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How to Laugh in “Post-Racial” America: Barack Obama in Political Cartoons

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Abstract:

Barry Blitt’s cartoon “The Politics of Fear,” which appeared on the cover of The New Yorker in July 2008, sparked a heated debate about what it meant to make this country’s first self-identified African-American presidential nominee the subject of visual humor. The depiction of Barack Obama as a turban-wearing, fist-bumping, flag-burning, Bin Laden-loving Muslim alongside a militarized and Afro-wearing Michelle inspired outrage from Democrats and Republicans alike; even the candidates were not persuaded by editor David Remnick’s insistence that Blitt’s cover was political satire and thus poked fun at right-wing misconceptions of the Obamas. Political commentators and comic artists were left to ask: Is satire an effective form of visual communication if it offends the very subjects it aims to defend? Is it simply impossible, moreover, to caricature a non-white or multiracial politician in twenty-first-century America without reproducing racist stereotypes?
This paper takes a critical look at American cartoonists’ labored efforts to construct a comic visual language with which to represent Barack Obama. It will explore what has been at stake in caricaturing and satirizing our forty-fourth president from the 2008 presidential campaign to the present, taking into account the historically uneasy relationship among American politics, ideas about race, and visual humor. How, for instance, have anxieties about the legitimacy of Obama’s candidacy and subsequent presidency found expression in cartoons that depict him in the guise of historical figures and American icons, including Jesus Christ, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jackie Robinson, and the farmer in Grant Wood’s "American Gothic”? In what ways have the same anxieties informed other images of Obama as a bodybuilder, tight-rope walker, rock star, interior decorator, and pacifier-sucking baby? How have exaggerations of Obama’s ears worked to harmonize his comic body-image with that of President Bush while reproducing degrading caricatures of African Americans as monkeys and elephants, which were once used to challenge black citizenship and civil rights? Similarly, how have attempts by liberals to evade the visual vocabulary of minstrelsy in depictions of Obama been complicated, at best, by their evocations of Zip Coon as the president’s comic double?
By exploring these questions, this paper aims to shed new light on the particular opportunities and challenges that the figure of Obama presents contemporary political cartoonists. On the one hand, Obama’s social identity would seem to lend itself to radically new forms of comic representation since it resists strict categorization; portrayed in the popular media as an embodiment of incongruities, he is both black and white, working class and elite, American citizen and man of the world. There is nothing new, however, about using visual humor to deny power to a subject whose very body and conception of self challenge the norms of dominant white culture. In their efforts to entertain and socially critique, cartoons of Obama thus invoke, yet continuously work to undermine, the history of racist representation.
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MLA Citation:

Sheehan, Tanya. "How to Laugh in “Post-Racial” America: Barack Obama in Political Cartoons" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Renaissance Hotel, Washington D.C., <Not Available>. 2014-11-28 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p318022_index.html>

APA Citation:

Sheehan, T. "How to Laugh in “Post-Racial” America: Barack Obama in Political Cartoons" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Renaissance Hotel, Washington D.C. <Not Available>. 2014-11-28 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p318022_index.html

Publication Type: Internal Paper
Abstract: Barry Blitt’s cartoon “The Politics of Fear,” which appeared on the cover of The New Yorker in July 2008, sparked a heated debate about what it meant to make this country’s first self-identified African-American presidential nominee the subject of visual humor. The depiction of Barack Obama as a turban-wearing, fist-bumping, flag-burning, Bin Laden-loving Muslim alongside a militarized and Afro-wearing Michelle inspired outrage from Democrats and Republicans alike; even the candidates were not persuaded by editor David Remnick’s insistence that Blitt’s cover was political satire and thus poked fun at right-wing misconceptions of the Obamas. Political commentators and comic artists were left to ask: Is satire an effective form of visual communication if it offends the very subjects it aims to defend? Is it simply impossible, moreover, to caricature a non-white or multiracial politician in twenty-first-century America without reproducing racist stereotypes?
This paper takes a critical look at American cartoonists’ labored efforts to construct a comic visual language with which to represent Barack Obama. It will explore what has been at stake in caricaturing and satirizing our forty-fourth president from the 2008 presidential campaign to the present, taking into account the historically uneasy relationship among American politics, ideas about race, and visual humor. How, for instance, have anxieties about the legitimacy of Obama’s candidacy and subsequent presidency found expression in cartoons that depict him in the guise of historical figures and American icons, including Jesus Christ, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jackie Robinson, and the farmer in Grant Wood’s "American Gothic”? In what ways have the same anxieties informed other images of Obama as a bodybuilder, tight-rope walker, rock star, interior decorator, and pacifier-sucking baby? How have exaggerations of Obama’s ears worked to harmonize his comic body-image with that of President Bush while reproducing degrading caricatures of African Americans as monkeys and elephants, which were once used to challenge black citizenship and civil rights? Similarly, how have attempts by liberals to evade the visual vocabulary of minstrelsy in depictions of Obama been complicated, at best, by their evocations of Zip Coon as the president’s comic double?
By exploring these questions, this paper aims to shed new light on the particular opportunities and challenges that the figure of Obama presents contemporary political cartoonists. On the one hand, Obama’s social identity would seem to lend itself to radically new forms of comic representation since it resists strict categorization; portrayed in the popular media as an embodiment of incongruities, he is both black and white, working class and elite, American citizen and man of the world. There is nothing new, however, about using visual humor to deny power to a subject whose very body and conception of self challenge the norms of dominant white culture. In their efforts to entertain and socially critique, cartoons of Obama thus invoke, yet continuously work to undermine, the history of racist representation.


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The End of Ideology, Again: Barack Obama, Identity Politics and the Future of Race Relations in a Post-Race, Post Civil Rights, Colorblind America

Myths of Racial Democracy: The Racial Politics of Post-Revolutionary Cuba and America in the Era of Obama Racelessness


 
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