Para Social Interaction Theories of Celebrities and Race
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The aim of my dissertation is to apply the theories of para-social interaction and celebrity and race, to four issues of Time magazine featuring Barack Obama, whilst analysing how the representation of Obama develops and changes over time.
I have chosen Time magazine as the basis of my study as it is so widely read and respected in America and is regarded as politically neutral. The issues studied were carefully chosen from key dates surrounding his campaign and concentrated on Obama, featuring him as the main cover story.
The first issue studied (appendix 2) was published on 23rd October 2006, and acts as an introduction to Obama as a US Senator at the time of release of his book ‘The Audacity of Hope.' This issue was prior to Obama's declaration of his intention to run in the 2008 US presidential primaries, providing a relevant insight into his image and how he was presented at that time. They key article within this issue analysed was written by Joe Klein and is titled “The Fresh Face.”
Issue two (appendix 3) was published on 10th December, 2007, exactly ten months after Obama announced his candidacy for the 2008 US presidential primaries. This issue looks at Obama as “The Contender” and examines his ability to transcend race as well as his appeal as a celebrity . With a careful examination of his strengths and weaknesses it appears to portray a fair and neutral representation of Obama. The two key articles studied within this issue are “Barack Obama: The Contender” written by Karen Tumultry, and “The Identity Card” (author undisclosed.)
Issue three (appendix 4), dated 20th October 2008, was written shortly after Obama defeated Hilary Clinton to gain the Democratic Party nomination. This issue features the controversial front cover of Obama's face divided in two, implying that he has a black and a white side. The key argument was that the economy was considered more important than the issue of race. Within this issue the three main articles analysed are “For White Working Class, Obama Rises on Empty Wallets” by David Von Drehle, “For Blacks, a Quiet Question: What if Obama Loses?” By Ta-Nehishi Coates, and “Is Barack Obama American Enough?” by Peter Beinart.
The final issue studied (appendix 5), issue four, was published on 17th November 2008, shortly after Obama had successfully won the presidential primaries and had become president-elect. It focuses on Obama's achievements as well as the prospects for his future, and that of America. Within this issue the two articles analysed are “How Obama Rewrote the Book” by Nancy Gibbs, and “Will a Black President Really Heal the Racial Divide?” by T.D. Jakes.
The studies conducted are presented in a tripartite structure. The first chapter is an analysis of key theoretical resources relating to para-social interaction and celebrity and mixed race. These were chosen because it has been suggested throughout Obama's campaign that he was favoured by the media and was more celebrity than politician. Para-social interaction is “interaction not with other people but interaction with the messages provided by radio, television, newspapers” (Trent et al, 2007. p.47). This form of interaction with the messages formed in the media is argued to be highly influential. The theory of celebrity and mixed race looks at the key perceptions and ideologies surrounding mixed-race celebrities in a popular culture context. This section aims to provide information into the representations of mixed-culture celebrities in the media.
Chapter two focuses on key theorists' opinions of Obama and his campaign. This section is broken into subcategories studying Obama's background, as well how he was represented in the media , his biracial heritage, and the argument whether or not he is really forwarding ‘Change' in America.
The final chapter of this tripartite approach is the analysis of the four issues of Time magazine, applying the theory of para-social interaction and celebrity and race, together with the considerations of key theorists on Obama, and considering the potential impact upon his campaign to become President.
Chapter One: Key Theoretical Resources
1.1. Para-social interaction
The theory of para-social interaction was first introduced by Horton and Wohl in 1956 at a time when access to media was becoming increasingly available and accessible to the masses. “One of the striking characteristics of the new mass media- radio, television, and the movies - is that they give the illusion of face-to-face relationship with the performer” (Horton et al, 1956. p. 215). This illusive contact between spectator and performer is described by Horton and Wohl (1956) as a para-social relationship. The bridge between performer and spectator is crossed using a variety of methods. Often, the performer will be seen interacting with others “but often he faces the spectator, uses the mode of direct address, talks as if he were conversing personally and privately” (Horton et al, 1956. p.215). This method of performance is intended to subtly give the spectator a feeling of direct involvement in what is occurring on screen and that the comments made are being directed towards him personally. This sense of being physically involved with the performer leads to the spectator subliminally observing and participating as if they are involved in the on screen relationships and action. Often, the performer will get feedback on the reaction of the audience; therefore, will adapt his performance to suit the anticipated response. “This simulacrum of conversational give and take may be called para-social interaction” (Horton et al, 1956. p.215).
Rojek (2006, p.390) explains that “the term ‘para-social interaction' is used to refer to relations of intimacy constructed through the mass-media rather than direct experience and face-to-face meetings. This is a form of second-order intimacy, since it derives from representations of the person rather than actual physical contact”. In order to attain this level of intimacy the spectator must be “able to believe that the celebrities are not so distant from those in their social circles” (Lai, 2006. p.227). To achieve this, a range of relaxed and intimate images “whereby they appear to be just hanging out in unremarkable settings, goofing around, or in a moment of tired reflection” (Lai, 2006. p.227) are often used to ensure that the celebrity remains in the realm of the real world in which his listeners and viewers live.
Horton and Wohl (1956, p.216) take particular interest in a new generation of performer; such as interviewers, critics, and quiz hosts, whose sole purpose is to para-socially interact with their audience. They argue that media formats such as television and radio have created a generation of “personalities” whose “existence is a function of the media itself”. They refer to these performers as “personae”.
A “persona” is a particular social role or a character that is performed. Horton and Wohl (1956, p.216) explain that the “spectacular fact about such personae is that they can claim and achieve an intimacy with what are literally crowds of strangers, and this intimacy, even if it is an imitation and a shadow of what is ordinarily meant by that word, is extremely influential with, and satisfying for, the great numbers who willingly receive it and share in it”. Giles (2003, p.190) believes that “there should be some concordance between the way we experience our relationships with real others and the way we experience our attachments to celebrities and fictional characters”. Concordance exists because the spectator displays interaction with the personae in the same way they would with their peers, through observation of the personae's non verbal communication, paralinguistic features, and their attitudes and values. The object of the persona is for the audience member to perceive him in a “manner parallel to their interpersonal friends- as natural, down-to-earth, attractive people holding similar attitudes and values” (Rubin, 2008. p.177).
