Derrais Carter and Nicholas Yanes Talk About "Iconic Obama" (Part Two)

Today, we continue our exploration of "Iconic Obama" and the current president's unique relationship to popular culture. Inspired by this interview, I thought I would share a few more recent representations of Obama and the political process which have recently crossed my desk.The first represents an effective pastiche of a number from the successful Broadway musical, Les Miserables, to convey the participant's perceptions of the stakes in the current election. (It was shared with me by Virginia Nightingale from New South Wales). The second, just released today by the Obama campaign, features Girls creator Lena Dunham and is specifically targeted at getting young women to vote (ideally for their candidate).

And the third is a really witty critique of the "town hall" debate created by Ze Frank, himself an icon of the video blog world.

Now, back to the regularly scheduled interview.


The 2012 campaign has been much more centered around traditional news coverage and political advertising than on references in popular culture or imaginative use of new media platforms. What factors do you think have contributed to this much more conservative approach to selling Obama during this election cycle?


            Yanes:  I think one reason why this news cycle is centered around traditional news coverage is that both President Obama and Gov. Romney have executive records.  In 2008, both presidential-nominees Obama and McCain were Senators with legislative records, but no real political leadership roles for media outlets to form a narrative about their leadership qualities.

For the 2012 Election, however, President Obama has over three years in the White House and presidential-nominee Romney not only has governing in his background, he also has his time with Bain Capital.  To me, this means that news outlets have actual leadership histories on both men that they can draw from to craft narratives about the current state of politics.

More importantly, I think a main reason why this campaign has been so anchored to traditional news coverage is that neither candidate is particularly interesting.  The excitement surrounding President Obama because of his “newness” has largely faded.  And when compared to the headline grabbing individuals that ran for the Republican presidential nomination, Romney not only seems like the one with the best chance of winning, he came off as rather unexciting.  In other words, neither Obama nor Romney in 2012 made for the compelling pop culture fodder that was generated in the 2008 election.


As your contributors note, Obama proved to be a particularly popular figure in contemporary comic books. Why do you think Obama was so persistently incorporated into comics and what impact, if any, did these comics play in helping to define our understanding of Obama?


Yanes:  I observed this about Obama when he was a presidential nominee.  When I asked comic book creator, Larry Hama, about this, he stated “It’s probably about who the majority of current comics creators are.  Rich old conservative white males don’t generally want to make comic books.  I’m not any of those things, except old—but I guess I still think of myself in my head as a kid....At the time of his election, Obama was generating the kind of excitement I had only ever witnessed before in regards to JFK.” (The Iconic Obama, 128 - 129)

Additionally, I also felt that he had three other characteristics that made it easy to insert him into a comic book. One, he was in shape.  Comic books typically feature heroic men with a low body fat percentage, and President Obama easily fits into narratives filled with action heroes.

Two, Obama is also a geek.  It was known that he collected Spider-Man and Conan the Barbarian comic books as a child, and given his love technology, he’d probably have been an avid gamer if he was raised in the 90s.  So it makes sense that fellow geeks (or nerds depending on which term you prefer) who create comic books, would think its cool to include him in their narratives.

Third, given that longtime comic book fans still feel as though they have been largely marginalized by what they consider to be “the mainstream” (i.e., anyone who doesn’t read comic books), having a popular political figure who was a fan of comic books was simply too good of an opportunity to make money for comic book publishers to pass up.  So while President Obama himself may have enjoyed reading some of these comics, and many comic book fans did enjoy seeing a candidate they supported in their favorite medium, the reality that publishers made a lot of money by simply including Obama in their books as a marketing stunt can’t be forgotten.  (Robert G Weiner and Shelley E. Barba Obama specifically engage in an aspect of this topic in their essay “Spider-Man: A Meta-Data Media Analysis of an Unlikely Pairing” which is also in this book collection.)


It might be interesting to think about two highly iconic representations of Obama: on the one hand, the Shepard Fairey Hope poster, and on the other, the Joker/Obama iconography associated with the Tea Party. What do these two examples tell us about the opportunities and risks that arise when a candidate or their agenda gets translated into popular iconography?


