Last fall, I spoke at the University of Oregon about the role of popular and participatory culture in the American Presidential campaign. Many of the ideas in that talk had taken shape through this blog. For example, here’s a post which looked at the role of photoshop mash-ups in shaping how the public responded to the announcement of Sarah Palen as McCain’s VP candidate. I also made passing reference in this talk to a discussion of the Anonymous movement which one of my graduate students posted on this blog.
In the audience for the talk was a PhD candidate Whitney Phillips who is doing research on transgressive humor on the internet with particular focus on the group 4Chan. This past week, she shared with me a thought piece she had drafted about some recent images of Obama which are making their rounds online and have been deployed on both the left and the right in response to current debates about health care. In the piece below, Whitney Phillips dissects where these images come from and the different ways they have been deployed as they have circulated across the web. It’s a compelling case study of the politics of spreadable media.
Unmasking the Joker
By Whitney Phillips
A few weeks ago, a photoshopped image of President Obama surfaced online. In it, Obama is presented as Heath Ledger’s Joker, complete with ghastly, blood-stained grimace and spooky blackened eyes. The image, which is disturbing enough on its own, is accompanied by the word “socialism,” begging the question–who created this, and why?
So far, no one seems to know the answer. Rightwing bloggers insist that the image proves Obama’s growing unpopularity. Tammy Bruce, a conservative radio host, tagged the photo with an almost audibly giddy caption proclaiming that “You know B. Hussein is in trouble when… “; on conservative blog Atlas Shrugs, the photo is filed under “The Worm Turns,” complete with emoticon smiley-face .
In liberal circles, the Obama/Joker image is causing much more consternation. According to Philip Kennicott of the Washington Post, the poster equates Obama with everything that is dangerous and unpredictable within the urban landscape, and by extension, links the President to all those dark bodies that threaten the purity of some Palin-approved “real” America. Forget the ghoulish whiteness of the Joker’s makeup; forget the apparent claim that Obama is a socialist; according to Kennicott, the take-away point is that Obama is quite literally a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
One’s political orientation, then, determines one’s reaction. Either the Obama/Joker poster is yet another example of Wingnut lunacy or is proof that the Kenyan Usurper is finally getting his due.
That said, there is one point of agreement. No one knows who the culprit might be, leaving both sides quite puzzled. In an era of democratized fame, in which infamy is little more than a mouse click away, why wouldn’t the artist take credit? Is he/she afraid to be outed as a Secret Republican? Is he/she lying low, as Patrick Courrielche suggests, to shield him/herself from the wrath of an Obama-worshipping art world? Or is it something else, something more sinister?
The answer to this riddle can be found on 4chan, an enormously popular–and much maligned–image board home to gamers and trolls. And, most significantly, to Anonymous, a loosely-organized Internet hive-mind responsible for, among other things, the hacking of Sarah Palin’s personal email account and myriad attacks against the Church of Scientology. Intimate knowledge of this group is not necessary to feeling its influence; generally speaking, whenever an internet meme reaches critical mass, it is safe to assume that Anonymous had something to do with it.
Such is the case with the Obama/Joker image. When The Dark Knight was released in 2008, Anonymous immediately embraced the film and generated a veritable fleet of new memes. In one, several stills of Batman and the Joker are superimposed with the phrase “I just accidentally a Coca-Cola bottle is this bad”; in another, a particularly unflattering shot of Christian Bale is offset by the seemingly nonsensical claim that “this is why we can’t have nice things.”
Most notably, however, Anonymous became obsessed with and delighted by an early viral ad campaign that featured one of the first official images of Heath Ledger’s Joker. His head twisted like a psychopathic rag doll, the Joker has just scrawled the phrase “why so serious?” in what appears to be blood. Anonymous collectively revved up its photoshop engines, sparing very few targets. A simple search of the phrase “why so serious” on Encyclopedia Dramatica, Anonymous’ unofficial archive, reveals the full extent of this meme, as cats , babies , Miley Cyrus and even Al Gore (modified slightly to read “why so cereal”) have all been given the “Joker treatment.”
It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that images of Obama as the Joker have been in circulation since before the election; it was only a matter of time before some clever Anon incorporated the Wingnut/ Birther/Teabag contingent into the joke.
Thus, why so socialist.
