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Aug 27, 2008

The Centrality Of The Normal Family


DNC guest post by Wendy Kozol, Professor of Gender and Women's Studies, Oberlin College.

Attached is a family portrait of the Obamas that has been circulating around and is on the Obama fundraising site.  It seems to sum up a visual strategy of the campaign to make the Obamas familiar, friendly, safe, just like you and me.  I thought Michelle Obama's speech was effective and strategic and she came across well.  But, the visual strategies seem to be relentless in their message of the ideal and happy family.   

In looking at this picture - the soft focus and outdoor nature scene clearly sentimentalizes them.  The informality of the poses, the intimacy of the family group, all with big smiles, and the two girls leaning on Barack so that he is the center focus of the image - all are  clearly designed to emphasis conventional gender roles and traditional family values, certainly over race. Nuclear family in an isolated setting - no vision here (or in other similar pictures) of community or extended family. 

I know this is a pragmatic and politically strategic move but at what cost?  The centrality of the normal family once again marginalizes efforts to bring in different experiences.   This does nothing to stop efforts to police personal choices.  It is a similar danger I see in the increasing emphasis on faith as the basis of moral claims, something the right has been so effective in doing and Obama and the Dems seem to be doing now as well.

(image: Barack Obama)


Excellent and insightful analysis Bag.

Just win baby

This photo was the Obama campaign Christmas card sent to supporters in 2006. The original is not faded in the background - it shows the Obamas sitting outside on the ground as I recall. I think that you are way overanalyzing this - what do YOUR family Christmas card photos look like? I imagine that they show an idealized and happy family.

Whatever it takes....

We are trying to win an election lady- Joe Six pack doesn't like black people. If soft focus gets through his thick skull I say go for it.
By the way--what are the diversity stats for Oberlin?

I am very concerned about these constant references to God and faith and that it is impossible today in this "great Democracy" for anyone but a self-professed church going Christian to be elected. And there are other issues that cause me to be less than fully satisfied with Obama. But right now, step #1 is to get Obama elected. Step #2 is to work for his support for issues I believe strongly in. McCain is REALLY four more years of Bush; he may even be worse. And he damn sure won't be listening to people like me. So Obama, do what you have to do to get elected, then let's have some "change we can believe in."

IMHO Michelle is the visual focus of that composition, the solid and serious center of the group.

From a political perspective this photo is another example of the canny ability of the candidate to defuse and disarm the "arguments" that KKKarl uses to maintain discipline in the ranks of the Modern Republican Party. "Family values" is put forth as cover to make up for having no sense of social justice, to sell an agenda based on easing the tax burden of the very wealthy. It changes the subject: instead of the practical concerns caused by concentration of wealth, one focuses on the hypothetical dangers to the "unborn". The Obama family puts KKKarl's target group in the uncomfortable position of a) acting on their stated beliefs and embracing Obama as well, or b) moving on to next available focus point of denial, Celebrity the last time I checked.

I agree about the troubling reliance of "faith" as the source of moral strength. When "law" was our authority we couldn't torture, invade countries that hadn't attacked us, or eavesdrop on citizens. With faith, anything is possible.

DNC guest post by Wendy Kozol, Professor of Gender and Women's Studies, Oberlin College.

let me guess, you were rooting for hillary.

come on, enough gratuitous, potshots against barack.

hillary isn't going to be the nominee.

haven't you processed the 5 stages of grief yet?

what a peculiar title, "Professor of Gender and Women's Studies".

In the 2004 election Frances Moore Lappe wrote a brilliant essay on Lakoff's framing Time for Progressives to Grow Up. The trouble is that it's hard, if not impossible, to banish family frames in American politics. Maybe we can inch toward new frames, but we're sort of stuck with the common ones now. In this shot the kids are all over Barak. Something that reinforces in my mind that Michelle is the moral authority in the family, a peculiarly American role for women in families. Maybe it's just me but I have a very positive impression of Michelle Obama, and I think the photo helps to contribute to that. I'm a guy, but I suspect the positive picture of Michelle ring true for women. Does it?

all are clearly designed to emphasis conventional gender roles and traditional family values, certainly over race.

What would a family portrait that emphasizes race over traditional family values look like? Anyone have some examples?

Fair point, Ms. Kozol. It feels as though there is something elusive either about the candidate, or maybe about the campaign... I think see indications that change™ are at the core of the campaign, until I look more closely, and then I'm not so sure. I can believe that Obama will, at least, be marginally better than McCain, which is the reason I'll vote for him. However, several months ago I gave up any sense that Obama could deliver one-tenth of the change people wanted to ascribe to him, or his campaign. Whether he is a victim of circumstance (after 8 years of Bush-world and the degree of damage to be undone), or whether he tries to hold tight to the center-right as a matter of principle, won't much matter if the functional outcome is the same in both cases. Like an impressionistic painting, it conveys a clear image at a distance, but the closer you get, the less crisp the picture seems to be. Probably, it's the best we can do, given where we're starting (assuming no overt military actions in Iran, Russia, or China) on January 20th.

Thanks for this post. Obama is awfully good at using gender expressions to his benefit. I like him hugely, but this way of generating charisma sometimes worries me.

"The centrality of the normal family once again marginalizes efforts to bring in different experiences."

This, particularly "marginalizes," sounds like academic cant.

In addition to being a father and husband in a "normal family," Barack Obama is the son of a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya (whom he saw for all of one month in his life); he lived for a time in Indonesia, was raised in part by his white grandparents in Hawaii, worked as a community organization in South Chicago, and was elected the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review. And his contending for the Presidency marginalizes, i.e. relegates to a lower or outer edge, "different experiences?"

I guess all you know about him is this picture.

I know this is a pragmatic and politically strategic move but at what cost?

Really? That's the basis of your objection? What part of "the art of the possible" is unclear to you? Moreover, what's the cost of a McCain victory?

ref : “[the image is an example of] a visual strategy [by] the Obama-08 campaign to make the Obamas familiar, friendly, safe, "just like you and me"... But [their] visual strategies seem to be relentless in their message of : ‘the ideal and happy family’.

Upon reading this, our (well, my, fwiw) quandry, Professor is that we cannot determine if you are being critical of the realpolitik of relentless visual strategies, whatever they may be, or that notion = image most people have ~ albeit their notion may be an illusion ~ that ‘the ideal and happy family’, exists.

i think what you really meant to say was that this image reinforces the idea that there is ONE, and only one "ideal" of a ‘happy family’, and that singular idealism diminishes, if not entirely excludes morally equivalent family structures such as "single-parent families", or "same-gender = partnership-based families", otherwise plural or "communal" families, etc.

in that regard, you are imho entirely correct, Professor.

but as you can see (from some of the comments here) wording this observation without ambiguity, obscurity or the armor of academic argot can be a torturous task. You very well know going into it, dear lady that by daring to mine this vein you will be shattering peoples' illusions about "families", though it is a fact that the vast majority of people did not thrive, nor do they nowadays even live in Daddy=MAN + Mommy=WOMAN + 2.4 Kids idealized, consanguine social structures.

late 19th century Petite-bourgeoisie? : “there is no ‘golden age of the family’ gleaming at us from the far back historical past.

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