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Jul 05, 2007

The Billary Problem


by John Lucaites

What do we do with Bill in pictures with Hillary?

If Bill Clinton were as relatively lesser known or recognizable as most candidates for “First Lady,” the problem might be easier.  After all, there are a host of conventions for photographing candidate and “wife.”  The candidate is generally featured – sometimes because he is physically larger, sometimes because he is slightly in front of or above his spouse in the frame—usually in sharper focus, looking at “his” constituency.  "She" will usually be behind him (or besides), but often in softer focus, seeming to model how the audience should look at him, or looking toward the audience as if guided by his gaze.  (There are variations and exceptions, of course, but they generally reinforce recognizable conventions and forms.)

The problem is that Bill is neither unknown nor unrecognizable, and, at least of late, his presence is precisely to be “seen.”  So what are photojournalists to do?  Should they simply follow convention and treat Bill like any other spouse, standing “beside his woman”?

Even if gender differences didn’t already complicate this problem, Bill’s notoriety does.  And one has to believe that photojournalists know this.  And so we, too, have to assume that they are quite conscious of every picture they take with Bill and Hillary in it – the "Billary problem" – regardless of whether they follow old conventions or seek a new way to adapt.  In other words, what we are getting here is not the ordinary “window on the world” that we like to think photojournalism offers.  Instead, we have a situation where every photograph is crafted to its effect.

This hypothesis -- and that’s what it is, a supposition to be tested -- has raised some interesting problems recently concerning a photo of Bill at Hillary's feet.  The NYT featured the image on March 31st leading a story titled “Clinton Camp Turns to a Star in Money Race”:

Billary 1

Last week, we talked about “hands” as an expression of social and political agency.  Here, we have a different body part featured, so we might ask what feet or footwear might signify in this kind of imagery.  And if you think it doesn’t have symbolic value, just recall how shoes are used at the U.S. Holocaust Museum; or how  boots have been laid out in the past few months as a memorial to dead soldiers – sometimes in patriotic memory, sometimes in protest; or to the emphasis on boots in the recent election between George Allen and Jim Webb?

I won’t presume to say what “feet,” “shoes” or “boots” mean as a visual trope, but they are clearly featured over and again.  Here, I suspect, the shoes are calling reference to gender and to class (these are clearly not work shoes, for men or women, and can anyone really rule in 3 inch heels?).  But, while they are in the foreground. they are also in soft focus.  And so our attention moves from them to the face beside the legs.

I could speculate on the elements and composition, but I assume that many at the BAG will have much to say about the image.  But there is something else.  Each weekday the on-line version of the Washington Post features a slide show of the “Day in Photos.”  This past Monday, this photograph showed up in the middle of the slide show:

Billary 2

And the question has to be why?

Why this day nearly three months after the original was published?  And why, in this version, a smirk and this gaze?  Bill is now no longer looking at Hillary at all but, apparently, towards the audience; and the smirk has a “licking of the chops” quality to it.

And as you ponder that editorial decision, consider this:  As I went in search of the original NYT image on-line, I discovered that the the Times – which had originally led its March 31st story with the first image above (I have a screen slide of the original web page saved on my computer and am happy to share it) had since replaced it with the image below:

Billary 3

Here, of course, we have a virtual Hillary, literally an apparition, a screened image not the real thing, appearing to look at Bill.  The expression on his face is really quite different, and notice (once again) the hands, which seem slightly large in perspective and anything but relaxed and comfortable.

So, what are we to make of all of this?  Why does the original photograph all of a sudden show up at WAPO?  Why does it disappear from the Times?  And what does it say about the “paper of record” that the archive has apparently changed so easily?  And what are we to make of the substitute?  And, more, how are we to understand photo-representations of “Billary” here and elsewhere?

As I suggest above, Bill is clearly there to be seen.  The question is, what are we being shown?  And by whom?  And if you are a photojournalist, what do you do?  Do you follow the tried and true conventions?  Or do you adapt?  And what does that involve?

John Louis Lucaites is Professor of Rhetoric and Public Culture in the department of communication and culture at Indiana University. John, along with Robert Hariman, are co-authors of the newly released No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy, and the blog No Caption Needed.

(image 1: still looking. image 2:  Haraz N. Ghanbari, File/AP. March 20, 2007.; image 3: Jim Young/Reuters. published March 2007.


Golly, the day after the 4th! Well, I think you nailed it....someone, some persons, editors, with an agenda edited these. But, if one waits long enough, one can come up with pictures of people which can be used to make almost any point. We can only guess at what Bill is thinking, but, with his extreme political consciousness and ego, he knows he's on view and he also is thinking critically about Hillary. Oh, and the smirk. He actually does it better than Bush does.

The shoes: they are 3 inches, only about 2, and very thin, which makes them very uncomfortable to stand in, but they contribute to the "little lady" look, which contrasts so with the big man macho Bill, between her feet. He isn't diminished down there...his persona is so huge!

