Wednesday, July 16, 2008


Barack and Michelle Obama are gracing the latest cover of the New Yorker magazine, but I get the feeling that they might not be too thrilled about it. The latest cover of the premier magazine features Senator Obama dressed in traditional Islamic clothing while giving his wife Michelle their trademark fist pound. Add a burning American flag, a portrait of Osama Bin Laden, and over exaggerated facial features (with a dash of hyper sexualization) and we have our selves a nice gumbo of racism, ignorance and regression. Anyone hungry?

The picture is problematic for so many reasons. The image clearly suggests that the Obama family is anti-American…Now are they anti American or anti status quo? Let’s tease this out a bit. Senator Obama is the only black Senator in the U.S. Senate and the first African American to be the presumptive presidential nominee for a major party…I’m inclined to go with anti status quo.

The image also feeds into the notion that Michelle Obama is an angry black woman or unpatriotic. Despite her education and career accolades, her accomplishments have been devalued on account of her race and sex. A strong, black woman is often labeled as bitter or angry, which is a SERIOUS problem. This image suggests that women of color should not exercise the same rights enjoyed by others; it also limits their right to freedom of expression. The fact that the New Yorker thinks that it was fine to dress Michelle Obama in Army gear and a gun is indicative that we have a long way to go.

Aside from the image being entirely inaccurate in its portrayal of Barack Obama as Muslim, it is also inaccurate in its less than subtle message about followers of the Islamic faith. The New Yorker cover clearly suggests that followers of the Islamic faith are unpatriotic. There are four million Muslims in this country who love and appreciate their rights as Americans and deplore the actions of Osama bin Laden, yet they are unjustly devalued, and in turn, denied full citizenship.

Yes, everyone does have the right to free speech. This does, however, infer that one has the right to question, protest, or react when attacked or discriminated against. Jeffrey Goldberg from The Atlantic stated, "As someone who appreciates a good joke, as well as a bad joke, it bothers me that people are reacting so dyspeptically to the cover.” Hmm, now why would anyone be bothered by an oppressive image with offensive racial and sexual undertones that infringes upon the right to citizenship? I don’t know…

(Thanks Naima for the link)


Anonymous said...

i agree. but just to check... people who defend this would say that the cover is so ridiculous that it must be understood by everyone as a joke. so, you would say there are a enough people who believe in these stereotypes that there is no need for this image to perpetuate them, yes? just checking. plus of course, why risk offending the groups that are directly stereotyped and possibly as you mentioned, for a few laughs. right?

Anonymous said...

oh and obama... not really as anti-status quo as we would like. just sayin

Ivy said...

great post kevin.
of course, i don't believe these stereotypes about the Obamas, but I didn't get the joke/satire/good fun/POINT!

I'm just wondering what this was supposed to achieve? I'm sure the idea was to show how ridiculous all these ideas are, but the sad thing is that this is EXACTLY the picture that some Americans have of their family... I think it was awful, tasteless, and pointless.

Naima said...

great post, kb. thought provoking. i can see some of those closereading images skills you learned in LW's class hard at work...

what frustrates me most about the production of art like this is the way that people seem to contend that art can and should be conscienceless, and also the way that people use "free speech" as a way to avoid actually critically expounding whatever it is they wanted to "say" with their art.

for example, when i see art like this, i wonder:

what is the goal? who is this image for? what were the motives behind its construction? what are the consequences/cost associated with its circulation?

let's talk about these issues, the kinds of questions "controversial art" is supposed to spark.

it's always a bad sign when something as problematic as this image exists and the only defense of it is, "I can say whatever I want to say."

Because of course you can. But what is it exactly you were trying to say?

Hope this makes sense. Nice work, KB.

Anonymous said...

How exactly does the image infringe on the right to citizenship?

Madeline Johnson said...

Thanks for the post Kevin!

I think what makes an image like this a joke or not is whether the viewer understands it as a joke or not. The intentions and the message of the artist are really important and matter, but at the same time, if someone sees this image and then concludes something about it, the artist cannot correct his/her judgments. Which makes images like this potentially dangerous because people can see so many different things. So what if this image was intended to be a joke? - some people may look at it and see a joke, some may see something problematic, see something racist and mark it as truth.

But even though an artist loses control of his/her image after it is released it doesn't mean that they get off scot free. Artists with such pointed messages need to be really intentional of what they are trying to communicate and how they are doing it while there need to be larger discussions about images like this and what they are actually expressing. Are there other things that could be done?

I would like to think humor can play a role in discussing matters like citizenship and race, but I think a joke where the message is so unclear is not a very good joke and the message should be stated a different way.

Anonymous said...

I read the New Yorker during vacations and holidays, enough to call myself a legit fan....and as soon as I saw the cover in Grand Central, I immediately recognized the satire.

The New Yorker, a left-leaning magazine, was making fun of the dumb, dumb, DUMB a**es that regularly show up all over Fox and other "News" programs. How can anyone with two eyes and two ears think that Barack is a sleeper terrorist/black miliant, bent on destroying America. It's completely, utterly irrational. But, as we all know, there has been a S E R I O U S assault on rationality in the US.

The magazine took a HUGE risk by assuming that the masses would come to their senses and along with the editors, realize how stupid the media has been.... But that's putting a liiiiitle too much faith in the ordinary American. And by a little, I mean a lot.

Another problem with this is context, context, context. How could the editors have been SO shortsighted to fail to see how much of a field day FOX "News" would have had with this? If people are so irrational as to believe these ABSURD lies about the Obamas, what was this cover going to accomplish? Convert them? The editors blindness and shortsightedness are, I think, their worst offense.

It's sad that rational people can't see this and laugh at how utterly ridiculous the cover is, knowing that everyone else will see through clear lenses, but instead, we have to groan at the repercussions that we AND the Obama campaign will have to face and deal with.

The New Yorker made a huge, huge error in judgement. To their credit, they traditionally display good judgement and witty covers. But what good was this going to do? I hope they do something to try and right their wrong.


Anonymous said...


I think this is not right to say that Obama and his family are anti-Americans. I think he will be in the best interest of Americans who are either Muslims are non-Muslims. He'll be a good president for USA.

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