January 6, 2007

Looking More Rosie Today


Settle in (or should I say, buckle up), because we’re likely to spend a good bit of time over the next couple of Congressional years talking about, debating and also defending pictures of the new Majority Speaker.

As I said yesterday, I think the MSM has a visual agenda to make Nancy Pelosi look weak, vague, soft, ineffectual and/or not ready for prime time.  (As just one more example, notice how the NYT visually juxtaposed Pelosi and the supposedly discredited Republican leadership on December 23rd in this “one week to go before the new Congress” preview.)

That said, I understand and appreciate why my criticism of yesterday’s NYT lead image (commemorating Ms. Pelosi’s opening day as Speaker) caused so such debate among the readership.  I think the largest problem with my “Opening Shots” post, as several readers pointed out, is that I take the media to task for showcasing an image (of Pelosi at the podium surrounded by children) that Ms. Pelosi encouraged, and might have been perfectly happy with.

Certainly it’s possible yesterday’s lead image will — six years, two years, maybe even six months from now — come to stand for and articulate a paradigmatic shift that took place in American politics.  Hopefully (as some readers already believe), this image will symbolize a Speaker and a Congress that moved away from war mongering and empire building in favor of real social, domestic, emotional and physical protection of the home front.

However, I feel  the Democrats, and Ms. Pelosi, have got to be very savvy (in a way they have, frankly, been miserable at) in visually framing and reinforcing their agenda. 

I couldn’t be more supportive of Ms. Pelosi’s intentions yesterday.  Still, if politics is “TV with the sound off” (as Karl Rove drove home), I still wonder about the clarity and effectiveness of yesterday’s picture.  We can argue all we want about what it should mean, or how it reads to us, as died-in-the-wool progressives, but, unfortunately, that’s not how visual politics works.

As still another reader indicated, the Republicans got away with all those shots of George or Laura Bush surrounded by children as a way of blunting criticism, pushing the “compassionate conservatism” mumbo-jumbo (its crazy, but it works, as both proposed direction and political misdirection), and the simple softening of hard edges.  In yesterday’s case, however, where was the context?

If there was some kind of pre-announced theme of family or community to have weaved the picture with, that would have been one thing.  Short of that, however, I wonder if there wasn’t another way to express the theme of family and children without potentially turning a great visual opportunity into a refrigerator snapshot of an open house, or, worse, providing at least the potential for the MSM to reinforce the existing Pelosi/Democratic amateurism and immaturity meme.

That’s why I like the above image better.  This shot appeared today as a curious “drop in” in the left margin of a NYT article about the new “earmark” legislation.  Although the lead photo featured a group of Republican senators responding to the Democratic majority, the side caption defined the offset image as a button worn by a Pelosi supporter at a Friday pre-opening session open house for lawmakers and staff.

Framing Pelosi as Rosie the Riveter (again, from a political standpoint) seems a much stronger way to go.  As it emphasizes in the Wikipedia write-up, the character became a cultural icon not just as a symbol of feminism, but for changing the norms of society.  With the potential of Pelosi and the Democrats to change the norms of Congress and Government, no wonder the button drew the attention of the camera.

In terms of Rosie analogies, Norman Rockwell’s version is a much bolder one.

In the Rockwell painting, the muscularity; the flag (here a rebuttal to the Repubs exploitation of it);  the tool (just like the boys have);  the printed name (so as not to be so self-confident, you forget who you are);  the sandwich (goodbye, K Street dining);  the work ethic (now that Congress is supposedly meeting five times a week);  the halo (for high ideals and good intentions — works better than the children, I think); the lipstick, curls and painted nails (everything the boys don’t have); the buttons (activism, activism, activism) demonstrate just how powerful symbolism can be.

… By the way, I didn’t even mention Rosie’s feet stepping on the copy of Mein Kampf.  Now, I’m not one to liken Bush to Hitler, but the strength of this woman to, almost casually, stamp out the doctrine of the despot, is certainly not lost in our current setting.

Maybe the last thing yesterday’s discussion also revealed is a gender split.  Perhaps, as a male, it’s more important to me that Nancy project more strength.  Perhaps, as we move away from the “brute force” model of government, there is simply a lot more ambiguity to deal with between hard and soft, and between male and female.

Anyway, as I said above, I’m sure we’re going to have a lot more opportunity to talk about it.

(hat tip: mark)

(image: Jamie Rose for The New York Times. Washington. January 6, 2007. nyt.com)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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