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..


Anonymous JimPanzee said...

I think this interpretation of Barack's psycho-social positioning is interesting and defensible, I just wonder if being a reasonable interpretation of his choices is enough to say that there is any truth to it.

As you said in your last post, Obama is not the first nor will he be the last politician to parade his family (and therefore his family values) out for people to see. Being a solid family man is important for all politicians. Is it differently important for different politicians? In different eras? In different political contexts? Probably. It stands to reason that being a family man is important to Obama for all the traditional reasons and for the reasons you state.

In reading of your Othello complex I was reminded of the story of heavyweight champion Jack Johnson. Johnson strutted around in a long fur coat and white hat. He carried a cane. He was Biggie Smalls before Biggie Smalls was Biggie Smalls. He was routinely cited for traffic violations, famously paying a sheriff double for a speeding ticket once claiming, "I'm coming back the same way."

He was often filmed with a white woman on each arm.


Thirty years later, boxing promoters sold Joe Louis as "the new black heavyweight." Louis, for one, was a lighter shade of black. He spoke with his eyes closed or downturned. He was deferential to his managers, the interviewers and he often talked of God. His voice was quite. He smiled.

I'm not saying that Joe Louis wasn't like that. I think he was. That's the problem. Could any promoter have gotten away with selling a Jack Johnson clone the way they sold Joe Louis? Nope. Could Joe Louis have gotten into the right without the help of a promoter that understood the social limits defined by Johnson's flamboyance? Probably not.

I think that Obama might actually be the kind of family man that he promotes himself as. Does that have the added benefit of thwarting, or at least dampening, the Othello effect? I think it does. I just don't know if it's intentional.

1:25 PM  
Blogger JimPanzee said...

got some typos in there. Sorry. "His voice was quiet." And "Could Joe Louis have gotten into the _ring_ without the help of a promoter..."

1:28 PM  
Blogger Larry D. Lyons II said...

JimPanzee: thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. your questions/concerns make me think i should explain my conceptual/methodological orientation. said simply, i am interested in social function rather than intent. this is to say that what the images DOES on the ground is infinitely more interesting to me than the Obama camp's conscious intention.

i aim to draw connections and explore possibilities rather than to present firm truths. this makes much of my work a frustrating read for empiricists and the like, but c'est la vie. folks in the humanities are in the business of raising interesting questions, and that's what i've tried to do here.

to be clear, i'm not suggesting that Obama has been disingenuous in packaging himself as a family man. he very well may be exactly the man that his handlers and his website make him out to be. what i AM suggesting is that the stakes are significantly different when a black man campaigning under the banner of "CHANGE" finds himself so emphatically appealing to a family structure and a public image that is so clearly indebted to patriarchy and white normative notions of the American family.

will it keep me from voting for Obama this november? naw suh. will it encourage me to be a more critical reader of the ways in which race, gender and sexuality inform the presidential race? oh yes. oh yes.

1:54 PM  
Anonymous JimPanzee said...

Great response. Thank you. That is essentially how I've interpreted this post and others of your's that I've read.

This essay represents a type of cultural criticism that I'm very used do. I think I felt jarred awake by it though because of the subject matter. Not Obama, but political campaigns. Novels, paintings, music, etc are all to some extent the passionate renderings of the internal self. It is easy to apply psychological/sociological readings to those texts because the artists are products of their psyches and societies. The elements that manifest in their artistic endeavors, either subsconciously or consciously, are clues analysts can use to understand the psyche or society that produced them.

Ad campaigns, and political ads specifically, are so intentionally constructed in a way that other art forms are not it is difficult, I think, to apply this sort of criticism to them without implying that all its effects aren't intentional. Or stated another way, it is odd to think that the effects of an political ad can be simultaneously diagnosed as you have done here, and not been predicted by the craftsmen behind the ad. Which led to my original question.

Thanks again, for your response.

2:21 PM  
Blogger G. Cornelius said...

Nice post man...You always set the bar...

Man its been a while since I've been blogging...But I'm back!

Same place...

I'll keep you posted

4:52 PM  
Anonymous Sangeeta said...

Hi, I came upon your blog today and think this post is SO right on!! Ever since I saw the Obama Girl video, it occurred to me that Barack would unfortunately be required to do some kind of "damage control" to distance himself from the video because yes, you're right, America DOES have an Othello complex, this notion of the "hypersexualized" African-American man. It's quite an interesting social phenomenon, more so because non-black people probably think black people view this perception as some sort of compliment to black people.. They don't realize that this "hypersexualized" tag is in some ways dehumanizing , and sort of reduces them from flesh-and-blood people with a range of personalities and beliefs, to dehumanized symbols. At least that's how it seems to me.