The editors no doubt, want to leave us with the impression that Bill will be there, in some role, and it will not be an invisible one: two Presidents, two clintons, instead of one. [Lord help us!]

can anyone really rule in 3 inch heels?

only a man could look at that picture and see/project 3-inch heels. a little over an inch, at most, and clearly designed to be comfortable all day long. nobody asks whether men can "rule" in neckties, despite the fact that they've been shown to decrease brain function . . .


Okay, so they aren't 3 inch heels. I got that part wrong. It doesn't change the main point, however, that these are not "work shoes" and they do mark both gender and class. As to the issue of gender and the difference between heels and neckties ... of course you are right. I didn't mean to be suggesting that women can't ... I was (ineffectively) trying to attention to what I take to a somewhat subtle cultural assumption and perhaps the symbolic significance of the shoes.

On a slight side note: I was recently in D.C. lobbying for a humanities group. We were instructed the day before to "wear comfortable shoes" which struck me as an unnecessary suggestion. After all, who in their right mind would run around D.C. in "uncomfortable" shoes. It was not until the next day that I realized that the comment was not meant for "men" but for "woman" -- all of whom would run around in sandals or running shoes UNTIL we got to a particular congressional building, and then they would stop and slap on heels ... WHy? Well, it has something to do with the "look" ... And I have to say, as a man, they don't look terribly comfortable. But then again, the point about ties is well taken. They don't look comfortable either, but I have to admit to not really mind wearing one in "formal" situations.

It doesn't change the main point, however, that these are not "work shoes" and they do mark both gender and class.

Oy! Again, spoken like a man! Obviously you never had to "work" in pantyhose!

But Hillary has. I think you (inadvertently) nailed a gender issue all right: Women are not going to "respond" to shoes the way men might.

Geez, John, you really have no idea what you're talking about re: women's work shoes. Those shoes of Hillary's are definitely stylish, classy, understated work shoes. They are probably *very* comfortable, if she's used to balancing on the small heels. As far as your colleagues switching from comfortable shoes to more dressy ones - no, dressy shoes aren't made for galloping around town. Heels also add stature to women (as we are usually shorter than men), and as a 5'1" woman who can't abide heels, I simply have learned (at 49) to not care what folks think. But politicians have no leeway. Imagine if she'd shown up in "comfortable" shoes? Folks would be talking about how she's probably a lesbian.

Like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - Ginger had to dance backwards and in heels...

It's always going to be tougher for a woman to be taken seriously in our society. And that's the problem. Hillary is a strong woman. I think the point in the pictures is "do we really want a woman standing over us?"

It deeply upsets the patriarchy that a woman is taken seriously. Very deeply.

"Geez, John, you really have no idea what you're talking about re: women's work shoes. "

I concede the point!

"Those shoes of Hillary's are definitely stylish, classy, understated work shoes. They are probably *very* comfortable, if she's used to balancing on the small heels."

I'm quite sure you can persuade yourself that walking around in tiny heels is classy and comfortable (just like I can persuade myself that wearing a tie is comfortable and looks good). The difference, of course, is that my tie doesn't really alter my mobility very much (unless, I suppose, I'm working on a machine with cogs and the like), but wearing heals like that very clearly limits mobility (and by extension, agency). In my opinion -- and it is just an opinion -- heeled shoes like that are only a slightly more civilized version of foot binding (which I've seen reported, many women did voluntarily). But, as I said above, I know little about women's shoes.

"But politicians have no leeway. Imagine if she'd shown up in "comfortable" shoes? Folks would be talking about how she's probably a lesbian."

My point exactly (more or less). Shoes have a symbolic value ... there are expectations for what to wear and when ... and when we don't do it "right" we risk being disciplined. And, of course, sometimes we get caught in double binds. I think that's part of Hillary's problem. But my larger point is that should not surprise us that "shoes" get featured in such imagery. What exactly do they mean? Well, as your apt comments point out, its open to debate and discussion.

At least these photos destroy the much touted right wing lie that Hillary has "fat ankles". One more lie exposed, 7,000,000 to go.

I feel obliged to preface this by saying that I deeply respect John's thinking and writing, and found No Caption Needed to be clear-headed, authoritative on its subject and appropriate for our time.

But honestly, if the shot with the shoes is the one worth taking on here (and I'm not convinced that it is), it's irresponsible for someone who's taking the reading of images seriously to say something like "these are not work shoes." These are absolutely work shoes, these are nothing other than work shoes, these are as sensible as sensible shoes get for a professional woman. Any woman who works in an environment requiring what mainstream American corporate culture considers "professional attire" has to get used to working in shoes more or less like this from the day she enters the workforce, if not sooner. And you know what: she learns not to dwell on it, appropriate attire is part of the job, and usually not a part she's bound to spend much of the workday thinking about.

