The U.S. Presidential Election is now less than two weeks away and counting. All of the major media events that pundits pay attention to — from the conventions through the debates — have already taken place. Ad buys have reached record numbers, thanks to the contributions of a few wealthy Americans. The producers of memes are working overtime to try to keep up with “Mansplaining Ryan,” “Binders of Women,” “Bayonets and Horses,” and “Romneysia” related Tumblr sites. And the race is still so close that few feel safe predicting the outcomes, with the oh so precise polling data spreading “all over the map.”
So what’s left to say? I recently was sent a new book, The Iconic Obama, 2007-2009, which invites us to consider our first impressions of this remarkable candidate, as he made his way from First Time Senator through to becoming the first black president of the United States. From the start, he was closely linked to developments in popular culture and someone whose campaign was aggressively testing the waters in terms of the innovative use of new and emerging technologies. It’s sometimes hard to recall how exciting that Obama campaign has been compared to the largely negative, largely joyless, and largely top-down model which the Obama campaign has adopted this time around. The book explores both how Obama drew on popular culture and new media to frame his campaign and the ways that popular media responded to the energy which surrounded Obama in 2008, especially as it relates to constructions of race in contemporary America.
So, I contacted the two editors of Iconic Obama — Derrais Carter and Nicholas Yanes — to reflect a bit on how the Obama legend was created and how it is being deployed/managed/shelved throughout the current campaign. Along the way, I am sharing some emblematic examples of Obama-related media, which may help inform our discussion. For example, we might compare the “snarky” tone of this 2012 campaign ad attacking Romney with the even more sarcastic advertisement which the McCain campaign released in 2008 attacking Obama:
Or perhaps we might discuss what’s being said about Obama and his constituencies through these two GOP spots, the first released in 2010, the second part of the current campaign:
Your book is called “The Iconic Obama.” How are you defining Iconic? Aren’t all presidents iconic? It’s hard to be more iconic than having your face carved on the side of a mountain or printed on a postage stamp. What makes Obama a particularly or distinctively iconic figure in our culture?
Derrais Carter: Yes. Presidents are iconic in that they represent the United States of America. This is evidence in monuments, postage stamps, libraries, etc. What captured us the most about Obama was the proliferation of representations stretching across mediums and communities throughout the globe.
For me, race was a contributing factor in defining Obama’s iconic status. Foregoing a rehearsal of debates about dominant representations of black people in American media, I will say that we should take seriously what it means to attach and/or detach race from our readings of the American presidency. In the context of the U.S. popular culture, we have seen this in the New Yorker cartoon of Barack and Michelle Obama adorned in “terrorist” garb. Similarly, the infamous “beer summit” following the arrest of Harvard University Professor Henry Louis Gates challenges the way that we think about race and the American presidency by situating us between discourses of race and political leadership.
Nicholas Yanes: While many presidents may have been popular enough to be voted into office, I wouldn’t state that every US president galvanized the public’s imagination in a manner that Obama has. After all, not every president appears on Mount Rushmore or on US currency. Yes, Obama and recent presidents did have electronic mass media to broadcast their faces and campaign logos across the country, something that presidents like Taylor, Fillmore, and Pierce didn’t have access to, but there seems to be timelessness quality already forming around Obama’s legacy. While several of his policies build upon many of Bush’s policies, there is a desire by both his opponents and supporters to frame President Obama as though he has set the United States on a course completely counter to what has been done before.
In addition to being the nation’s first African American President, he also inspired a base in a manner few presidents have done before hand. While many of his supporters may not be as enthusiastic in the 2012 election as they were in 2008, there is still a large swath of the population that not only supports his policies, but support a presidency that they passionately project on to him.
In many ways, one of the key things that defines Obama as uniquely “Iconic” is not just that he is fairly popular, but that he has created a brand about himself that allows people to see what they want in his work. It’s a stroke of genius that allowed him to build the campaign juggernaut in 2008 that got him into the White House.
As some of your contributors note, there has been a long history of portrayals in both comedy and drama of what the first black president might look like. How have these popular representations helped to frame our understanding of Obama? To what degree has he had to struggle with popular representations of blackness?
Yanes: I think the primary representation of blackness that Obama has had to struggle with is not that of portrayals of black presidents, but that of “The Angry Black Man.” Still present in much of popular media, I’ve always felt that one reason why Obama’s opposition was so dedicated to ridiculing him, even going so far as for one person to call him a liar while he was giving a State of the Union Address, was because many knew that Obama showing anger in public would come back to haunt him. With movies, television shows and other media frequently depicting black men as unreasonably and physically threatening, and this stereotype clearly cemented into popular imagination, I feel that Obama has been kept from passionately defending his record for fear that he would be seen as “too aggressive.”