Yanes: The one thing I find interesting about the Joker-Obama image is that it wasn’t created out of malice.  The origin narrative that I have always known about this image was that college student named, Firas Alkhateeb, created this image to try out a technique he learned in a class and...out of boredom.  Alkhateeb then posted this image onto Flickr which was then downloaded and had the word “Socialism” added to it.  From then, its popularity skyrocketed in conservative circles.  (The National did an excellent article on the subject that can be found here.)

Overall, these images still highlight the power pictures can have when communicating political messages.  Both Fairey’s and Alkhateeb’s pictures are fairly simplistic.  They both contain about four colors and feature one word at the bottom.  And it’s because of their simplicity that they are so effective.

Reductionist imagery allows creators to communicate a message that is so effective because in the end, it is the audience that projects their meaning onto the image.  The Joker/Obama & the Fairey “Hope” image allows those who support or are against Obama to project their convoluted and simplistic definitions of “Socialism” and “Hope” onto the candidate.


The involvement of pop culture figures, such or for that matter, the "Obama Girl" were closely linked to Obama's success in motivating young voters to participate in the political process for the first time. What links do you and your contributors draw between the two?


            Yanes: I think one reason why pop culture figures drew the attention of young voters to Obama is because they understood how young people interact with new media.  In my opinion, the main difference in behavior between those who rely on traditional media and those who rely on new media is that new media is constantly being thrown at consumers and is always available to be observed.

For example, if the “Obama Girl” video were to have been played on MTV at first, it would have never generated the attention it received.  That would have required people to sit still long enough to watch MTV and then waiting for the video to show.  Instead, people were able to see their friends post the video on their facebook page, and after seeing more and more friends discuss the video, they were then able to click on a link and watch the video for themselves.  Regardless of what time it was or where they were at, new media allowed these pro-Obama ads to be available to consumers.  This availability is something standard television networks can’t replicate yet.

Additionally, I believe “Obama Girl” and Will.I.Am’s efforts also came off as divorced from explicitly trying to generate money for a private company.  Though “ObamaGirl” clearly generated money for YouTube, and several other companies and people profited from taking advantage of Obama’s popularity, buying these products or watching these videos never seemed like a regular economic transaction.  Instead, buying these products felt like one was trying to build a political movement.  And I should note that I feel that this is true regardless of if someone was buying pro or anti-Obama material.


How might a focus on the study of popular iconography help us to understand the differences in the ways that the dominant media have framed Obama and Romney as candidates in this current election cycle? Why, for example, did the Clint Eastwood strategy fail, while Obama still seems to gain some aura from his ties to hip hop performers?

Carter: Popular iconography is excellent for unpacking the narratives that govern society and inform our political alignments. For this reason, it is hard to say if the Eastwood strategy failed. His Hollywood western, gun-brandishing, type of masculinity (see the background during his speech entrance) clearly represents America through the rose-colored lens of anti-intellectual and oddly nativist nostalgia. His exchange with a fictional Obama also imagines the POTUS as an angry black man. During his interrogation of the invisible Obama, Eastwood implies that Obama wants his to “Shut Up.” Eastwood also remarks “I can’t tell [Romney] to do that. He can’t do that to himself. You’re crazy.” His intimation that Obama wants Romney to “go f**k himself” is highly uncharacteristic of Obama or any president in recent memory for that matter. Eastwood, though is not invested in this reality. Instead relies on dated xenophobic tropes and a good-old-boy rhetoric to align the masses. If we are to say that Eastwood “failed” it is for these reasons. His so-called verbal joust with the POTUS says more about the a sense of entitlement associated with the Republican Party than it does about American social and political progress.

Whereas Eastwood fits within a narrative rooted in the grand old past, when racial and gender exclusion was the order of the day. Obama, conversely, relies on the narratives of progress and prosperity that characterize the youthful zest of his first campaign. One of our contributors, Travis Gosa, notes this in his essay “The Audacity of Dope: Rap Music, Race, and the Obama Presidency.” In many ways, Obama’s campaign plays on the idea that youth, technology, and post-racial narratives are the driving forces of contemporary American progress.This is part why we like to see Jay-Z and Beyonce host a fundraiser for Obama. They are two of the most talented performers of this generation (Jay-Z is linked to the past two generations). Additionally, their business savvy has made them international superstars. That they also make time to be politically involved with the Obama campaign suggests that Obama is worth their time and ours. These narratives  associated with Obama promise a better tomorrow and encourage political engagement facility this change. The reality, though, is that there are no guarantees.