It's funny how stereotypes die hard. The cruel stereotypes of the past have in part been replaced by "benign" but still insidious ones of the liberal present. I'm South Asian, and am very tired of hearing how "spiritual" India is. India is not a country of snake charmers and cow worshippers. We've been reduced into some kind of ridiculous fairyland of fakirs swallowing fire and people starving to death but feeding themselves on religion. Good Lord. Of course, my liberal friends think it's some kind of compliment, and I appreciate their efforts. They don't realize how reductive and dehumanizing it is.

There's a whole host of other stereotypes about India that sting -- like we worship cows, that ALL of us STAUNCHLY believe in the caste system, etc. (ignoring the NUMEROUS anti-caste system organizations and crusaders within India, as well as the fact that this horrible system has been abolished by law, and their is a caste system "affirmative action" program in the nation). We're stil l stuck in the paradigm of Edward Said's Orientalism -- if India wasn't a spiritual fairyland, a backdrop against which Western pop stars go to "find themselves," I guess life wouldn't be quite so interesting for us in the West

I did not really think much about how Barack is embracing the patriarchy model -- like ALL the candidates, except perhaps Hillary? -- with his family photo ops. Great point. Easy to miss out on the patriarchy picture since it's so ingrained in my own mind!

Terrific blog! Will look forward to reading your continuing analysis of how the issues of race and gender are being unfairly injected into the presidential race :) :)

3:44 PM  
Blogger Hollambeeee said...

what i've wanted to say about the Obama family portrait with the word "CHANGE" (along with the phrase "we can believe in") etched atop it is how much so it conjures up the 21st Century Cosby and reminds me of the desires for respectable black families that the Moynihan Report espoused for me, how Obama's family is the quintessential change we're supposed to believe in, how that configuration of a family is the right type of family: educated, stable, upwardly mobile, heterosexual, well dressed, behaved - female - children...

so, i think in some ways, the change that people desire is an implicit desire for black folks to finally get their shit right, to get it together in our nation and Obama is sorta emblematic of how that can be achieved, in some minds. because he is post-race (through transcedance because he is not "american negro" and has a white mother), touts to be non- or post-partisan (though he arguably voted as far to the left as possible, which appears to be *very* partisan), he ushers in, not only a new type of governmental politics but a new politics of black respectability, a new black body politic altogether, a new way to conceive blackness in our minds, much too fatigued from all that talk of slavery and racism.

Obama can certainly speak about racism, to be sure, but the historicity for his material existence is very different than, say, people who had ancestors who were enslaved in the US and the Caribbean. he cannot speak of this nation whipping his great-great grandfather, the separation of his family through enslavement practices, the ways his ancestors picked cotton and served as the breastmilk for the mistress's children. rather, the US serves as a space of perpetual opportunity for his family, his father awarded to study in the US. this is not to say that shit was great in Kenya whereas things were daunting in the US; that is too reductive and doesn't illustrate the complicated histories of both countries. still, he speaks from a very different space than a black person in the US with a history very much different from his. two very different historical trajectories exist. when Obama speaks of racism, he can speak very clearly about present-day issues and not hearken back to the days that are too weighty and too unbearable for the collective psyche of the USA, very much steeped in the politics of erasure. i mean, he became famous for the speech he gave for the 2004 election at the Democratic Convention when he declared that black kids don't have to "act white" in order to achieve academically. at that time, he said:

Go into any inner-city neighborhood, and folks will tell you that government alone can’t teach kids to learn. They know that parents have to parent, that children can’t achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white.

at least one economics professor, Roland Fryer, has shown that the notion of "acting white" is not an inner-city problem but is directly linked to the upwardly mobile black class, those living in mixed communities, in higher tax brackets. indeed, they are parents who try to live out the post-race ideology materially but their children are smacked in the face with the notion of "acting white" from their (upwardly mobile) peers. Fryer says:

I also find that acting white is unique to those schools where black students comprise less than 80 percent of the student population. In predominantly black schools, I find no evidence at all that getting good grades adversely affects students’ popularity.

intriguing. so this picture of "CHANGE" unsettles me in very real ways. was the moynihan report correct to assert that the gryp of family black folks should have should mirror heteronormative white families? patriarch, then matriarch, then children? if that is the change people want to see, what space is opened for families that do not image in the same way? i've rambled more than

5:12 PM  
Blogger Hollambeeee said...

so to finish my statement: if acting white is unique to upward mobility for black folks (and, it is black folks saying this to other black folks, which is likely why in the inner-city there wasnt much talk of Obama being "too white," save for what the media created as a story towards which black people should be attuned), the fear of acting white belongs to an Obama figure because of his very upward mobility, indeed. yet, it appears that the picture of his family complicates that logic, if not contradicting it altogether...

5:18 PM  

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