An important part of deepening para-social interaction is that the relationship between persona and spectator is continuing. Giles (2003, p.192) believes the “the strongest relationships are those built up over time with individuals appearing in a variety of media and possibly a variety of guises”. Therefore, the persona needs to appear on a regular occasion, and possibly in a variety of media, to ensure that the spectator can “‘live with him' and share the small episodes of his public life - and to some extent even of his private life away from the show” (Horton et al, 1985. p.216). Rojek (2006, p. 390) believes that the tensions of physical and social distance of the celebrity “is compensated for by the glut of mass-media information including fanzines, press stories, TV documentaries, interviews, newsletters and biographies, which personalize the celebrity, turning a distant from a stranger into a significant other”. Like a real social relationship, the acquisition of experiences with the persona adds extra depth and meaning to performances in the present and future. If the persona successfully para-socially interacts with the spectator, the spectator may become a fan, or devotee. In time the devotee “comes to believe that he ‘knows' the persona more intimately and profoundly than others do; he ‘understands' his character and appreciates his values and motives” (Horton et al, 1985. p.216.) He will perceive him almost as a friend and be influenced by him.
It has been argued that audiences seek “guidance from a media persona, seeing media personalities as friends, imagining being part of a favourite program's social world” (Rubin et al, 1985. p.156-157). This shows the importance that the celebrity develops a reputable persona, as para-social interaction can be highly influential. “The notion that para-social interaction is fundamental in engendering and reproducing celebrity culture is well established” (Rojek, 2006. p.397). This is especially true in advanced capitalist societies. This is because citizens often communicate at a distance electronically; therefore, celebrities can take advantage of this void to “cultivate a loyal fan base, an enduring audience for their projects and products” (Lai, 2006. p.227). This makes para-social interaction easier between the performer and the spectator, as the spectator can provide feedback through media such as websites and forums. This leads to an increased intimacy. The role of developing an illusion of intimacy is always on the shoulders of the persona. However, if the persona is successful in creating a para-social bond of intimacy, then the audience is “expected to contribute to the illusion by believing in it, and by rewarding the persona's ‘sincerity' with loyalty. The audience is entreated to assume a sense of personal obligation to the performer, to help him in his struggle for ‘success' if he is ‘on the way up,' or to maintain his success if he has already won it” (Horton et al, 1985. p.220).
1.2. Celebrity and Mixed-Race
In the modern era there are increasing numbers of celebrities of a variety of races appearing in popular culture. Celebrities play a key role in challenging stereotypes and representations because “Stars are, like characters in stories, representations of people. Thus they relate to ideas about what people are (or are supposed to be) like” (Dyer, 1979. p.22.) In the U.S. mixed-race celebrities are appearing more often in popular culture, therefore, potentially indicating that attitudes towards ethnic minorities are changing within a white majority.
Dagbovie (2007, p. 217) believes that there is a “simultaneous acceptance and rejection of blackness within a biracial discourse in American popular culture.” What she means by this is that biracial celebrities normally have an aspect of their multi-cultural background that prevails over others. As an example, Dagbovie (2007, p.217) discusses how Tiger Woods is perceived as more black than Asian. She believes that Woods “cannot escape blackness,” and yet he “also represents a multicultural posterboy, one whose blackness pales next to his much-celebrated multi-otherness”. Woods, like many other mixed-race celebrities, is a race transcendent . Such mixed-race celebrities are no longer seen as minorities, rather as “a different kind of white person” (Hall, 2002. p.A2).
This point leads to the interesting inclination within popular culture to define blackness. “In contemporary popular culture, advertisers and media attempt to define blackness. For mixed-race celebrities this means blackness is deemed acceptable only when it upholds stereotypical white preconceptions and desires” (Dagbovie, 2007. p.218). Preconceptions of blackness are more often than not negative in the mind of a white person. This is because of the history of white supremacy that is subconsciously embraced in the US. However, it has been argued that “mixed-raced individuals are used to explore, praise, or condemn the ‘racial unknown'” (Dagbovie, 2007. p.218). In the modern day, western countries are becoming more and more multi-cultural with the increase in numbers of immigrants. Mixed-race celebrities have forwarded a “modish identity that white Americans seek, desire, and fetishize” (Dagobvie, 2007. p.218). However, many white Americans still have negative preconceptions of what it means to be black. Ellis Cashmore (2006, p.138) argues that in our current culture, celebrities have “rendered whiteness plastic, melting, stretching, and shaping it in a way that accommodates new meaning.” He believes that this new breed of white person makes the “racial hierarchy invisible or at least opaque” (Cashmore, 2006. p.138). It still exists; it is just harder to see.
Dagbovie (2007, p.219) argues that “some mixed-race celebrities are read as black, even when they distance themselves from blackness. Conversely, mixed-race celebrities who claim a black heritage often get labelled as multiracial, not black.” This indicates that the white public struggle to determine whether they are comfortable or uncomfortable with mixed-race celebrities. The mixed-heritage of mixed-race celebrities is often used by them to try and appeal to a wider range of people. Often, mixed-race celebrities self-identify themselves as black. One of the possible reasons for this is that there are “associations between blackness and style” (Cashmore, 2006. p.117). Therefore, this gives the celebrity the opportunity to use their ethnicity to sell themselves, and their merchandise, to an audience. Other celebrities are also “increasingly likely to foreground their mixed ethnic background as an element in their publicity today, a sign that biraciality and multiraciality are taking on new meanings” (Beltran et al, 2008. p.2). Beltran and Fojas (2008, p.11) believe that it is clear that “mixed race imagery has been an enduring and powerful trope of U.S. culture, deployed to convey popular conceptions about national identity, social norms, and political entitlement.” This form of imagery conveys the idea that the American dream is real and attainable. It gives the message that anyone can achieve their dream if they try hard enough and that “coming from an ethnic background was no longer an impediment to progress” (Cashmore, 2006. p.122). However, it has been argued that the “multiracial craze only superficially embraces the dark ‘other'” (Dagbovie, 2007. p.232). This is backed up by Cashmore's (2006, p.139) argument that “the conspicuous success of a few celebs from ethnic minorities may not convince everyone that racism has disappeared or that the inequality we see all around is just a vestige, a remnant of a bygone age.”