As the closing contributions suggest, the American president exerts an influence on a global scale. How has Obama's image been taken up outside of the American media sphere?


Yanes:  We were lucky to include three excellent pieces on Obama’s global popularity - Yuya Kiuchi’s essay “Obama for Obama: Barack Obama in Japanese Popular Culture,” Zafer Parlak’s and Tanfer Emin Tunc’s essay “Obama-Mania in Turkey: Popular Culture and the Forty-Fourth President of the United States in a Secular Muslim Nation,” and an interview with French journalist Sébastian Compagnon on France’s news media coverage of the 2008 election.

One of the things I learned from working on with these individuals was just how much other countries are invested in US policies and popular entertainment.  American media like movies, television shows, and music is often hugely popular in other countries.  So given the impact Obama had on US popular culture, it is unsurprising to me that popular entertainment of other nations’ media would become fixated on the multitude of interpretations that could be drawn from the President’s popularity.  What did surprise me were the number of examples I came across in which people used Obama’s election as a means to comment on what they saw as political problems in their own countries.

Though a significant portion of President Obama’s popularity was simply because he was not President George W. Bush, he represented, for lack of a better word, a ‘new-ness’ to American politics.  How much of this ‘new-ness’ was based on Obama’s actual policies and how much of it was based on what people across the globe projected on to him is unknown, but what is significant is that Obama did come off as a global citizen.

An essay for the collection that I co-wrote with Etse Sikanku (who is from Dzita, a village in the Volta region of Ghana), “The Modern E Pluribus Unum Man: How Obama Constructed His American Identity from His Global Background,” discusses how Obama’s international experiences growing up shaped him.  I bring this up because one significant reason why I believe people from across the globe wanted Obama to become the US President was because he came off as more than just an American who was only concerned about the American people, but as a person that could emotionally and intellectually understand how interconnected the world is in the 21st century.


For those interested in buying a copy of The Iconic Obama, they can purchase it from Amazon here or directly from the publisher here.


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, 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.


If this interview has sparked your interest in the relationship between politics and popular culture, let me direct your attention to this panel at the upcoming Futures of Entertainment conference.


4:15 p.m.-6:15 p.m.: From Participatory Culture to Political Participation

Around the world, activists, educators, and nonprofit organizations are discovering new power through their capacity to appropriate, remix, and recirculate elements of popular culture. In some cases, these groups are forging formal partnerships with media producers. In other cases, they are deploying what some have called “cultural acupuncture,” making unauthorized extensions which tap into the public’s interest in entertainment properties to direct their attention  to other social problems. Some of these transmedia campaigns — Occupy, for example — are criticized for not having a unified message, yet it is their capacity to take many forms and to connect together diverse communities which have made these efforts so effective at provoking conversation and inspiring participation. And, as content spreads across cultural borders, these activists and producers are confronting new kinds of critiques —such as the heated debates surrounding the rapid spread of the KONY 2012 video. Are new means of creating and circulating content empowering citizens, creating new forms of engagement, or do they trivialize the political process, resulting in so-called “slactivism”? What are these producers and circulators learning from media companies and marketers, and vice versa? What new kinds of organizations and networks are deploying this tactics to gain the attention of young consumer-citizens? And, for all of us, what do we need to consider as we receive, engage with, and consider sharing content created by these individuals and groups?


Sasha Costanza-Chock, Assistant Professor of Civic Media, MIT

Dorian Electra, performing artist (“I’m in Love with Friedrich Hayek”; “Roll with the Flow”)

Lauren Bird, Creative Media Coordinator, Harry Potter Alliance

Aman Ali, co-creator, 30 Mosques in 30 Days

Bassam Tariq, co-creator, 30 Mosques in 30 Days

Moderator: Sangita Shresthova, Research Director of CivicPaths, University of Southern California

For more information, visit the Futures of Entertainment website.