The Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery recently unveiled the Obama’s portraits to much admiration and armchair amateur art criticism—of which I will now also participate. Queer Black artist Kehinde Wiley and Baltimore-based Maryland Institute College of Art alum Amy Sherald are the only two Black artist ever commissioned for an official presidential portrait (note: author attended MICA). Discourses in U.S. media around the paintings initially centered on Michelle Obama’s facial likeness, discussing a distance or hesitancy towards seeing Michelle’s face drawn in this style, which challenge in popular thought the definitions of a portrait as a realistic likeness as/and compared to depicting the stand out essence of a person. Sherald’s color choices, minimalism, abstract patterns on her dress, and rendering of Michelle Obama’s likeness set the former first lady in a distinct separate plane. A British columnist conversely celebrated Michelle’s portrait and argued President Obama’s was not stylistically unique enough, criticizing Wiley’s style as too dominant, and therefore, the individual essence of the president was not projected enough. These discourses around Barack and Michelle’s paintings point to the lineage of presidential portraits Obama is tethered to more so than Michelle. Interestingly, this columnist hints at the specter of a (hyper)respectability politics that follow the Obama’s every move for encoded meaning or symbolism associated with being the first Black president family to live in the White House.
Even more recently, with the release of Black Panther (2018) and the proliferation of Black fans cosplaying as Black characters proudly to the premier, along with the image of two-year-old Parker Curry, a little girl looking up in awe at Michelle’s portrait, both coincide with public discourses again surrounding the Obama’s bodies; as Sherald hashtagged in a retweet of the photo, #representationmatters. In thinking of this recent media discussion around the Obama’s likenesses, I began to think specifically of presidential history through the lens of gender and masculinity in America. Historical encoding and stereotypes, specifically associated with Black men in this country, have centered on a binary of the “hyper-masculine” male (“primitive,” “thug,” or “militant”), and the “hypo-masculine” male, coinciding with asexual race and age intersections of an “Uncle Tom” like trope, to the non-threateningly young (i.e. Urkel, or Carlton).
Indeed, the 2016 Presidential campaign, as a marker of U.S. masculinity discourse, highlighted alternatives to the neo-liberal elite hold on the presidency and to masculine ideals, with Bernie Sanders, Trump, and even Hillary Clinton exhibiting alternative masculinity constructions as compared to Obama, who could be argued to be the most hegemonically masculine president we have branded in a national discourse. Without reproducing tropes that hyper-masculinize Black bodies in racist coding, I intend to show how these discourses were and are navigated by other candidates and the media fixation on masculinity. I will highlight some encoded media moments and policies surrounding the Obama presidency in my analysis of the Obama’s national portraits and show how Bernie, Trump, and Hillary all performed alternative masculinities in relation to rearticulations of hegemonic masculinity in America and of the Presidential office itself.
In Obama’s portrait, the background a lush green garden, exists in unique deviation from its predecessors, most evocatively recalling Elaine de Kooning’s (1963) J.F.K National Portrait. Green surrounds both men in seated positions confronting the viewer in contemplation; and both presidents let the artist’s style come through despite presidential conventions (note: two official portrait sets, for the National Portrait Gallery and the White House respectively, are commissioned for each presidency). This leaf scape of Wiley’s has further symbolic meaning to the geographic location that influenced the ascendency of President Obama to the office, while also abstracting Obama from reality behind him.
However, he sits in hyper realistic monumentality. One of Wiley’s inspirations is Renaissance paintings and sculptural forms appropriated for contemporary Black cultural iconography. Sculpture traditionally is placed high above the viewer, so artist exaggerated body proportions for viewing from below, typically hands and feet (think the Statue of David). This is evident in Wiley’s style, but also highly salient in Obama’s hands folded across his lap. While not trying to discuss stereotypical connotations of Black men and the size of their hands, feet, or other appendages as markers of penis size, in the context of a small-handed Trump presidency, the comparisons between the former and current president’s hand sizes is marked in our national discourse. And if you wonder if Bernie Sanders’ hands have similar connotations, they do through the metaphor of Disney’s (1937) Snow White. A small blue bird landed on a podium Bernie was speaking at on the 2016 campaign trail, which prompted a chuckle and smile from Bernie to the audience’s applause and Internet viral fame. The podium’s embodied construction with Bernie’s in that moment acts as the index finger of Snow White, gentle in waiting and worthy of nature’s own admiration.
Compare Obama’s national portrait to George W. Bush’s, its apparent the “lazy-boy-like” couch is allowing him to sit on it, and not the other way around. The chair’s design, mass, softness, and the small space Bush takes up in a giant house of suburban luxury all plays into how realism buttresses conservatism and authoritarianism—remember the German Nazi party loved images of the realistically rendered mother and child, and destroyed abstract art. The abstraction of Michelle Obama’s portrait is more visible then in President Obama’s, but both exist in spatial isolation from their background planes. Obama does not look grounded or weighted in the picture, he exists in an abstract leafy verdure space with a very small and wooden chair—and Michelle’s support is obfuscated by her dress. Existing in both are the hands and bare arms of the Obama’s.
- —Michelle’s Bare Arms—
The misogynistic and racist rhetoric surrounding the hypervisibility of Michelle Obama’s arms exists in relation to a lineage of white former first ladies and patriarchal oppression. There is a long history of masculinizing (or desexualizing) African American women in America. For Michelle to run the highest “public” (and unpaid) office of femininity in the land (as no man has articulated a role in this position yet) for eight years against continued and vitriolic white-supremacist and masculinist attack is so worthy of distinction and parts of what I believe Sherald’s portrait speak to.
Her fitness and arm strength were fixated on in media, by positive and negative commentators, “liberal” and “conservative” alike. Her portrait features her signature body part in symbolic glory.
