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.


Anonymous mr. wigglesworth said...

thank you, larry, for posting this. allow me to expand (significantly, lol) on the question of campaigns, framing, and performance. i've been hoping to engage in dialogue on this for a minute, and if i dare say it, my pseudonym has never been more necessary or appropriate.

the politics of campaign design are peculiar indeed-- and they are not limited to the construction of website imagery and branding. the entire obama campaign is built on the concept of obama as race-transcendent. skinny man of east african descent that he is, campaign staffers go to quite a great length to ensure that he is always positioned as "american".

many will say this is probably at the expense of his blackness. but what strikes me as so poignant about this campaign, and this moment, is that he is not a farce or a caricature. the pearls, the family photo, the hyde park pedigree-- all of this is very *real*. this may have been funny years ago, but its just real now. the black upper-middle class is having its day, in front of us. and we can watch them struggle to outline an identity that is separate from the messy rhetoric that defines the more traditional black experience in america-- unequal access to healthcare, living in substandard (public?) housing, wholesale incarceration, violence reaching epic proportions in some cities.

the clinton campaign, and white liberals, see this and call it. the clinton campaign coordinates an almost daily effort to bring attention back to barack's blackness, or otherness. his name. his alleged muslim upbringing. his drug use (ha). whatever it is, clinton isn't saying it, and can always condemn it, as a good white liberal.

and at the core of old-school white feminism, is the idea that women get the shit end of the stick at all times, in all places, in all contexts. gloria steinem, the beacon of that school, told us as much in her oped this week in the new york times when she reminded us that black men got the vote before women. so there.

and what they're ultimately hoping to do is force obama to engage them on these questions. force him to call them on their racism. because a black man calling racism makes liberals uncomfortable and moderates turn away.

for better or worse, the only way the obama campaign can grab the nomination is by ensuring that he never does that. that he "trancends race". that he never be the first to employ any strong framing regarding public housing for katrina survivors. or asking for criminal justice reform. or any of the other myriad of issues that are arguably some of the bread and butter issues for many black americans. he must remain palatable to white liberals and progressives-- in fact, its they that got in line first. black folks are coming along, but still on the fence regarding obama.

some would say that the black middle class revels in this concept and strategy-- that he could run without being pressured to address all that black pishposh. he can "just be himself". perhaps thats true. im not convinced that hes completely bought into that idea. i think that the people who built this campaign know whiteness inside and out. and so does he. and it probably troubles him to see the lengths he has to go to really be a "contender" and not another sharpton abusing the bully pulpit. for obama, a progressive populist at his core, is probably troubled at the state of things now that hes got a clear picture.

many good black men and women have exchanged fervent ideals for power. hoping to change things. and indeed they do change things. they help americans believe that the american dream is alive. that black boys can be president. that racism is dying and only happens in small towns like jena. they help black boys forget that they can't read, can't see a doctor, can't go outside after 10. they help black boys forget nobody gives a damn anyway.

so what does this all mean? who knows. what we do know is we're seeing an amazing study on race, class, and gender in this country being performed right in front of our eyes every day. it behooves us to watch closely and take notes.

6:42 AM  
Blogger Larry D. Lyons II said...

oh, wigglesworth.
i love you like a fat kid loves cake.

i agree emphatically with everything you've said. i only wish i were as astute a pupil of American politics as you... but alas, if i am to avoid the nihilism that undulates and creeps and threatens to swallow me whole, i have to keep a safe distance.

one point of clarification for the rest of you, though. there are folks who are much more qualified to provide commentary on the election... the polls, the strategies, the historical precedents. my meager contribution to the fray stems from my interest in images and imaging.

context: my dissertation project is allowing me to do close readings of several images produced in the 20th century. essentially, i'm pairing traditional literary studies with a series of close readings of visual images in order to explore how the white normative gaze is deployed, managed and resisted in contemporary art and literature. this pairing has transported me into the realm of visual rhetoric.

this tidbit from my beloved wikipedia may be helpful in understanding my approach:
Visual rhetoric is the fairly recent development of a theoretical framework describing how visual images communicate, as opposed to aural or verbal messages. The study of visual rhetoric is different from that of visual or graphic design, in that it emphasizes images as rational expressions of cultural meaning, as opposed to mere aesthetic consideration.