In regards to the specific nature of your question, I’d like to turn to Dr. Justin S. Vaughn’s contribution to this collection, “Character-in Chief: Barack Obama and His Pop Culture Predecessors.” In this essay, Vaughn writes, “Upon consideration of the actual substance of the few portrayals of black presidents in American film and television history, it becomes quite evident that the journalistic trope about how the David Palmers and Tom Becks of Hollywood paved the way for America’s first African American president are not only poorly supported; they are flawed and false.” Vaughn goes on to conclude by writing “Indeed, a far more plausible statement to make is that Barack Obama became the nation’s forty-fourth president not because of Dennis Haysbert’s portrayal of his fictional predecessor, not to mention those by Chris Rock and Deebo (Tommy Lister), but rather in spite of it. Stated otherwise, the 2008 election was less an example of life imitating art than of it defying the expectations of popular entertainment.” (The Iconic Obama, pg. 60)
Overall, while it is understandably desirable to find evidence of popular culture setting the groundwork for President Obama’s election, there is just little evidence to support that fictional black presidents did much to accomplish this goal.
I would argue that the campaign spot which Samuel R. Jackson recently released in support of Obama might represent one of the most compelling spot to emerge so far from the 2012 campaign. How does this spot play with the “post-racial” framing of Obama in the 2008 election? What aspects of popular culture and blackness does Jackson bring to Obama’s Iconic status?
Yanes: One thing that I have felt is missing from most discussions of the “Wake the F&*K Up” ad is that was created by the Jewish Council for Education and Research. This is the same organization that produced the pro-Obama video, “The Great Schlep” featuring Sarah Silverman for the 2008 election; yet the “Wake the F&*K Up” ad is devoid of any specific references to issues specific to the Jewish-American community, and has no explicit references to any religious issues or imagery. I bring this up because I believe that any discussion of a popular campaign ad should acknowledge those behind its creation.
As to Samuel L. Jackson and the issue of blackness, it’s important to note that since his role in Pulp Fiction, Jackson has crafted a persona of being a tough, direct, no nonsense man that always has an aura of authority. While these characteristics are clearly in line with the black male protagonists of blaxploitation films, Jackson has not only made these elements his own, he has made them acceptable to mainstream American audiences.
With that said, “How does this spot play with the ‘post-racial’ framing of Obama in the 2008 election?” I don’t know. I feel that the notion of the United States being ‘post-racial’ overlooks clear disparities between peoples of different ethnic backgrounds and is often deployed as a means to argue that issues of race and racial prejudices are no longer relevant. Though I’m light skinned, I am an Hispanic American and I don’t see evidence that the nation has truly moved past issues surrounding race.
As for the ads relationship to popular culture, it does seem more reminiscent of the popular entertainment materials produced in 2008. Overall, I feel that one of this ad’s main goals is to inspire not just the support President Obama had in 2008, but the fandom his campaign created.
Carter: The ad sadly reinforces the idea that a post-racial America literally resides in a white suburban household and a quick examination of cultural texts referenced in the ads suggest as much. I find Jackson’s role particularly intriguing.
When Adam Mansbach’s book Go the F**k to Sleep came out last year, it became an instant hit. The book’s reputation picked up when Jackson recorded an humorous audio version of it. Nick is right to link Jackson’s success to the “no nonsense” demeanor, but I find it remarkably odd that during the presidential election, there’s an ad that features a black man “magically” appearing in a suburban white home and scaring three generations to get out and vote. The widespread post-racial lore leftover from the 2008 campaign is certainly the driving force.
Also, I get that the message to “Wake the F*ck Up!” is provocative and funny especially coming from Samuel L. Jackson and a child actor, but this isn’t the first time Jackson has told us to “wake up.” Does anybody remember Spike Lee’s film Do the Right Thing (1989)? In it, Jackson plays a radio dj who tells us to “wake up” . Though This gesture is a recurring practice in Lee’s films.We also see in School Daze (1988).
Lee wants his audience to awaken from the racial slumber that has so greatly affected the nation and communities of color in particular. The ad is intended to wake voters up and propel them to the polls. This can’t be done if there’s too much “race talk.” Even after 4 years of critical commentary on race during the Obama administration, there’s still a need to reach back to 2008 galvanize the same supporters with the same strategies. It’s definitely a step back.
Derrais Carter is an American Studies doctoral candidate at the University of Iowa. His dissertation examines representations of the New Negro in Washington, D.C. His research interests include gender studies, performance studies, and black popular culture.
Nicholas Yanes is currently an American Studies PhD candidate (ABD) and Dean’s Graduate Research Fellow at the University of Iowa. His professional and academic interests are Early US History, Contemporary Popular Culture, and the Industries of Popular Entertainment – specifically, comic books, movies & video games. He freelance writes for Scifipulse.net, and the Casual Gaming Association’s gaming magazine, Casual Connect, and its industry resource, GameSauce. He is the co-editor of and contributed to his first book project, The Iconic Obama. His dissertation will analyze the corporate evolution of EC Comics & MAD Magazine, and he is set to defend it in March 2013.