ad nauseum. And although the clip invites us to read it as parody, the impact it had on the Obama campaign and the Obama family were no laughing matter for the presidential hopeful.

When asked about the video by the Des Moines Register on June 18, 2007, Obama said, "It's just one more example of the fertile imagination of the internet. More stuff like this will be popping up all the time”. All things considered, this was a pretty flippiant response to the wildly popular YouTube video. Two months later, however, Obama changed his tune and offered a response that would reveal just how significant an impact the lusts of scantily clad white girls can have on a presidential campaign.

On August 23, Obama told the Associated Press that the video had upset his daughters, lamenting that "You do wish people would think about what impact their actions have on kids and families." In the two months since the initial interview, it appears, the Obama camp re-framed/re-directed the candidate’s response from dismissing the hogwash that clutters the internet to heralding a platform of family values.

The latter response positions Obama not as a blameless victim of an internet prank, but as a protective father concerned about the degree to which his incorrigible daughters can believe in the strength of their nuclear family. Obama longs for the day when neither mainstream media nor the internet can stop little girls from believing that the only woman that loves daddy is mommy. And we, as a nation of failed monogamists and broken homes, presumably share in his longing.

Of course, this strategy is a necessary and timely one for Barack Obama. As a black senator and presidential candidate, he operates in orbit with two very important icons in American political history. The first is Harold Ford Jr., whose 2006 senate run was marred by an ad wherein a blonde white woman recalls meeting Ford at a Playboy party. Speaking in a squeeky voice and suggestively asking Ford to call her, the white woman brought the Othello complex into full relief within the senate race.

The ad was denounced by many people, including former Republican Senator and Secretary of William Cohen, who called it “a very serious appeal to a racist sentiment.” Even Ford’s opponent Bob Corker asked the Republican leadership to pull the ad, which it refused to do. Corker subsequently pulled ahead in the polls and went on to defeat Ford in the November election by a narrow 3% margin.

The second figure with whom Obama must is former President Bill Clinton, the charming womanizer whose indiscretions and subsequent impeachment brought shame to our nation. Though white, the specter of Bill Clinton requires Obama to be even more emphatic in presenting himself as a stable family man, rather than reminding America’s of the libido that is the birthright of the young and charismatic. Afterall, if a white man can do what Bill did, imagine what havoc Barack’s black libido will wreak.

All that to say this:
In a time when Hillary Clinton is garnering support for her presidency based on her graceful endurance of one of America’s worst political scandals… A time when 38 year-old Harold Ford is poised to marry his 26 year-old white girlfriend (who is very much of the Obama Girl variety)… A black presidential candidate has to navigate the Othello complex as carefully as he can.

Having selected the image of his smiling, loving, middle-class family to open, methinks the Obama camp is attempting to do just that. As such, it may be fruitful for us to be more attentive to the nuanced ways in which stereotypes based on race, gender, sexuality are intersecting in the 2008 presidential campaign to create vectors of privilege and penalty for the candidates..

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Presidential Elections: Family Business

In past entries, I’ve attempted to interrogate the ways in which the Western world polices, represses and engages the racial and sexual identities of its elected officials. Barack Obama’s win at the Iowa primaries and his subsequent spike in the polls has led me to do some more thinking on the topic. To that end, there was an image that I encountered while surfing the website that is helping me do just that. This entry is the first in a two-part examination of the social functions of this very striking image:

Before accessing the actual homepage, one is presented with the image above. Interestingly, the first thing you see when navigating to the page is not a solo photo of our beloved presidential candidate. No, ma’am. Instead, web-savvy Americans are presented with the Obama family – all hugs, smiles and pearls.

It shouldn’t be lost on us that the Obama team made a conscious decision to set the tone of his website by packaging him as a family man. Although the words “CHANGE WE CAN BELIEVE IN” hovers above his smiling family, this image draws some clear the parameters about the terms and stakes of Obama’s brand of change.

Seated, rather than standing, he isn’t to be understood as an aggressor. Unlike the blundering, go-it-alone, Texas-spun tyrant currently in office, Barack is no maverick. Buttoned-down and cross-legged, he’s a casual, smiley family man capable of exhibiting the tenderness required to raise two young daughters.

But let’s be clear: He is the man. His wife is positioned slightly (but purposefully) behind him. Visually, his daughters are defined by their affection for him. What we have, then, is the picture-perfect operation of patriarchy within the nuclear family.

So, even if literally situated beneath a banner of change, the Obama family procures and exhibits significant sociopolitical capital by keeping one very important pillar of American society in tact: the nuclear ideal. Whatever change Obama intends to undertake, we must understand that his ability to act as an agent of change on a national level is, on some level, afforded him by certain privileged identities – not the least of these being a “family man”.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that Obama is the first person in American history to use their family life as the backdrop for their presidential candidacy. Surely, one could dedicate an entire book to the function of family in campaign photography. What I am noting is how the old is made new by Obama’s race.

Take a look at these images, all captured from the opening pages of the websites of our leading democratic presidential hopefuls. Notice how John Edwards and Barack Obama have chosen strikingly similar family portraits. Each has selected black and white photo in which their wives are situated on left, eldest daughter hugging neck, youngest child in lap.

Hillary’s full color campaign trail photo offers a stark contrast to the portrait studio format of her male counterparts. Rather than fronting an already-familiar Bill and Chelsea, Hillary has opted to stand alone. The stage on which she stands is covered in a banner bearing her name and campaign logo. Interestingly, the 4-foot tall letters spell her first name rather than her last. She is literally standing on her own name, rather than the Clinton surname made presidential by her husband. Despite the strategic and occasionally messy ways in which our boy Bill is being deployed in the actual campaign, this image encourages us to view Hillary as her own woman.

Comparing hers with the images of her opponents helps us to realize that Hillary is not alone in her photograph. Whereas Obama and Edwards share their images with their biological families, Clinton opts to share hers with the Great Family: the American public. Rather than harnessing the sociopolitical capital that comes with invoking the nuclear family in a presidential election, the first female candidate to get this close to garnering a party nomination opts to position herself as a freestanding authority figure, unfettered by the bonds of motherhood and wifehood.

She wears the pants: a somber black pantsuit… but she pairs it with a pink blouse. Nearly everything in this image conspires to position Hillary as a relatively unfettered figure of female authority. Not overly feminine, not beholden to patriarchy or motherly duties, she is more stately than feminine: more democratic than domestic.

Of course, context is everything. What this image doesn’t tell us is that amongst the Democratic presidential nominees, Hillary’s mate holds the unique superlative of being as much a liability as an asset. In conservative states, superstar Bill is less likely to draw the crowds or the support that Hillary needs. Amongst many feminist voters, Hillary is stronger as a stand-alone entity -- not as a female pawn activated to extend the Clinton regime. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why, as Oprah brought in tens of thousands of voters to Obama events in Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire last month, Clinton turned to the matrilineal appeal of having her mother and daughter by her side rather than husband Bill. In this instance, the Clinton campaign invoked female empowerment as a strategy for challenging the time-honored patriarch-centered nuclear to chasing the presidency… albeit with limited success.

But I digress. My point here has been to unpack the peculiar politics of campaign photography and website design. I hope to use this discussion as a springboard into a closer analysis of that initial image of the Obama family. Stay tuned.