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 BarackObama.com 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 BarackObama.com 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.