I say all of this to say that I don't portend to be a policial analyst. What I've tried to do here to to analyze 3 images and their social functions in their respective campaigns. As Mr. Wigglesworth has shown, there are larger, equally nuanced claims that can be made. My contribution to the conversation is intentionally narrow: it exercises the critical skills that I'm cultivating right now rather than attempting to offer a comprehensive analysis of every element of the 2008 election.

I'm okay with that. I hope you are too.

11:38 AM  
Anonymous Fred said...


Intellectual thirst quinched!!

Both of your takes on this were expressed with critical skill and clarity. I enjoyed reading it much more than being pulled into the politics of it all. (I'm still one on the fence with Obama though!!)

If *Wigglesworth is who I think it is WE MISS THE BALLROOM, when are you going to make a comeback!



12:44 AM  
Blogger ReggieH said...

Excellent readings and commentary. I would rather read this than 100 Op Eds that have been appearing in the major media. Keep up the good work!

10:08 AM  
Anonymous Keguro said...

You are familiar with Lee Edelman's No Future? The first chapter, "The Future is Kid Stuff," might be worth a look to think of framing and the hetero-nation. (I tend to prefer the version in the journal Narrative, where he had an intense and productive discussion with John Brenkeman (sp?)

8:49 PM  
Blogger Shazza Nakim said...

I LOVE THIS POST. You have the eye and the talent that would make you the perfect Marketing/Politic analyst.

I have worked on a few campaigns and I will tell you, there are people that make decisions down to the color pens the candidate use.

I was tought how to block out the stuff you discribed when I was a kid so now as an adult, it jumps out at me and bothers me when I am hit from every angle with propaganda and subliminal messages. What gets me even more is seeing how everyone around me falls for them and don't even know.

10:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Larry, haven't been to your blog in a while. But on one of those late night writing nights when I'm down to the wire, I like to take some time and catch up with the world on your site. Your assessment of the candidates is thought provoking. The juxtaposition of Obama and Hillary is one I'm sure we'll be talking about, theorizing, and historicizing 100 years from now. I suppose what strikes me most about all of this is the corporealization and structuration of legibility. How to make Obama and "Hillary" legible anatomies the American and international public? Hmm. I would love to hear how the spin doctors address these issues and their respective particularities. I mean the marketing is quite obvious. Let's make sure to cast Barack (Hussein..?) as a smiling, welcoming, buttoned downed straight, Obama; let's place Hillary's Clinton under erasure and construct "Hillary" -- the candidate we can identify on a first name basis (Hey Hllary, how's it goin? lest we think of her as a ball breaking pant wearing pink biach. Despite all of the banality, the coercion, and the rest, I would still love to hear spin doctors struggling over the figurality and of Obama and "Hillary." It would probably sound like a graduate class with aspiring and enthusiastic undergraduate and pessimistic and insecure grad students. Peace. Back to work.

1:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmmm. Yes, black men got the vote (and their dicks cut off and sometimes stuffed in their mouth by lynch mobs during the PostReconcstruction and Jim Crow periods). I suppose BO could not respond in this way to white feminist partisans or to the American public, both waiting for that moment when they can say, see i told you, there he goes talking about that race stuff. On a side note, I was at the airport the other day and I over heard a conversation between two white men. "You know if that Obama get's elected he is going to ruin America, " said one white guy. "Yeah I'm scared he's going to flush our race down the toiet," said the other. Nation, White manhood, and Race war...all in a couple of sentences. Hmmm. I guess we'll see what happens.


1:51 AM  
Blogger ShawnQt said...

I giggle inside as I read this. thank you. great comparison.

1:54 PM  
Anonymous Dr. Herukhuti said...

I just finished my Hillary and Barack article on, called Why Black People Should Vote for Hillary Clinton Or Barack Obama when I came to your site and read your article. I had to smile like a fat man reading his mentee's article.

I enjoyed your deconstruction of Obama's and Clinton's web site images. The scholarly skills are truly working. I look forward to the dissertation.

2:00 AM  

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