July 29, 2008

McCain's Uppity Gym Rat



In my "ObamaPhobia" talk at NetrootsNation, I detailed a pattern of negative media coverage built around racist stereotypes as well as false rumors of Obama as a closet Muslim.   My focus, of course, was on how this framing plays out at the visual level.

In McCain’s latest attack ad, I see his campaign starting to draw on some of these same themes.

The "Troops" ad tries to impugn Obama by alleging he skipped a visit with injured troops in Kuwait because the Pentagon wouldn’t let him film it.  Here’s the link to view the whole thing.

The ad, as I read it, draws on a cross-section of racist and religious typecasting.  The video plays on the theme of Obama as unpatriotic or anti-American, the upshot of fear mongering around Obama as Muslim.  The ads also plays on racist stereotypes of black men as athletes, as lazy, as animalistic, and as arrogant or "uppity."

Both the anti-patriotic  and the lazy stereotype shows up in an early frame accusing Obama of never having held a hearing on Afghanistan in his Senate Armed Services subcommittee.  Notice how the frame from the McCain ad mirrors the frame from the Hillary Clinton red phone/3 a.m. ad.  (If you recall, that frame raised an uproar in the ‘sphere because Obama’s skin was also darkened.)

What I’d like to focus on, however, is the middle segment of the ad in the clip above, leading off the post.  Quoting the segment:

"And now, he made time to go to the gym, but cancelled a visit with wounded troops….  Seems the Pentagon wouldn’t allow him to bring cameras."

Many sites (1, 2) have called out the ad’s blatant lie, dealing with Pentagon rules precluding campaign access to its facilities.  What is visually more insidious, however, is the intimation that Obama "made time to go to the gym" at the expense of the troops.  If you notice, the video of Obama on the basketball court is exceptionally fuzzy.  That helps to obscure Obama’s rather boisterous and enthusiastic interaction with American troops in the gym at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait.  (Besides the evidential photo above, here’s an extended clip documenting Obama’s engagement with these troops, including the three-point basket he nailed.)

If you’ve been following The BAG, you probably caught the post from 12 days ago ("Obama’s Not Human") dealing with Newsweek’s characterization of Obama as a compulsive exerciser, mostly involving basketball.   I found my way to the Newsweek post, by the way, via Drudge, who also linked to another article specifically referring to Obama as "a gym rat."  (Curiously, that term has shown up fairly liberally, such as here at TIME, for example.)  The other b-ball related point Newsweek alleges, by the way, is that Obama, for all his exertion on the court, doesn’t seem to sweat.  The reference to physical compulsivity, the supposed strange absence of perspiration and the popular rodent analogy all create a subtle intimation of the hoop-shooting Obama as somehow less human and more animal.

(Looking up the term "animalism" at The Free Dictionary, you get the following definition: 1. Enjoyment of vigorous health and physical drives; 2. Indifference to all but the physical appetites;  3. The doctrine that humans are merely animals with no spiritual nature.)

If you go back to the clip and consider how completely out-of-context the phrase "making time to go to the gym" happens to be, it mostly makes sense to the extent it echoes the "gym rat" stories that started surfacing less than two weeks back.  Of course, the video clip also drives home the athlete stereotype, too.  And then, the intimation that Obama couldn’t be bothered visiting the wounded also plays on the stereotype of the black man, especially the successful one, as "uppity."

(image:   Sgt. Jarod Perkioniemi – U.S. Army via AP.  July 18, 2008. Camp Arifjan, Kuwait)

Post By

Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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