No sooner had Rolling Stone put Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on its cover, looking doe-eyed and rock-star disheveled, than critics denounced the editors for "glamorizing terrorism."
"The cover of Rolling Stone is meant for glorifying rock stars, icons, and heroes NOT murderers!" protested a typical reader in the article's online comments thread. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino decried the magazine for its "celebrity treatment" of Tsarnaev and for sending the "terrible message that destruction gains fame for killers and their 'causes.'"
Unfortunately, Islamist terrorism doesn't need Rolling Stone to make it glamorous. For the right audience, apparently including Tsarnaev, it already is. Understanding the nature of that glamour could offer clues to discouraging future terrorists. But first we have to acknowledge that terrorist glamour exists.
The novelist Salman Rushdie recognized the connection in a 2006 interview. "Terror is glamour--not only, but also," he said, arguing that many terrorists "are influenced by the misdirected image of a kind of magic ... The suicide bomber's imagination leads him to believe in a brilliant act of heroism, when in fact he is simply blowing himself up pointlessly and taking other people's lives."
The interviewer was flabbergasted, but Rushdie was correct. Glamour is about much more than celebrity, sex appeal or shiny dresses. It's a product of imagination--and a powerful form of persuasion.
Glamour gives its audience the feeling of "if only"--if only I could belong to that group, wear that dress, drive that car, date that person, live in that house. If only I could be like that. By embodying our longings in a specific image or idea, glamour convinces us, if only for a moment, that the life we yearn for exists. That dream can motivate real-world action, whether that means taking a resort vacation, moving to a new city, starting a band or planting a bomb with visions of martyrdom. What we find glamorous helps define who we are and who we may become.
Janet Reitman's Rolling Stone story on Tsarnaev points to several sources of glamour that have nothing to do with celebrity: the allure of military action, utopian causes and a lost homeland and identity. All these things speak to desires that go deeper than fame. "It is not uncommon for young Chechen men to romanticize jihad," Reitman writes, describing "abundant Chechen jihadist videos online" that show fighters from the Caucasus who "look like grizzled Navy SEALs, humping through the woods in camouflage and bandannas."
To be a jihadi warrior, these images suggest, is to be a man. Martial glamour is as ancient as Achilles. It promises prowess, courage, camaraderie and historical importance. It offers a way to matter. The West once recognized the pull of martial glamour--before the carnage of World War I, the glamour of battle was a common and positive phrase--but it ignores at its peril the spell's enduring draw, especially for those who feel powerless and insignificant.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s personal qualities and story helped to invest the diverse relationship between Hollywood and the White House with a special resonance. This resonance in particular would enhance the figure of the president in certain cinematic terms—in other words, in terms that reflected the publicizing of heroic male figures in mass culture. As the theater provided Lincoln with emotional and philosophical guides to leadership, movies provided FDR with a mirror in which he could perceive and evaluate the deeper meanings of his life and his presidency. The fundamental reason for this deep bond lay in Roosevelt’s unprecedented employment of performance (as dramatic artists understood the word) in service to his presidency.
While Lincoln mined Shakespeare to enrich the music and the tragic weight of his prose and pondered melodramas (as well as Shakespearean tragedy) to elucidate his career-long fascination with tyranny and its consequences, Roosevelt, in keeping with his times, strove for a lighter touch. Through his effective use of radio in the Fireside Chats, he built on his cousin Theodore’s efforts to transform political speech from orotund Victorian practice to casual conversation suited to the age of mass media. He consciously confined the vocabulary of the Chats to about a thousand of the most common words, and always broadcast to a small group of guests in the Oval Office to create the feeling of an actual conversation.
To be sure, Roosevelt proved equally effective, especially during election campaigns, at booming and occasionally portentous oratory before huge crowds, but here too he showed his mastery of the microphone, adjusting his voice to the space and its echo and providing a novel new variety of temperaments, extending to effective uses of humor. Through his skilled introduction of light and humorous speaking qualities to presidential oratory, as well as the general buoyancy of many of his public appearances, Roosevelt conveyed his appreciation for comic acting and monology, in the style of Will Rogers and similar performers of the time.