Dagbovie (2007, p.232) titles this theory “new faces, old masks.” She explains how the media use “new” celebrity faces to promote biracialism. She explains how mixed-race celebrities represent the “'multiracial neutral' in that their images ‘sell' the idea of racial pluralism and freedom, and yet their images remain ‘other,' available for audiences and consumers of all racial backgrounds to ‘claim' or ‘own'” (Dagbovie, 2007. p.232). Therefore, these celebrities aren't challenging race issues as they are a blank canvas for the audience to create an illusionary image that they believe represents an end of discrimination and inequality. This suggests that celebrities are a mask for the inequality that still exists within America. Although it is widely celebrated that America is heading towards a multi-racial future, “old masks lurk alongside interpretations of what new faces represent, namely racial stereotypes” (Dagbovie, 2007. p.232).
Chapter Two: Key Theorists Understandings of Obama and Race
2.1. Just who is Obama?
Barack Obama was elected President of the United States on 4th November 2008. He was celebrated as the first black American President; however, he “is not only the first black American President; just as notably, he is the first biracial American President” (Smith, 2009. p.129).
Barack Obama was unique compared to other black candidates, such as Jesse Jackson, who have sought election in the past. Obama's mother was a white American, whereas, his father was a Kenyan immigrant. Initially it was thought that this heritage would cause a negative effect on Obama's campaign for two reasons. Firstly, “the fact remains that the United States is an imperialistic, racist, sexist, capitalist power that is intent on maintaining its white, global dominance” (Harlow, 2009. p.164). It was believed that white Americans would not vote for a black, or mixed-race, candidate . The second negative factor was “Obama's black ancestry is immigrant rather than U.S. - born” (Hollinger, 2008. p.1034). As Obama's family did not experience the horrors of America's slave history, it was felt that he would not be able to empathise and connect with African Americans. However, Hollinger (2008, p.1037) believed that “the fact Obama is the son of an immigrant may prove to be almost as important as the fact that he is the son of a black man and a white mother.” This is because Obama “made a strategic move towards racelessness and adopted a post-racial persona and political stance.” (Silva et al, 2009. p.178). This stance created an image of a future free of racism and inequality. Silva and Ray (2009, p.179) discuss that “as part of his post-racial approach and appeal, Obama avoided the term racism in his campaign.” This approach was to avoid creating white guilt, and to convey the message that race wasn't the definitive factor in his candidacy. However, although Obama rarely mentioned racism, he would “frequently cite his biracial heritage” (Wellington, 2008. p.27), suggesting that he was concerned that race may impact upon his candidacy, therefore, reminding people that he is a mixture of backgrounds. It is argued that “Obama is a key transitional between the racially divided generation of the Baby Boomers and the future generations that will see the decline of a white majority in the United States through immigration” (Smith, 2009. p.133).
2.2. Issues of Obama's Biraciality
A key debate throughout Obama's run to presidency was, “Is Barack Obama Black Enough?” Being very reliant on the vote of black Americans there was concern whether he would connect with them. Initially he was “dismissed as ‘too black' to be supported by whites, and ‘not black enough' to be supported by blacks” (Mitchell, 2009. p.127). His mixed heritage made it difficult to physically determine whether he could be described as black. This dilemma proves extremely interesting, as historically, “one could never be ‘half white' - or even ‘15/16ths white'. If one had any African American ancestry at all, one was simply black” (Smith, 2009. p.129). Unlike the majority of mixed-race public s “Obama has maintained his ‘white half' in the media framing of his person and life” (Smith, 2009. p.129). Working hard to maintain his “white half,” gives the impression that he didn't want to be determined as black because of the negative preconceptions that white Americans have of black people; “For decades, the white imagination has been colonized with images of Black masculinity that have circulated as stereotypes: the Black man is depicted as hypersexual, violent, ignorant and brutish” (Walsh, 2009. p.127). Throughout his campaign he was always cautious to distance himself from “anything or anyone who makes him ‘too black' or ‘too political'” (Bonilla-Silva et al, 2009. p.178). Although Obama distanced himself from anything that depicted him as “too black,” he still maintained awareness of his biracial heritage. Hollinger (2008, p.1037) argued that “we can expect that circumstances will push Obama back and forth between images of ‘more black than we thought' and ‘not as black as we thought.'” This method of portraying an ambiguous identity meant that he could be perceived in whatever image the audience deemed fit. Mitchell (2009, p.126) describes Obama as “a mirror for an international community of frustrated desire for peace, hope and change.” He sees Barack Obama as a blank canvas for all the people of America to perceive him in whatever means suited them best.
2.3. Media representations
Obama's success at effectively transcending race and gaining popularity in America has been widely agreed to be largely down to the media's portrayal of him. It was argued by Senator John McCain that Obama was favoured by the media and that he was more of a celebrity than a politician. Castells (2009, p.397) believes “there is no conspiracy behind the obvious focus on Obama during the early stages of the primary campaign. It was a sound business decision, coupled with the professional interests of reporters and political commentators.” Obama was an interesting who gained a lot of media attention due to his uniqueness as a black candidate who was unlike any other black candidate that preceded him. Mitchell (2009, p.125) described Obama as “not just the first Black president; he is the first wired president.” Obama clearly understood the importance of the media during his campaign, and used as many resources as possible to his advantage so that his face was impossible to ignore. Cashmore (2009, p.203) believes that “Obama seemed born to the lens, whether on a TV camera or a cellphone. By turns, a charmer, a friend, a saviour, a ferocious panther and a cuddlesome pussycat, Obama was morphed into all these and many more personae by a blisteringly fast media that delivered him in all his guises.” Therefore, the representations of Obama that American's were seeing in a range of mediums, day in day out, were almost always positive. Hollinger (2008, p.1034) describes how “press accounts of Obama's life, as well as Obama's own autobiographical writings, render Obama's whiteness hard to miss.” This is because of the worry that Obama would suffer the “Bradley Effect,” which is “a voting paradox that would compel voters under cover of secrecy to choose a candidate based on racial identification instead of issue identification and professional qualifications” (Lashley, 2009. p.366). This term was named after the African-American Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley in 1982 after he lost the Californian governor's race, although he was shown to be ahead in voting polls prior to the elections. The mainstream media constantly reminded audiences of Obama's biracial roots to give the impression that he was unlike other black people. Cashmore (2009, p.202) argues that the representations of Obama in the media created visions of “a promised deliverer, a saviour, a leader who will excite not just change but transformation to a golden age of peace, justice and prosperity.” Cashmore (2009, p.202) describes these images as “not just representations, but perpetual evocations inducing in the conscious mind a mental image of what the future will or could be like.” This inevitably benefited Obama's campaign as it conveyed the image of a prosperous future.