If by "work shoes" you mean something more like what would work in a pink-collar or medical profession, I don't see what productive destination an association like that would lead to. Sure, the shoes "mark both gender and class." So does everything else people are wearing in these photographs.

Given that these shoes are appropriate to the wearer's profession and the occasion -- not too high in the heel, too obviously pointy or strappy or otherwise impractical -- the only thing I personally could say about these particular shoes is that the match between shoes and pants here strikes me much more as "mature" than, shall we say, "fashion forward." They're good shoes, but far from risky in any noticable way. But then -- I wouldn't have paid much attention to them. I would have thought more about why one would find it fitting or amusing to frame the former president's head between the senator-candidate's feet. Kind of an eye-roller for me, I have to admit, and I honestly don't think this is going to become an "iconic" way of framing this couple.

But perhaps this picture (and discussion) does bring out certain gender-based differences of response that reflect tellingly on the Clintons and the myriad conflictinging things they represent. Unfortunate if so, but something it seems we're going to have to deal with.

Okay, its more than possible that I have the shoes wrong here. Although I must admit that I continue to be struck by the fact that two different photographers saw fit to take almost the same picture, and if the shoes aren't important, why feature them in the image? And why do they tend to show up and function symbolically in so many places?

But that aside, it seems to me that a bigger issue here is why the image disappears from the Times website (the "paper of record") and is replaced with a very different image? Or why does it show up three months late at the WP as a "picture of the day"? No one seems to have commented on this yet, and it strikes me as a potentially important point ... No?

P.S. Thanks for reading the book!

John, the shoes are minor compared to an image of Bill Clinton's head between Hillary Clinton's legs. Let's talk about the photographers' intentions with that symbolism.

Why not run the "screen slide of the original web page saved" of the "vanished" NYT shot of Clinton instead of just talking about it?

Joe McCarthy used to get folks all upset by yammering about lists of Commies in various government jobs. He'd wave a folded piece of paper around but never showed what was on it.

The last image of Bill shows an expression I have never seen before in pictures of him -- he looks, well, angry. Stephanopolus spoke of his "purple rages" but he carefully supressed this aspect of himself in public.

Sigolene Royale was recently up for Presidency in France - would've been the first woman President - like Hillary. In her case her 'partner' (live in baby's papa but not married) was actually fully acknowledging in the press that he had been in competition with his own wife to get the nomination for their party.

In this case the rivalry goes unacknowledged.

Bill's ego is legendary. It's said he can't even hold a conversation, he just blathers on and expects you to listen. I wonder just how that's going to work - what kind of effect this 'two for one' deal is going to have on Billary's statecraft.

I'm praying she doesn't get the nomination. Literally praying.

OK, John, I have to say it - as soon as I read that about the shoes, I also immediately thought: they're not 3 inch heels, and they certainly are "work shoes" for a woman in her line of work.

But you reminded me... I once had a professor who was originally from China and still a Communist, who argued that women's wearing of pointy toes and high heels, as well as bras, panty hose and girdles (I guess that's a little dated) was an extension of the same idea as foot binding.

Anyway... I saw this photo (the NY Times one) on the BBC World website a while ago. Actually, I wanted to send it to the BAG, but it was just a small image and it didn't let you click to enlarge or anything. The reason I was going to send it was because it reminded me of one where we saw Barack Obama's feet on a stage like that, with his wife's face looking on. (I'll go and try to find it now.) And since we had already discussed that image, it put this one in a different perspective.

I think if I didn't know who Bill and Hillary were, I might think Bill was her father. In some photos he looks proud, and on others he looks nervous, as if he's hoping she'll do well.

If the Washington Post photos are supposed to be from the day before, then it is strange that this photo showed up so much later - unless it actually was taken later. Is that possible? Her pants look blue in the NY Times photo and more grey in the "Day in Photos" one - is that just the lighting, or is it a different day?

OK, here's the post with Michelle Obama looking at her husband, with us only seeing his legs and feet.

Back in February (as ummabdulla just mentioned above), The BAG posted this nearly identical image of Barack and Michelle Obama, which was published in Newsweek. In that post he said:

Given the candidate lacking a head, Michelle's proximity, and the spouse monitoring things more closely than the handler (if that's what the guy on the left happens to be), we have the image of the spouse as the ultimate political player. Given the theme of the article, it seems like we're also prompted, at least on one level, to imagine Hillary standing in Barack's place, and Bill -- suddenly materialized -- measuring Hillary's every gesture and word.

In case we had trouble imagining it, some photographers (and editors) got right on it.