The president’s most important performance by far was the deception with which he masked his physical disability. While every citizen knew about Roosevelt’s bout with polio, which afflicted him below the waist in 1921, almost none of them ever saw it literally paralyze him. In public the president walked, stood, smiled, and confidently led the nation. FDR was brazen enough in his first inaugural address to characterize fear as “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror, which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance,” apparently unworried that his passing reference to paralysis might diminish his own image at the very moment he was attaining power.
From the time he contracted polio FDR spent virtually waking hour of his life battling the image of the invalid, first to restart and to advance his political career and then, as president, to project the traditional image of the national leader—a Washington, Jackson, Lincoln, or Theodore Roosevelt “running” for office and “marching” the people forward. In the age of movies, this expectation was heightened. As the art historian Sally Stein has observed, “today’s mass media intensifies the popular impulse to scrutinize the bodies of leaders and would-be leaders for signs of the[ir] abilities.” Even in the electronic age, while “absolute monarchs may sit . . . politicians dependent on popular mandate are expected to demonstrate quite literally their ‘good standing’ by rising to present themselves to their constituents.”
For Roosevelt, confronting such expectations was an unyielding physical and psychological challenge. His campaign led him to acquire a spa in Warm Springs, Georgia; experiment with quack medical remedies; devise steel leg braces and paint them black so that they would not be detected against his socks; and feign walking, falling forward while a strong man grasped his arm.
He even assumed the traditional leader’s pose by mounting a horse during his campaign in 1928 for the governorship of New York. Since his legs could not grip the horse’s flanks, this was a dangerous stunt; a slight movement by the animal likely would have thrown him to the ground. These efforts were only part of his ordeal, though. As one biographer, H. W. Brands, has put it, FDR
had determined, not long after contracting polio, that he would deny its effects on his life and dreams. The sheer physical effort of standing in his braces, of staggering forward, step by lurching step, of smiling through the sweat and the clenched hands gripping the lectern for dear life, would have exhausted anyone. But the emotional effort was at least as great. He couldn’t show his anger at his lost athleticism, his vanished virility, his physical dependence on others. He couldn’t be discouraged or despondent….The result of all this was that the actor never left the stage.
Even during times of relaxation such as his “children’s hours”—afternoon cocktails usually in the company of his adoring female secretaries and cousins —FDR projected an air of insouciance and buoyancy, mixing drinks while seated behind the liquor cart. In the dark first days of his administration, as the financial system hung in the balance, his adviser Raymond Moley found him to be almost unreal, “unmoved” by turmoil as if he “had no nerves at all.” Earlier, at the inaugural ceremony, the pioneering motion picture actress Lillian Gish—who was perhaps uniquely qualified to render evaluations of an individual’s “star quality”—marveled at Roosevelt, exclaiming that the new president seemed “to have been dipped in phosphorus.”
Coupled with this, as Brands perceptively notes, was the fact that Roosevelt was by nature a devious and misleading personality. “He had been emotionally isolated since boyhood. His close relationships had always been with persons not his equal. He had no close friends as a boy or young man, no one at Groton or Harvard in whom he genuinely confided.” Decades before he fell to polio, he enjoyed fooling people with verbal misdirection and his befogging brand of charm. Voters heard the young FDR boast about achievements that were entirely the work of others; election opponents, lulled into complacency by his genteel demeanor, learned only later of his ruthless campaign plotting and dealmaking; and he betrayed Eleanor by conducting an affair with Lucy Mercer, her own secretary. Eleanor’s uncle Theodore, as Booker T. Washington and many others noted, had seemed totally lacking in deviousness, possessing a “straightforward indiscretion, [a] frankness to the point of rudeness.” His cousin Franklin’s demeanor could not have been more different.
Part of the difference was due to changing times. In the decades after Theodore’s death, the advertising and public relations industries asserted that individuals (as well as corporations) must wear a carefully constructed public face in order to succeed, and the motivational speaker Dale Carnegie sold millions of books advising ambitious young men to mask their mundane, everyday selves in job interviews or in business transactions. In an era that celebrated public deception for the benefit of advancement, FDR was a truly representative man. His Herculean efforts to mask his paralysis and his despair made him a virtuoso of deceptive public performance.