However, it has been argued that during the 2008 presidential primaries, “mainstream media, in seeking to comfort its dominant white audience, engages in colorblind tactics designed to soothe those who benefit from the status quo while simultaneously trying to appear sensitive and objective to the growing audience of those who are cognizant of the racial hierarchy and unequal access to power, prestige, privilege and property” (Walsh, 2009. p.122) suggesting that the media portrayed a false image of a post-racial future. It is also believed that Obama's high profile media attention meant he was “elevated to the stratospheric heights of celebritydom, from where the impact of racism was barely felt, if at all” (Cashmore, 2009. p.204). This is argued to have negatively affected the prospects for Obama's future at developing race relations in the US as it meant he was detached from the realities of racism, therefore, struggling to empathise with African-Americans.
2.4. Change we can believe in?
It has been argued that “Obama's election victory symbolizes potent possibilities for improving race relations and minority representation” (Lashley, 2009. p.372). It is widely believed that we are being led to a post-racial future now that there is a black man in the most powerful position in the world. Obama's election is a sign of progress as it “demonstrated that American voters could abandon the polarizing politics of cognitive dissonance grounded in cultural difference, particularly race” (Lashley, 2009. p.375). Obama has produced much pride among black people, relieved white guilt, and confirmed that the US is a diverse equal country; “He is the American Dream fulfilled - he is ‘proof' (especially for many whites, whether they vote for him or not) of the fulfilment of the promise of freedom and justice for all” (Harlow, 2009. p.166). However, it is strongly contested that “he provides the illusion of racial resolution and equal opportunity where there is none. In his effort to gain white support and win the presidency he has, in effect, chosen to reinforce the myth of the American Dream” (Harlow, 2009. p.166). Bonilla-Silva and Ray (2009, p.178) believe that none of Obama's policies are “truly radical and likely to accomplish the slogan he has adopted the core of his campaign: change.” Critics of Obama recognised his talents as an intelligent, accomplished democrat, with the ability to lead and gain support from Americans who wouldn't normally be interested in the presidential campaign. However, they believe that “symbolic diversity without progressive social movement politics gives us white supremacy in blackface” (Bonilla-Silva et al, 2009. p.178). They are criticising the fact that Obama is being celebrated as the first black president, and a symbol of change, when in fact he is a black face with white values, heading a dominantly white party. Bonilla-Silva and Ray (2009, p.177) believe that this forms a “new racism” - “the post civil rights system of subtle, institutionalized, and apparently non-racial practices that maintain white supremacy - and its accompanying dominant racial ideology of color-blind racism.” This “new racism” is a way of covering the underlying issues within America by using Obama as a symbol that they no longer exist. This means that Obama could actually prove to be an obstacle to progressing race relations. The acceptance of Obama's biracial heritage among voters has led to the belief that all American's are now equal. However, “in Obamerica, whites will still be ‘more American' than others (Bonilla-Silva et al, 2009. p.181).
Chapter Three: Analysis and Comparison of four Time issues
3.1. Just who is Obama?
The four Time issues that I have analysed range from Obama's election to Senate to his election as President. These issues will be referred by date of publication.
All four of the issues have similar front covers of close up images of Obama's face. Smith (2009, p.131) says that “much media attention has been devoted to Obama's face. Magazine covers of the Democratic candidate, President-elect, and President have often focused closely on his visage.”
The front cover of the 23rd October 2006 issue focuses on Obama's face, untouched and unaltered. Obama displays a quiet, yet reassured smile, portraying a message that he is a confident but modest person. Time has not edited out his blemishes and he is seen to be looking straight out of the cover, directly into the reader's eyes giving a sense of connection with Obama, and his visible blemishes convey that he has neither need nor desire to conceal his visible flaws. He is as “human” as the readers. The 10th December 2007 issue is the only one out of the four that does not focus purely on Obama's face. It shows him on a plain background with his arms crossed in a powerful stance looking out, slightly offset of the camera. His eyes looking beyond the camera can be seen as a deliberate technique to make it seem he is looking forward to the future. The 17th November 2008 cover is of particular note and interest as even in victory, Obama is still portrayed as modest and unassuming. Once again the focus is purely on his face, and he is quietly smiling.
The 23rd October 2006 article “The Fresh Face” acts as an introduction to Obama. It describes in detail a meeting with the public at a college gymnasium in his home State. Obama's “speaking style is quietly conversational, low in rhetoric-saturated fat; there is no harrumph to him.” This portrays that he is talking to the audience as his friends, not at them as a politician. This is reinforced when he “realizes he has been filibustering and apologizes to the crowd for ‘making a speech.' No one seems to care, since Obama is doing something pretty rare in latter-day America politics: he is respecting their intelligence.” Drake and Higgins (2006, p.89) describe that “just as with actors, skilled politicians vary their performance according to the demands placed upon them by different media genres, and so assessment of their performances will also vary according to the context in which they appear.” In this situation, Obama has understood the relatively informal context of his appearance, therefore, adapted his ‘self' accordingly. Through the medium of the magazine, a form of para-social interaction is confirmed as Obama is adapting his performance for his audience. It is crucial to Obama that those persons present listen to him, perceive him as their equal and not superior as it develops a greater connection and understanding between them and that their importance to him. When questioned whether he is considering running for president, Obama replies “I will think about how I can be most useful to the country and how I can reconcile that with being a good dad and a good husband.” This comment gives Obama a human face which the reader will be impressed by. It depicts him favourably as it shows that he is patriotic and is motivated by what is most important to most American families, family values.