First of all, good luck to anyone who wants to try to convince me that deliberately cropping off a candidate's head is not a deliberately marginalizing (and all-around negative) tactic. I'd like to ask news editors and campaign photographers: Have you cropped the heads off any Republican candidates? Because that would certainly be appropriate and fair. Since there is only one female candidate from either party, Hillary in these images has been reduced to her sex by showing only her shoes and her husband. How regressive is that?

Second, whether we like it or not, Bill Clinton is a former president. I am curious how many photographers attempt to degrade other living former presidents. With Monica Lewinsky/oral sex references so easily conjured, it's all too tempting to "frame" Bill Clinton in a "compromising position." So why do it? To pander to the Right? I don't see these images of Bill and Hillary as anything but disrespectful and intending to trigger (nauseate, manipulate) viewers (voters) who react with repulsion to Bill Clinton's explicitly documented past behavior in the White House.

Thanks once again, NYT and WAPO editors, for revealing your prejudices.

I only read this stuff to see what RTBAG, ummabdulla, that Tate guy, and some others whose avatars I just can't remember tonight, but you know you are as you are longtimers.

I am getting rather disappointed in the material that Dr. Shaw is offering lately. Hello?

I LOVE those shoes!!!! And I love the fact that they stand out so much from her suit; they do not blend in at all. If she had matched the color of her suit to the color of her shoes, she'd look like a huge penny on stage.

I think her shoes say I AM DIFFERENT.

I only wish she were or would be.

If that 'Tate guy' is P,
a guy she not be.


I've been wrong before,

I was with you on the framing, RTBaG. I thought it was gratuitously lascivious as well.

Sorry to divert here, but I have to ask Asta to elaborate. What are you seeing too much of? Not enough of? Not as much of? You can answer here, or email me. Openbag AT bagnews dot com. Thanks!

just to add on the shoe issue because I think its interesting, my wife is an exec at a internet commerce company. She left with a similar shoe this morning, the heel is the same type, I can tell you she considers this type to be a comfortable type and it was bought purely for work, they don't seem to affect her mobility at all, she does wear 3 inch heels also so maybe its relative, funny thing is she usually wears the 3 inch pointy ones on "casual" fridays with jeans. She has more shoes than I would have ever thought necessary years ago but the thing is they really are necessary in the corporate world for a woman if you want to project leadership, I'm sure that sounds contradictory to some but women can be judged harshly on dress and one way to overcome that is to just be impeccable. One thing about the photos that jumps out at me fashion wise is the pant length, it looks too short to me, by at least an inch. I'm sure Hillary has help on this and knows how to dress but I know the wife would never go out like that, she's all about matching the shoe to length, like when she wears the 3 inchers with jeans they have to go right to the bottom of the heal. I may be wrong but it looks off to me.

I think the photographer was just going for the "man behind the woman" image and the fact we see her shoes just points out that she is towering above him, maybe ironically, but even so he is the one in focus. Its almost like we have to see his face to see what he is thinking of her so we know what to think of her. I think there is something about class and the shoes also, like John didn't see these as work shoes but to many people they are work shoes. Could these be the new work shoes? Only some people don't realize it yet. A symbol of women beginning to come into their own in the workplace, and politics.

E. Smith: All very illuminating. And your point about how women are "measured" in such a fashion reinforces in its own way my earlier comments about the women in D.C. who run around in sandals or running shoes, but once they get to the office of a Congressperson they turn to these other shoes that simply cannot be as comfortable as the running shoes -- if so, why not wear them all the time? BUT I get your point and its an important one. They are, after a "fashion," work shoes. When I said work shoes I was making a very "classist" (and on reflection a quite possibly sexist) comment. I could not imagine a "working" person waiting tables or directing traffic or delivering goods in such shoes. Nor, I might add, could I see a man wearing his florsheim wingtips while doing these tasks.

The key point in all of of this for me -- and the discussion has been very helpful in my other projects -- is that "shoes" matter! They have a symbolic significance. And maybe the photographer didn't do this intentionally, BUT the sheer ubiquity of the focus on shoes/boots/feet in photojournalism certainly suggests something of a convention ... and as such, something we need to think about more. My reading -- or any particular reading -- might not get it right, but if anything this conversation convinces me that there is something to get.

Yes John, there is much to "get" here. Thanks for the thought provoking discussion. I have been lurking here for years and this is the first time I ever commented so you made me care I guess. :)

It is easy to forget about class and how some things are markers. I hope you don't feel your main points were hijacked by shoe discussion, lol.

To your question of "why does it show up three months late at the WP as a picture of the day?" Maybe someone saw something symbolic in it like you did, for whatever you might think of the shoe it is clearly not a man's shoe. As to why the photo was replaced, maybe the first photo suggested that "he should the one on stage" and the replacement photo says "he wants to be up there". A change from "opinion" to "reporting" and so more fitting.

This should really get interesting if Hillary wins the nomination. Expect Dennis Miller to jump right in with hilarious jokes about women who think they can run things.

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