As president, manipulating allies and foes alike, Roosevelt kept the goals of the New Deal multiple and often contradictory, so that he might preserve maximum political flexibility. He admiringly called himself “the juggler,” but some of his machinations also held a cruel edge. More than most presidents, as the biographer Conrad Black put it, “Roosevelt punished his enemies.” Stung by the opposition to the New Deal of Moses Annenberg, publisher of the Philadelphia Inquirer, FDR led a relentless effort to convict Annenberg for income tax evasion and sentence him to maximum time. Roosevelt ignored petitions on Annenberg’s behalf from Jack Warner, the movie comedian Eddie Cantor, and many others, and the publisher remained in federal prison until shortly before his death.
Ambassador Joseph Kennedy had done FDR no favors by blatantly claiming that Great Britain—the country in which he was stationed—was doomed to fall to Hitler, but Roosevelt’s bizarre and utterly insincere audiences with Kennedy during his visit home in November 1940, in which he lavished praise and sympathy on the diplomat, seemed designed only to make his imminent firing all the more brutal. As in Annenberg’s case, the movie industry played a supporting role in Kennedy’s fall. Speaking at a luncheon in Hollywood given in his honor by studio chiefs, the ambassador made his most strident isolationist comments to date, praising Hitler’s regime in front of dozens of Jewish producers and directors. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. reported Kennedy’s comments to the White House, and the president summoned Kennedy to his home in Hyde Park. Moments after he greeted the ambassador, FDR seethed to Eleanor, “I never want to see that son of a bitch again as long as I live!” brusquely ordering her to take him to the train station.
Such deviousness and cruelty, of course, are not uncommon in the annals of politics and leadership, and more than most leaders, Franklin Roosevelt might be excused for utilizing such means to achieve noble ends. Nevertheless, if we observe his tactics in tandem with his campaign to hide his paralysis and with his sensitivity to the power of mass media, such as radio and motion pictures, we sense that FDR was building new connections among the presidential image, political tactics, and the growing cultural appetite for celebrity.
It is particularly notable that while Roosevelt and his inner circle worked to hide his paralysis, they also relied upon his audiences—the press and the electorate—to willingly suspend their disbelief, to play along with the ruse that FDR really could walk and “stand for office” like any other strong leader. As Sally Stein notes, the public conspired with FDR to cover up his actual physical condition, engaging in “a collaborative process of dealing with the president’s lack of conventional signs of mastery.” In late 1932, when an article in Time magazine made a passing reference to the president-elect’s “shriveled legs,” hundreds of readers wrote indignant letters, and the magazine refrained from using such language again. It is difficult to quantify the impact of the public’s desire to protect Roosevelt’s image and to help him maintain the illusion of conventional physical strength. Although he faced some of the most adverse political and social challenges in American history, across an unprecedented three full terms and four election campaigns, the illusion persisted.
In the second of our excerpts from The Leading Man: Hollywood and the Presidential Image, historian Burton Peretti looks at how the relationship between the White House and movie stars intensified during Franklin Roosevelt's administration, leading to high-profile movie-star appearances and to more movies about past, present, and imaginary presidents. (Unlike Steven Spielberg, who held his new Lincoln movie until after the election, Hollywood during FDR's administration had no qualms about mixing past and present politics.)
The Great Depression and World War II intensified the escapist power of the movies and the voters’ tendency to search for idealized, cinematic, heroic traits in their elected leaders.
It is striking how much more visible Hollywood became in the Roosevelt White House. Movie stars, familiar to Americans from their appearances on theater screens, began to show up regularly at the White House during the Roosevelt administration. The main impetus was an annual event on behalf of a charitable organization founded by the president, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (which later renamed itself after one of its fundraising efforts, the March of Dimes). While the public never received a clear account from the press of the extent of Roosevelt’s handicap, they were aware of his illness, and the novelty of having a president afflicted by polio intensified press coverage of the disease and efforts directed toward its prevention and cure.