The article says that “His parentage was the first thing he chose to tell us about himself when he delivered his knockout keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004,” and gives an overview of his upbringing. Key to this is Obama's quote that he “believes his inability to fit neatly into any group or category explains his relentless efforts to understand and reconcile opposing views.” All of these details separate him from the archetypal politician. His mixed-race and varied upbringing separate him from the norm. He conveys the message of the American Dream, that anything is achievable whatever your background. Cashmore (2009, p.204) believes that Obama's desire to explain his back-story means that “we are familiar with his family, his pets, his personal habits. We know him.” This in turn, should benefit him as the public feel they know him, and judge that he likes them, therefore, developing para-social interaction.
The 10th December 2007 issue focuses on Obama's strengths and weaknesses and seems to be more balanced and neutral than the 23rd October 2006 issue. The article “Barack Obama: The Contender” follows him in the last few weeks of the race for Democratic nomination. The sporting images will resonate with many readers. The article begins with the tone that Obama's campaign needs to “punch harder.” It describes how some of his speeches were underwhelming and “Like a concert audience that wants to hear only the greatest hits, they didn't know what to make of Obama's unfamiliar material as he honed his message and started spelling out policies.” Lashley (2009, p.364) describes how the New York Mayor claimed that “Voters don't vote on issues,” “they vote on personality.” This suggests that Obama's popularity was based more on the symbolism that he created rather than his actual policies. The article explores the main perceived weakness within his campaign, his inexperience. However, Obama counteracts this argument by saying “that experience is not the same thing as judgement” showing how he understands that he will be judged as inexperienced, therefore, uses his personality to disrupt this weakness and to deflect attention away from it. Obama's work to para-socially interact with his audience means that they are developing trust in him, and therefore, trust his judgement. This is backed up in the article with the claim that “growing numbers of voters are rating the need for new direction and new ideas as more important than strength and experience.” Therefore, Obama's image as a new breed of politician seemed to be outweighing his highlighted weaknesses.
The issue also includes a Q&A section with Obama. One of the most interesting statements made by Obama is “One of the things I think I can bring to the presidency is to make government and public service cool again.” Street (2006, p.368) argues that the “reasons politicians want these associations derives from the general culture value placed on cool, and the notion of ‘authenticity' associated with it. ‘Cool' represents being in charge and in touch.” Obama realised the importance in portraying himself as ‘cool' to involve younger generations and to be viewed as the future of politics, and he also recognised that his image was such that his claim to be cool would not be contested.
The 20th October 2008 issue differs from the 23rd October 2006 and 10th December 2007 issues in that its main focus is on the opinions of the American people. There is evidence that Obama's attempts to connect with them have been successful; one female white American working class citizen said “Obama seems to care more about people like me. He's more for the people.” It is argued that the economic downturn is benefiting Obama's campaign as he is “undeniably new.” “Obama surprised many people by alluding sympathetically to white workers who, damaged by economic turndowns, tended to black affirmative action for their problems” (Hollinger, 2008. p.1037). Therefore, Obama's ability to connect with people has gained him trust as demonstrated by a hairdressers comment that “The economy is terrible, and he is more for the working man.” Radhakrishnan (2009, p.152) says that “Obama is human, American, President, problem solver, politician, Democrat, friend of the auto industry, the bringer of accountability to Wall Street, provider of jobs and health insurance to all, partisan of Main Street America, ally of the have-nots, promoter of the haves, family man, affectionate husband, charming dad, passionate basketball fan and player.” His appeal is diverse and wide ranging to Americans of all races and backgrounds and has meant that he can be perceived as the public wish to perceive him. He has created a para-social bond with the working man and made himself the candidate of choice.
However, besides the positivity in this issue towards Obama, by way of balance, some of the concerns of the public are voiced. Similarly to the 10th December 2007 issue, the matter of inexperience is raised. Cheryl Collier says “I like him, but he has so little experience” and that “he's a gifted orator, and you think, If only he could show where he has accomplished these things he talks about.” This indicates that there could be concern within American people that he is more style than substance. Two further concerns raised were “Was he a Muslim?” and that “A President of the United States should not be named Obama.” The auditory image of Barack Hussein Obama is ironically associated with two of America's greatest enemies, Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden, therefore, providing links to radical Muslims, and troubling the confidence of Americans who, post 9/11, “it seemed, changed focus, singling out anyone who faintly resembled a Muslim” (Cashmore, 2006. p.118). This indicates that Obama, although a post-racial , still had problems with the symbolism of his name and skin colour.
The 17th November 2008 issue focuses the least on Obama's identity, as by now assumption is everyone knows him. It examines his victory but still links with the other three issues discussed. In the article “How Obama Rewrote the Book” he is quoted as saying “I'm not the one making history, you are.” This repeats how that throughout his campaign he has relied on his connection with his supporters to achieve his dream of Presidency. Many of the supporters have been with Obama from start to finish, or joined in on his journey, and developed a para-social relationship with him throughout their period of support. Once again, referring to Obama's background and heritage, the article says “America decided to place its fate in the hands of a man who had been born to an idealistic white teenage mother and the charismatic African grad student who abandoned them - a man who grew up without money, talked his way into good schools, worked his way up through the pitiless world of Chicago politics to the U.S Senate and now the White House in a stunningly short period.” This statement, similarly to the 23rd October 2006 issue, conveys the message of the American Dream. This issue also confirms that his inexperience was not in reality a significant issue as when voters were asked “only 1 in 5 cited experience as the highest priority. More than a third cared most about who could bring about change.” Therefore, Obama's message of a united, post-racial America was judged the most appealing aspect of his campaign.