The elitism of the fit/muscular body is encoded as privileged and with social capital today, as one must have the time, money, and resources (tech) to discipline ones body into that narrow idealized form. Indeed, initiatives around physical fitness, nutrition, the Affordable Care Act or “Obamacare,” and Michelle’s “Let’s Move!” campaign against childhood obesity, were all discursively labeled as elitist, correctly realizing rural and poor citizens do not have the same access to organic foods and markets that stock fresh produce (i.e. food deserts & “swamps,” which are cheap fast-food only). In a sense, the Obama’s brand is built on health and fitness, including their most memorable initiatives. These campaigns feature a clear incentive and concern for America’s children, and specifically their food and nutritional choices, evoking images of the “Mammy” trope in American culture of Black caretakers tending to and feeding the next generation of Americans, whether white or Black.
Bernie Sanders and Trump’s campaigns also use branded national images concerning food to reflect how Americans were fed and understood the Obama’s health initiatives. The Bernie campaign, or bystanders noticing him, photographed and put on social media his shopping trip to “Costco.” This works on multiple levels in comparison with the Obama’s branded imaging. Leaning into Bernie as a Jewish man, going to Costco reifies racial/ethnic stereotypes in the U.S. of Jewish people as frugal and thrifty. The image also implies Bernie and his wife do not have the time to plant and attend to their own organic garden, like the Obama’s promoted. Also, maintaining and growing one’s own food requires land, a co-op, or other community solution that millions of Americans do not have access to participate in. The image acknowledges an “ever-citizen” American image, that despite globally corporate monopolies in pricing, access, and wages, the Sanders’ are doing their best to prepare their own self-made home meals, obtaining their food where many Americans do. Bernie’s diet was also featured in a Washington-Post series during the 2016 campaign “about the eating habits of the presidential candidates.” Bernie is simultaneously touted as a global and cultural “foodie,” to show off his culturally conscious progressivism, as his wife, Jane, comments on his simple diet at home.
There are similarities and contrasts with how Trump uses food in media. One of Trump’s national portraits in the Smithsonian collection right now is a photograph of him throwing up a red delicious apple in the air. Trump is branded as eating prepackaged and highly processed foods publicly; his diets have also been called child-like. His Twitter account posts images of him with McDonalds, Taco Bell, and KFC, which work simultaneously to tout himself with American brands and praise corporate monopolies through a spokesperson-like association with the product. The food praises large, corporate interests and ingratiates him among the poor who depend on these foods in large circumstances; I am what you eat, in a sense, and we are one. Trump’s food branding also covertly praises the industrial-meat industry through ingesting their products of massively produced beef or chicken. Though perhaps belying Trump’s food branding, Michael Wolff in Fire and Fury stated Trump eats as he does because he is afraid to be poisoned, which is not usually an every-citizen concern.
Reflecting back on the Obama’s portraits, after exploring the multiplicity of cultural meanings behind them, is crucial to decoding our current political climate. President Obama often discusses how he views the office as a “the passing of a baton,” akin to a never-ending track and field race. Returning to a position of rest is arguably important for us—the American people—and his own national imagery, however, one wonders how the framing of Obama’s “masculine” presidency influenced discourses on the campaign trail between Hillary, Bernie, and Trump, in which his electoral college win highlighted the racial history of hyper-masculinizing Black bodies and Black men in America by white-patriarchal powers. Trump and the media mocked Hillary for stumbling into a car with pneumonia on the campaign trail, calling her unfit as an older woman for the “rigorous demands” of the Presidential office. Bernie embodies a shorter, thinner, svelte older male. While he could be working out with weights for cameras, like Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, he does not publically release images like that, negotiating his own physical embodiment for political clout; he plays basketball, and apparently chops his own wood for exercise. This left Trump, which reflected hegemonically-masculine embodiment in food choice, size, height, class, fame, race, and even leisure activities, not to mention blonde hair, no matter how it is obtained. This week even, former Vice President and masculine-projecting Democratic front runner Joe Biden and Trump are internet bullying each other, saying they would have beaten each other up in high school. Ironically, dueling is not out of the question for American presidential candidates, remembering the Burr—Hamilton duel.
The presidential campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Vice Presidential campaigns of Geraldine Ferraro and Sarah Palin point to more needed investigations in presidential masculinity studies through the presence of the female body. One also wonders if the coverage surrounding the Obama’s presidency did not create even more masculinist conditions for Trump and the rise of strongmen fascist leaders in the 21st century. Vladimir Putin’s shirtless photos paraded around the Internet in almost direct ascendency with the Obama presidency— at least in Western media—and Putin’s interests directly uses gay men as a national symptom of internal “weakness,” anxiety, and demonization. The 2018 Italian elections were rife with strongman language and misogyny, along with xenophobia. Here’s hoping for a great communicator before world war three, or the common sense awakening of people all over the world for our mutual protection against bloodthirsty moneyed interests.
1.) “Masculinity of the Presidency & Sexism in Politics with Jackson Katz Part 1 of 2.” YouTube, uploaded by David Pakman Show 15 Feb, 2011
2.) “Donald Trump: The Sitcom Misogynist.” YouTube, uploaded by Pop Culture Detective, 19 Jan 2017
3.) “4 U.S. Presidents Whose Lives Put Action Movies to Shame – Badassing Your Way Through History.” YouTube, uploaded by Cracked, 29 Sep 2014
NW is a graduate student at Old Dominion University’s Institute for the Humanities. He received a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature, and a minor in studio arts from ODU with concentrations in art history, graphic design, and linguistics. In his scholarship, he is interested in body, gender, sex, and sexuality studies — focusing on the masculine body — as applied to American media and cultural studies. Nathan has interests in digital humanities scholarship, and loves good puns.