As a result, in late January 1934 a small gathering of movie celebrities at a Washington hotel, hosted by the performer and humorist Will Rogers, celebrated Roosevelt’s birthday for the purpose of raising money for polio research. Hollywood publicists then concocted a plan to transport a larger group of well-known movie performers to Washington every year, beginning in 1935, in conjunction with the president’s birthday. The performers lunched at the White House with the First Lady and attended a variety of fundraising affairs around the capital. With the exception of young Ginger Rogers’s invitation in 1936 to witness the delivery of a Fireside Chat in the Oval Office, none of the participating actors met the president himself. FDR instead attended annual birthday dinners, which were held the same evenings as the movie stars’ lunches but were attended only by government officials. From 1935 to 1937, when Roosevelt was at the height of his popularity, the annual Washington birthday event inspired similar events on the same night in other cities, to raise money for the fight against polio.
Owing to such Hollywood–White House contacts, Alan Schroeder argues, “it was Franklin Roosevelt who first perceived the power of association waiting to be harnessed in Hollywood stars.” This power of association was a deeply emotional bond connecting Roosevelt, his family, and more liberal members of his administration with their most fervent supporters in the movie industry. During Roosevelt’s terms, the unwritten but long-standing American taboo that barred star performers from partisan activism was often breached.
Hollywood’s increasingly central role in American political culture was also evident in the first significant depictions of U.S. presidents—fictional and real ones—in sound films. Not coincidentally, these depictions first appeared during the depths of the Depression, at the precise time the nation looked to Roosevelt for leadership. D. W. Griffith had presented Washington and Lincoln as supporting characters in his silent historical epics, and his first talking film was a Lincoln biography, but before 1932 Hollywood avoided depicting real or imagined presidents; politics, in the main, was not considered dramatic. The Depression steadily altered this view in a number of the popular arts, as exemplified by the groundbreaking musical comedy Of Thee I Sing (1931).
In Hollywood it was, perhaps not surprisingly, William Randolph Hearst who produced the first, fevered cinematic portrayal of the presidency. Gabriel over the White House (1932) has long fascinated critics and historians with its story about a weak president who is transformed by a blow to the head into a bold, quasi-dictatorial leader. Walter Huston (who had portrayed Lincoln for Griffith two years earlier) enacts Hearst’s own thwarted fantasy of a populist leader unbound by legalistic restrictions, free to confront the Great Depression and the threat of organized crime with paramilitary squads and government by decree.
As the Great Depression eased later in the decade, presidents in movies were portrayed in a more sentimental fashion. The avalanche of Lincoln lore, unleashed in the wake of Carl Sandburg’s very popular biography, epitomized the back-to-the-land sentimentality of the New Deal era. It was manifested in Hollywood in the late 1930s films Abe Lincoln in Illinois (from the play by Robert E. Sherwood, soon to become FDR’s speechwriter) and Young Mr. Lincoln, as well as Frank McGlynn Sr.’s supporting appearances as Lincoln in many films. More generally, the leading director Frank Capra developed a passion for contrasting homespun, Lincolnesque American goodness with ruthless corporate power in a series of celebrated films. The most overtly political of Capra’s films, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), was vaguely based on the story of Senator Burton Wheeler, who before his isolationist heyday had arrived in Washington from the Montana farmlands as progressive young crusader. Yet, as Michael Rogin and Kathleen Moran have shown, Mr. Smith muddled its political messages and obscured its ideology so completely that Capra—possibly by design—leaves the audience with only a vague yet powerful sense of pride in the little man. (Capra’s last political film, Meet John Doe , is more pessimistic but equally opaque in its political orientation.)
Finally, there was FDR himself, whose representations in 1930s studio films still startle viewers today. The first FDR movie “appearance” occurred in the 1933 musical extravaganza Footlight Parade, in which the Broadway impresario James Cagney’s closing stage show “Shanghai Lil” evolves unexpectedly into a patriotic celebration of the New Deal (and the National Recovery Administration in particular). An audience onstage holds up cards to produce a large image of the president’s face, as martial band music explodes on the soundtrack. The scene is often considered an illustration of the fervent support of FDR by the brothers Warner, well known as the leading Democrats in Hollywood.