3.2. Issues of Obama's Biraciality
The 23rd October 2006 issue makes little reference to Obama's race besides his biracial heritage. It claims that his popularity is made clear when he steps off the podium and is greeted by supporters of all ages, races and genders suggesting unification. “The African Americans tend to be fairly reserved- quiet pride, knowing nods and be-careful-now looks. The white people, by contrast, are out of control.” Esposito and Finley (2009, p.169) believe that “for quite some time, African Americans have known that success and integration in mainstream US society is typically predicated on embracing what is sometimes referred to as ‘acceptable Blackness.' Acceptable Blackness is Blackness that does not threaten Whites or makes them feel uncomfortable.” Obama throughout his campaign strived not to mention the horrors of the history of black people in America, as “white guilt can lead to defensiveness” (McKinney, 2005. p.199). This is reinforced in the article where Shelby Steele is quoted as saying “He's got to keep on pleasing white folks without offending black folks, and vice versa.” The article also states that Obama is similar to celebrities such as Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan and Oprah Winfrey who “seem to have an iconic power over the American imagination because they transcend racial stereotypes.” The image of Obama as a star means that he can transcend race, however, it could also mean that he is projected above the affects of racism, and therefore could in time lose the ability to connect effectively with black Americans.
The 10th December 2007 article, “The Identity Card,” focuses on the problems with Obama's post-racial approach to race. The author describes that the first thing that he ever heard about Obama was his mixed race heritage. He explains that “this was the way we Americans had to introduce Obama to each other. For some reason, knowledge of his racial pedigree had to precede even the mention of his politics.” Blaine (2007, p.83) explains that Whites “stereotypes of African-American people are generally negative, dominated by beliefs of laziness and low intelligence,” suggesting that Americans had to justify that Obama was different to the stereotypical African-American, and thus that it was acceptable to support him. The article also argues that Obama's “interracial background puts him at cross purposes. It gives him a racelessness that is politically appealing to whites, but it also draws him toward precisely the kind of self-conscious black identity that alienates whites.” This correlates with the 23rd October 2006 issue which discusses his efforts to transcend race.
Interestingly, the article discusses Obama's strategy to avoid playing the ‘race card'. Similarly to Dagbovie's (2007, p.232) theory of “new faces, old masks,” it is argued that “blacks have two great masks that we wear for advantage in the American mainstream: bargaining and challenging.” Bargainers give “whites the benefit of the doubt” in regards to racism, where as challengers, provide the opposite. Obama is described as a bargainer in the article. This agrees with Esposito and Finley's (2009, p.166) argument that Obama “took careful measures to shield himself from possible accusations of playing the so-called 'race card' by insisting on the fundamental ‘greatness and goodness' of the United States.” This post-racial approach is described in the article as “I will not rub America's history of racism in your face, if you will not hold my race against me.”
The 20th October 2006 front cover predominantly raises the issue of Obama's biracialism with his face split into a white and black side. Smith (2009, p.131) believes that this “complicated combination of image and text seeks to express a post-racial dynamic at play in the election. It juxtaposes Obama's ‘color' to a stark black and white binary, suggesting that ‘color' - Obama's ‘blackness' and ‘whiteness' - may no longer be a ‘black and white' issue.” The headlines on the page seem to promote positive reasons to choose Obama where prejudice may otherwise exist. They suggest that by choosing to support Obama, you also display that you can put prejudices aside, and are contributing to promoting a post-racial American future.
The main article, “For White Working Class, Obama Rises on Empty Wallets,” focuses on the belief that the economic downturn is trumping issues of race. The article asks “how the ultimate swing voters - the white working class - are looking at this year's decision” and how the white working class have the potential to make or break Obama's campaign. It is clear from the article that Obama realised that this demographic are motivated primarily by their finances not politics. It is stated that “For many Americans, the price of gas remains shorthand for a whole world of economic woes.” Thus, Obama ensured that he argued for the lowering of the price of gas, therefore, gaining white support.
However, although the article argues that the momentum is in Obama's favour, there are worries of the Bradley effect where “voters may say one thing to pollsters and do another in the voting booth.” Nevertheless, the article suggests that Obama is “succeeding in his effort to get past traditional racial politics. A majority of voters agreed with the notion that Obama ‘isn't white or black; he's a little of both'” and thus that he is successfully transcending race and suggests a new concept that “the moral might be that white and black begin to fade when the color that matters is green” arguing in effect that the economic downturn largely helped Obama overcome the issues that follow his biracialism.
The 17th November 2008 issue, in contrast to the others, celebrates the unification of the American people in Obama's ability to successfully transcend race. It states that “Obama won men, which no Democrat had managed since Bill Clinton. He won 54% of Catholics, 66% of Latinos, 68% of new voters - a multicultural, multigenerational movement that shatters the old political ice pack” and that the issues around Obama's race were minimal. It was his ability to appeal to the majority that brought change to the US. Similarly to the 20th October 2008 issue, the power of money is discussed. “Obama's sheer brute financial force, outspending McCain nearly 2 to 1, guarantees that the way we pay for our politics will never be the same - and money and power tend to flow as one.” Obama used his finances to push his message and face forward using all aspects of media technology. It is argued that “Obama has proved to be a biracial icon who can mobilize blacks and whites alike. Perhaps his mixed parentage gave him the multicultural background needed to be culturally bilingual, creating the dialogue that may bridge our divide.” I believe that the symbolism of Obama's mixed parentage correlates with Cashmore's (2009, p.202) opinion that there is “little doubt that image can overwhelm substance.”
3.3. Media Representations
The portrayal of Obama in the media is argued to have favoured his campaign over McCain's. Time magazine is supposedly neutral, however, the clear conclusion is that, deliberately or not, many of the issues favoured Obama. However, Castells (2009, p.397) believes that “how much the media actually favoured Obama is arguable.”
