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Dec 16, 2007

Obama Enters The Safe Zone. (Or: At Least We No Longer Have To Hear About Those Soccer Moms)

(updated 12/17/07 4:48 EST)

(click for full size)

by Wendy Kozol

Perhaps it goes without saying that gender and race are bleeding ink this primary season.  In this picture, however, it isn’t a matter of either race or gender but about their overlap, in this case about white anxiety about the black male.

The photographer captures a moment in which Obama isn’t smiling but earnestly reaching into the same space as the women at the bottom of the frame.  Highlighted in the center are the black and white hands shaking, a long clichéd reference to multicultural America, as if to reassure viewers about Obama’s black masculinity.

In the accompanying article, reporter Robin Toner explains Obama’s appeal in this “post-feminist” age as the sensitive male who understands women and their concerns.  Surely it is better to have a variety of black males to contrast with the seemingly endless media depictions of black men as criminals.  But, here the photograph asserts this “different” kind of black masculinity by turning to the safe zone of white, middle class women voters (concerned, as we're told, about “women’s issues”).  It's a curious ideal on which to base a stamp of approval, not just for the racial and economic exclusivity but for the history of violent opposition to racial mixing.

Beyond the Obama litmus test, perhaps it's the news media’s reliance on privileged white women as the face of feminism which makes women of color, working class women, queers and others so reluctant to embrace "the movement."  At least thankfully, though, we no longer have to hear about soccer moms.

Wendy Kozol is Professor of Gender and Women's Studies at Oberlin College.  She teaches courses on feminist theories as well as visual culture, and is the author of LIFE's America: Family and Nation in Postwar Photojournalism.

(image: Mario Tama/Getty Images. December 2, 2007.  via


ref : “it is the news media’s reliance on privileged white women as the face of feminism [that] makes women of color, working class women, queers and others so reluctant to embrace "the movement".

Blaming the media for the irrelevance apparent of the postwar-modern feminist movement to the lives of most post-modern women today, the professor of feminism fails to see in this image the face of a woman : who is clearly delighted... to simply be: herself.

There is something immediately off-putting about this photo. It has an other-worldliness often seen in sci-fi movies. For instance, there is a greenish cast to portions of skin on the face of the foreground female and the reflection on Obama's outstretched hand. Couple that with the POV and the paneled ceiling it makes it look like an airplane or space ship. It's an awkward picture and if, and it's a big if, the NYT is trying to show Obama's appeal to women, I'm sure there are many more representative images out there.

Further, the identifiable figure in the foreground is apparently a white female with a very pointed nose, which is reprised in reverse by the female head in the background. The prominence of their noses immediately calls ones attention to Obama's nose. Now, as an identifying feature often used by racists this is just too obvious by the NYT to be overlooked.

I wonder if the arm reaching in from the right is supposed to lead one's eye to Obama. If so, it is sabotaged by spooky foreground woman which grabs your eye which then goes to the background woman then to the clasped hands and THEN to Obama. It's as if the NYT were saying, we'll get to our point after we make these oblique insinuations.

As for the overall question vis-a-vis black/white feminist male/female gumbo, as a white progressive feminist female, Hillary is just too far to the right for me. I don't trust her to carry out a progressive agenda anymore than I would trust Bill, who was basically a liberal republican. The more Bill speaks out for Hillary, the less I want to vote for her.

From what I've heard and read over the years, white men become less comfortable with black men when in the presence of white women. So I wonder if photographs showing Obama greeting white women makes white men nervous. Is this why the NYT published this photo? By showing this photo was the reader being set up to feel antagonism or even racist hatred of Obama? I'd like to see some evidence on this one way or the other.

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