Darryl Zanuck at Twentieth Century Fox was another Roosevelt supporter, as was the director John Ford, and it was undoubtedly these men who ensured that the resettlement camp director in California in The Grapes of Wrath (1940)—the virtual savior of the Joad family, welcoming them smilingly to the clean and friendly camp at the end of their cross-country ordeal—resembles an ambulant FDR, down to his grin and eyeglasses. In wartime, Warners and Cagney revisited Roosevelt in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), an award-winning biography of the entertainer George M. Cohan, which begins with Cohan (played by Cagney) visiting the Oval Office and receiving warm praise from President Roosevelt (portrayed once again by a lookalike, but only shown reverently from the back). [Watch the scene here.] Zanuck then gambled the Fox studio’s assets on an expensive film biography of FDR’s mentor Woodrow Wilson, which explicitly endorsed the internationalism at the heart of American policy during World War II. These films collectively represented the apex of Hollywood’s favorable depiction of a sitting president and his goals.
The English essayist Joseph Addison asked it in 1711 after a frustrating night at the opera, when all the pretty ladies seemed to have politics on their mind. Instead of congregating in the front--the better to put on a show for their male admirers--they arrayed themselves according to partisan allegiances: Whigs on the right, Tories on the left, and a dwindling number of "neutrals" in the middle.
The ladies' left-right symbolism (reversing today's left and right just as Americans reverse the European conventions of blue and red) didn't stop with seating charts. It extended to artificial beauty marks, like the ones Hogarth depicted on prostitutes in Marriage à la Mode (top) and A Rake's Progress (above), which were the height of fashion. The patches began as a way to cover the effects of smallpox or syphillis, but eventually became simply a style--with political meaning. Whigs patched on the right, Tories on the left.
Writing in his infuential daily newspaper The Spectator, Addison mocked this partisan patching, noting that the intersection of style and symbolism could create confusion.
whatever may be the Motives of a few fantastical Coquets, who do not Patch for the Publick Good so much as for their own private Advantage, it is certain, that there are several Women of Honour who patch out of Principle, and with an Eye to the Interest of their Country. Nay, I am informed that some of them adhere so stedfastly to their Party, and are so far from sacrificing their Zeal for the Publick to their Passion for any particular Person, that in a late Draught of Marriage-Articles a Lady has stipulated with her Husband, That, whatever his Opinions are, she shall be at liberty to Patch on which Side she pleases.
I must here take notice, that Rosalinda, a famous Whig Partizan, has most unfortunately a very beautiful Mole on the Tory Part of her Forehead; which being very conspicuous, has occasioned many Mistakes, and given an Handle to her Enemies to misrepresent her Face, as tho' it had Revolted from the Whig Interest. But, whatever this natural Patch may seem to intimate, it is well known that her Notions of Government are still the same. This unlucky Mole, however, has mis-led several Coxcombs; and like the hanging out of false Colours, made some of them converse with Rosalinda in what they thought the Spirit of her Party, when on a sudden she has given them an unexpected Fire, that has sunk them all at once. If Rosalinda is unfortunate in her Mole, Nigranilla is as unhappy in a Pimple, which forces her, against her Inclinations, to Patch on the Whig Side.
Like the self-professed vegetarian who turned out for Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day, some former critics converted to patching once it was turned to partisan use. Wrote Addison, "I am told that many virtuous Matrons, who formerly have been taught to believe that this artificial Spotting of the Face was unlawful, are now reconciled by a Zeal for their Cause, to what they could not be prompted by a Concern for their Beauty."
Style is not glamour, however, nor vice versa. The real glamour in this story is what Addison sought at the theater: an escape from partisanship into a world of beauty.
So, my friend and occasional DG contributor David Bernstein asks, What about Mitt Romney? He is, Dave points out, a "presidential candidate who looks like he was sent from central casting," with a "young photogenic energetic VP candidate who performs extreme exercise program (who's matched against graying hair-implanted gaffe prone old guy)." He might also have mentioned that Romney even made People's 2002 "Most Beautiful People" list. That sounds like a prescription for glamour.