It is impossible to know how and when “Why so socialist?” was replaced by the simpler “socialism.” Perhaps a Rightwing blogger encountered the original image somewhere, assumed the author was playing for his team, and tweaked the message in the name of clarity and/or font size. A more likely possibility, however, is that this image is the handiwork of some Anonymous troll who did it for the “lulz,” a term trolls and gamers use to indicate shenanigans. A corruption of “lol,” “lulz” is a kind of laughter associated with deliberate trickery. The more confusion one causes, the more “lulz” he/she earns; in the case of the Obama/Joker poster, the lulz have been epic.
Still, the question remains–what are we to make of this controversy? What does the image really mean? What were the author’s intentions? So far, all evidence points to Anonymous; Anonymous is less concerned with politics than with controversy; more likely than not, the original artist wasn’t trying to do anything, meaning there’s a very real chance that the Obama/Joker image is in itself meaningless. This is not to say, however, that the context is meaningless, or that the image is worthless. Quite the contrary, in fact–just because we can’t affix objective meaning to a given cultural artifact doesn’t mean there is nothing to learn. Indeed, I would argue that what something actually says is less important than what it does.
In this case, the Obama/Joker poster elicits one of two reactions. The Birther crowd, for example, has taken particular interest in–and, amusingly, credit for–the Obama/Joker image. Their argument is simple: Obama is trying to destroy the country with Socialism, just like the Joker destroyed Gotham City. Of course, the Joker failed, but that’s beside the point–to a Birther hell-bent on discrediting the Obama administration, the Joker image is just what the doctor ordered. Furthermore, because the image was plastered all over Los Angeles a la Shepard Fairey’s “Hope” poster, Rightwing bloggers have tried to package its existence as an organized, grassroots effort to contest Obama’s so-called Socialist agenda. Of course, there is no solid evidence to corroborate this assumption–the image may have been posted onto Conservative blogs, but that’s the extent of the connection. This, however, is the narrative they have chosen to adopt.
Similarly, after weeks of racially-charged attacks against the president, including one particularly ham-fisted birth certificate forgery, liberals were primed to see racism in the Obama/Joker image–despite the fact that even the most careful analysis cannot account for its downright contradictory message(s). The argument might go something like this: Obama presented himself as a reasonable candidate; in short he presented himself as white. But now that he’s revealed his Socialist agenda, he has unmasked himself as a psychopathic killer, one whose true face…actually…is white…which merely calls attention to the fact that he is Un-American, and therefore black, which is why he wants to euthanize both your grandmother and Trig Palin. If the Obama/Joker image were two images instead, one of Obama as the Joker and one featuring the President with the word “Socialism” stamped over his chest, such a conclusion might be plausible. As it is, the image of Obama/Joker simply does not make any sense–but by positing this argument, liberal commentators inadvertently reveal the extent to which they expect lunacy from Republicans.
In short, despite the fact that both camps have harnessed the Obama/Joker image for their own purposes, and despite the fact that no one, no one, has provided an airtight (not to mention fully coherent) account of what the Obama/Joker image is trying to express, each group has used the image to prove something nefarious about their political opponents. Whether or not the image was intended to take on any of the aforementioned meanings, it has–and good luck trying to wrench either set from those who need them to be true. Why so serious, indeed.
In 2004, Whitney Phillips graduated from Humboldt State University with a BA in Philosophy; in 2007, she received an MFA in Creative Writing (fiction) from Emerson College. Currently she is a second-year PhD student and writing instructor at the University of Oregon. Although her department is English, her research focuses on transgressive humor within online subcultures, specifically trolling and gaming communities. She is particularly interested in the political dimension of online humor, and the ways in which participatory culture frames and responds to cultural events.
I thought I would add a few more images, using the same trope of the Joker, but applied to GOP figures, such as George W. Bush, John McCain, and Sarah Palen, all of which had surfaced on my radar last fall when I was monitoring the role of Photoshop manipulations in the Presidential campaign.
Here are a few other variations which link Obama with the Joker, which are also in circulation at the moment. Clearly, once a powerful template exists out there for mapping politics onto popular culture, our shared expertise as fans allow for a wide array of different permutations and mutations over time.
For other examples of Batman images deployed during the campaign, check out this post from last fall.