The 23rd October 2006 issue focuses on Obama almost as a celebrity. Rojek (2001, p.189) believes that “Celebrity culture is one of the most important mechanisms for mobilizing abstract desire.” The front cover displays a story at the top, “Clint's Take on Heroes.” The implied link to Obama is inescapable. The main title of the front cover is “Why Barack Obama could be The Next President,” with “The Next President” written in large bold writing and standing out from the page. This sets the tone for the article and is backed up within by the quote; “that he will eventually run, and win, is assumed by almost everyone.”
The article uses vivid descriptions to give the reader a sense of physically attending Obama's speech where “nearly a thousand people have gathered in the gymnasium at Rock Valley College.” Obama appearing in a low key setting suggests he desires to make the meeting more intimate and accessible to all. Mitchell (2009, p.125) believes “the sense of both actual and virtual gathering is what gave Obama's campaign the aura of a social movement being born.” This form of media representation gives Obama the opportunity to para-socially interact with the readers of the magazine, therefore, developing their para-social relationship. “Obama lopes into the gym with a casual, knees-y stride,” portraying the image that he is cool, casual, and not superior to his audience, and reinforced later in the article when he is described “casually dressed in t-shirt and jeans.” This is so he will be viewed as one of them.
A wide proportion of the article is spent on Obama's backstory. It has been suggested that “spending more words on backstory then on policy, and using photos that blend personal and political life all suggest a process of celebrification at work” (Hendrickson et al, 2007. p.17). That Obama is portrayed as a celebrity is very apparent in this issue detailing his history and achievements to make him stand out as different from the political norm.
The 10th December 2007 issue, similarly to the 23rd October 2006 issue, has a story in the top right corner 2.jpgpotentially relevant to Obama. Will Smith, a highly respected black celebrity and media icon is captured in a similar pose. A possible reason behind this could be that “the political leader, in terms of function and as a form of political legitimation, is constructed in a manner that resembles other public personalities that have emerged from a variety of cultural activities” (Marshall, 1997. p.214). The cover picture of Obama is shot from below, and there is a bright white light behind him making him look almost godly creating perpetual evocations that he is the potential saviour of America. This impression becomes even stronger when compared with the 20th October 2008 issue which states that Obama is “The American President we have been waiting for.” Rojek (2001, p.198) believes “it is an enormous paradox that democracy, the system which claimed more superiority on the basis of extending equality and freedom to all, cannot progress without creating celebrities who stand above the common citizen and achieve veneration and god-like worship.” Therefore, although it seems Obama has strived to be seen as equal to his supporters, the media has propelled him to stardom, thus driving “a wedge between themselves and their audiences” (Rojek, 2001. p.190).
Radhakrishnan (2009, p.153) believes “the media have built around the Obama image a psychological verisimilitude that does not really have to be backed up by ideological or political coherence.” This portrayal in the media is argued to give Obama a transcending image that is adaptable for all. Cashmore (2009, p.203) describes this as an “Obama that lives independently of time and space: this is the Obama of our imaginations. In this sense, it is a multifarious entity, adapted by each of us to suit our own purposes.”
The 20th October 2008 issue discusses the fact that “the most famous black man in America isn't dribbling a ball or clutching a microphone. He has no prison record. He has not built a career on four-letter words”. This is an important point as it distances Obama from the stereotypes of black people that many white people possess. It discusses how Obama is counteracting the theory that “all black news is bad news.” In particular, it is mentioned that “the sight of the Obama family onstage that first night in Denver was similarly mind-blowing, an image of black families that television so rarely provides.” Mitchell (2009, p.125) stated that Obama's huge visibility within the media is “partly an effect of his striking identity as an icon of racial difference, and partly the personal beauty of himself and his family.” Obama's visual image has been vital in his successful campaign conveying as it does a positive image of the future for many Americans.
The 17th November 2008 issue “presents on its cover a tightly cropped portrait of President-elect, framed according to the dictates of a monumental respectability. Shot from below, at a two-thirds angle, Obama looks loftily outside the frame, his eyes and forehead shining in the light from above. This is the face of leadership” (Smith, 2009. p.131). There is little text on the page, showing that the focus is on this face of the future.
The language in much of the article “How Obama rewrote the book” is lavish in its portrayal of Obama's victory. It begins, “Some princes are born in palaces. Some are born in mangers. But few are born in the imagination, out of scraps of history and hope.” This is a striking opening as it appears to make comparisons with Jesus. This correlates with the other three issues Time appeared to portray him as a potential saviour. It describes that “when the race was called, there was a rush of noise, of horns honking and kids shouting and strangers hugging in the streets.” This clearly shows the extent of Obama's ability to para-socially interact with his audience as the reaction to his victory caused much celebration and, at least temporary, unification. Rojek (2007, p.172) argues that “celebrities offer peculiarly powerful affirmations of belonging, recognition and meaning in the midst of the lives of their audiences, lives that may otherwise be poignantly experienced as under-performing, anti-climatic or sub-clinically depressing.” Obama's ability to connect with the people of America utilising the media has clearly boosted devotion to his cause. His ability to appear as one of the people, not an isolated politician, signifies that para-social interaction has been effective and successful and that his supporters feel as if they know Obama as a friend and are celebrating his victory with him.
3.4. Change we can believe in?
There is argument whether the election of Barack Obama is a physical or symbolic sign of change. The 23rd October 2006 issue is speculative on the point given as it is written before Obama had announced his decision to run for President. However, it does mention the possibility of him being able to bring positive change to America.
It has been said that “Obama came in to office on the crest of a wave of popular feeling that he helped to create, but that largely pre-dated his candidacy. It is crucial that we not forget how improbable Obama's election was” (Mitchell, 2009. p.126). Within this issue, Obama is described as “brand new”' by a supporter suggesting that American people were disenchanted with the way their country was being run, and were looking for someone different. This, along with the 20th October 2008 issue's statement, “I think Missouri has had enough,” supports the argument that Obama's successful campaign was made possible by the upset caused by the Bush presidency. During this period American people saw a war mismanaged, an economic downturn, and the least popular president since polling began. Therefore, Obama's ability to appear as a totally new breed of politician is argued to have presented a “feel good scenario that people want to embrace; however, the symbolic representation of racial equality/national healing that he provides is simply that - symbolic, not real” (Harlow, 2009. p.164).
