December 16, 2007

Obama Enters The Safe Zone. (Or: At Least We No Longer Have To Hear About Those Soccer Moms)

(updated 12/17/07 4:48 EST)


(click for full size)

by Wendy Kozol

Perhaps it goes without saying that gender and race are bleeding ink this primary season.  In this picture, however, it isn’t a matter of either race or gender but about their overlap, in this case about white anxiety about the black male.

The photographer captures a moment in which Obama isn’t smiling but earnestly reaching into the same space as the women at the bottom of the frame.  Highlighted in the center are the black and white hands shaking, a long clichéd reference to multicultural America, as if to reassure viewers about Obama’s black masculinity.

In the accompanying article, reporter Robin Toner explains Obama’s appeal in this “post-feminist” age as the sensitive male who understands women and their concerns.  Surely it is better to have a variety of black males to contrast with the seemingly endless media depictions of black men as criminals.  But, here the photograph asserts this “different” kind of black masculinity by turning to the safe zone of white, middle class women voters (concerned, as we're told, about “women’s issues”).  It's a curious ideal on which to base a stamp of approval, not just for the racial and economic exclusivity but for the history of violent opposition to racial mixing.

Beyond the Obama litmus test, perhaps it's the news media’s reliance on privileged white women as the face of feminism which makes women of color, working class women, queers and others so reluctant to embrace "the movement."  At least thankfully, though, we no longer have to hear about soccer moms.

Wendy Kozol is Professor of Gender and Women's Studies at Oberlin College.  She teaches courses on feminist theories as well as visual culture, and is the author of LIFE's America: Family and Nation in Postwar Photojournalism.

(image: Mario Tama/Getty Images. December 2, 2007.  via

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