The 20th October 2008 issue in particular focuses on this point. It quotes an American citizen to say “Whoever gets in, it's not going to change.” This tends to suggest that although Obama was distinguished as black, his efforts to be race transcendent and appealing to everybody, caused realisation that “having a black man as the symbolic head of a white supremacist system makes it no less a white supremacist system” (Harlow, 2009. p.172). This insinuates that Obama was a face to maintain white supremacy, whether he realised it or not. Issue three suggests that taxes and the price of gas were the most important factors in the decision of who to support, and not the symbolic feeling of unification. Financial self interest was more important. Although, the majority of this issue seems to suggest that Obama is unlikely to bring significant change, it states that “an Obama win would be just a start. Surely the next day we would wake up with the scoreboard still the same. Our life spans would still be shorter, our prison rolls longer and our net worths lower than the average Americans. But the psychic impact could be enormous. Young blacks, like me, in particular lived with the burden of having dropped the ball that the civil rights generation advanced.” This indicates an opinion that although America isn't going to change overnight, his campaign is furthering equality and boosting the belief that the American dream is real.
Rojek (2001, p.181) believes that “In being the ultimate achieved celebrities of the political sphere, they demonstrate that any individual can aspire to the highest office in the land.” Obama's statement reported in the 17th November 2008 issue builds upon that claim; that “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible... who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.” This powerful message is intended to be inspirational to American citizens and signifies that the ultimate American dream has been achieved. Harlow (2009, p.166) states “for many black people all over the world, he generates a sense of pride in and hope for blackness and becomes an unprecedented role model for youth.” Obama's message in issue four is that “Anyone can grow up to be President.” Although his victory seems to be proof of this, it is important that we don't forget the uniqueness of Obama and his campaign. His background, as well as his good fortune given the poorly perceived state of America during his campaign, has led to people craving change. It could well be argued he was the right face for change at the right time. This argument is acknowledged within the article, “It was precisely because he was an outsider with a thin résumé and few cronies or scars or grudges that he could sell himself as the solution.”
His ability to connect with supporters at all levels was one of Obama's key strengths in promoting the message of change. The 10th December 2007 article “Barack Obama: The Contender” discusses Obama's Jefferson-Jackson dinner speech. It is described that the speech “hit all the inspirational notes, with its pledge to bring Red America together with Blue America and its invocation of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s ‘fierce urgency of now.'” Wellington (2008, p.29) believes that “In Obama's speeches, race, or ‘the racial politics of the past,' often serves as a kind of metaphor for all ideological conflict. Easing race tensions reminds us we are all Americans and charts a path to a third way. The details of his third way are often left vague, but his tendency is to downplay ideological differences.” It has been argued that none of Obama's policies were truly radical; therefore, not physically advancing change. Bonilla-Silva and Ray (2008, p.181) believes “If we elect Obama President we will continue on the road toward symbolic unity without enacting the social policies needed to make sure we truly are ‘all Americans.'” It can't be denied that Obama has caused large social movement, and united the people of America. However, this sense of unification has seemed to have diminished since Obama's victory. The 17th November 2008 issue states “We now get to imagine, at least for a while, that the election of Obama has not just turned a page in our politics but also tossed out the whole book so we can start over.” This statement seems sceptical whether Obama really will bring change to America; however, it does acknowledge his achievement. This is reinforced later on when it is stated that “No one man's appointment will end all racial tension.” For change to physically succeed “black, white and brown must melt into red, white and blue.” This powerful declaration is a call for all Americans to unite, so that Obama's message of change can be achieved.
It is apparent from my studies that Time magazine helped develop Obama's ability to para-socially interact with the readers. Whether it did so deliberately or not is unclear. The majority of each magazine is taken up with Obama as a person rather than his policies and what he claims he can achieve. This leads to a developed belief of connection with Obama's persona, and that he is not so different from those who support him so loyally. I believe that the issues use carefully chosen quotes from Obama many of which seem to be spoken directly to the reader, as well as cleverly chosen articles such as ‘My Spiritual Journey' extracted from Obama's book ‘The Audacity of Hope,' in order to present Obama in a positive light.
The focus on Obama's personality, strengths and weaknesses outweighs the issues of his policies and racial issues. Dagbovie (2007, p.232) believes “In a popular culture context, biraciality ‘works' for people who do not really want to confront racial issues when it exploits difference under the guise of celebrating diversity.” This suggests that Obama's support was significantly enhanced by his biracial heritage and that he is more of an illusionary rather than a physical symbol of change. The lack of substance to back up Obama's promise of change within the magazines suggests that he did not have many radical policies to physically achieve his promise. Therefore, Obama's ability to appear as a multiracial neutral politician appears to be a tactic to promote his idea of racial equality and sell the idea of a more culturally diverse America. Esposito and Finley (2009, p.164) argue that “Obama himself embraced color blind ideology throughout much of his campaign by downplaying the reality of racism and emphasizing the viability of American egalitarianism.” This downplaying of racism along with Obama's ability to adapt his performance so as to appear as a race transcendent is often “described as a definitive affirmation of racial progress in the United States and a sign of a more inclusive future” (Esposito et al, 2009. p.164).
Although, Time magazine is celebrated as a neutral, impartial medium, I do conclude that the four issues in question seem to portray a pro Obama message. In particular, issue one's representation and introduction of him as a celebrity and a “brand new” politician sets a foundation built upon in the later issues . With a circulation of 4,145,536 (MRI Fall 2006); it is most read of all four issues. This, I believe, gave Obama an advantage as it focuses positively on his identity and personality, therefore, introducing a para-social relationship which develops in later issues. When race seemed to become a potential setback for Obama in 2008, Time magazine appeared to counteract it with their controversial front cover dividing Obama's face in two, and, although critical of him, contained articles which appeared to argue positively towards him. Ultimately in the fourth issue Time appears to refer to Obama as potentially the saviour of their nation and the man to secure the American Dream. This leads me to believe that the writers of the various articles were also swept along in the tide of enthusiasm for Obama, therefore, may have been influenced themselves via forms of para-social interaction.
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