But, at least in a politician, it isn't enough. To quote from my forthcoming book (which, before a significant reorganization at the publisher, was called The Power of Glamour and scheduled to be published September 3, 2013--stay tuned for updates):
Glamour is not the same as beauty, stylishness, luxury, sex appeal, or celebrity. Glamour is, rather, a form of nonverbal rhetoric, which moves and persuades not through words but through images. Glamour takes our inchoate longings and focuses them. By binding image and desire, glamour gives us pleasure, even as it heightens our yearning. It makes us feel that the life we dream of exists, and to desire it even more. We recognize glamour by its emotional effect—a sense of projection and longing—and by the elements from which that effect arises: mystery, grace, and the promise of escape and transformation. The effect and the elements together define what glamour is.
Most of us would like to be or be with physically attractive people. So beautiful people who make their beauty seem effortless, and who maintain enough distance and mystery, can be glamorous. Their beauty makes us long to inhabit the world they represent--to be like, or be with, them.
Mitt Romney is good-looking, but he does not have that effect on most of his supporters. Barack Obama in 2008 did, not because he's good-looking--that's necessary, but not sufficient--but because his persona tapped people's deep longings for the country.
Unlike movie stars and models, whose professions encourage audience projection and allow them to take on multiple personas, politicians belong to a specific realm of life. Although most presidential nominees are physically attractive and many are charismatic, only very rarely are they glamorous. It's too hard to maintain the requisite mystery and grace and, as President Obama has discovered in office, to represent the disparate and idealized yearnings of millions of different supporters.
[Mitt Romney photo by Gage Skidmore, used under Creative Commons license.]
Walking through Bloomingdale's, I was struck by this sign in the jewelry department. The Carolee jewelry company is pitching its line of pearls with photos of four pearl-wearing style icons: two American first ladies, Jackie Kennedy and Michelle Obama, both Democrats, and two foreign consorts, Eva Peron and Wallis Simpson, who, to put it politely, leaned fascist. (What, no Imelda Marcos? Too famous for shoes I guess.)
Now I realize that jewelry marketers should not be confused with historians, but if I were Michelle Obama I'd be offended. And if I were managing the Obama brand I'd certainly protest. If the White House can ask a noncontroversial windbreaker-maker to remove a billboard featuring a press photo of President Obama in its jacket, surely the first lady's staff can ask Carolee not to link Mrs. O with Evita.
It is, of course, possible that this is a sanctioned use of the first lady's image. To find out, since there's no press contact listed on Carolee's site, I posted a query to @Caroleejewelry on Twitter. (If someone were paying me to write, I'd call the company and the White House.) No response.
The new issue of Reasoncarries a short item I wrote about politics and glamour. A regular Reason feature, the assignment was to come up with a short, three-item list. It’s not online yet, and the published version was a bit truncated for reasons of space, but here’s what I originally wrote, complete with links not available on paper.
1. Glamorous political figures are rare. Unlike charisma, glamour isn’t a personal quality a politician can possess. It’s a product of imagination that requires mystery and distance, which are hard to maintain in a political environment that prizes familiarity and full disclosure. Glamour also tends to dissipate once you’re in office and have to take specific positions, thereby disillusioning some of your supporters. See Barack Obama.
2. Glamorous policies are common. As a nonverbal form of rhetoric, glamour is one of the most common ways of selling policies, from single-payer health care to the abolition of the income tax — not to mention countless military actions, perhaps the oldest use of glamour in politics. My favorite recent examples, because of the alluring imagery involved, are high-speed rail and wind energy.
3. Political glamour is most seductive when it’s selling systems that promise an escape from complexity and compromise. Whether expressed in full-blown communism, Western European socialism, or American technocracy, the glamour of top-down planning shaped 20th-century politics. F.A. Hayek lamented classical liberalism’s lack of similar Utopian inspiration but, in fact, Ayn Rand was masterful in her use of glamour. She knew not only how to tell a romantic story of struggle and triumph but how to create glamorous snapshots that focused her audience’s yearning for freedom and fellowship. Hence the persistent, if illusory, appeal of recreating Galt’s Gulch [link added for DG] in the real world.
[Soviet propaganda poster "POWERFUL TRANSPORT - THE BASIS FOR DEFENSE CAPABILITY OF THE COUNTRY," 1931, on auction at Swann Galleries February 8, image courtesy of Swann.]
Posted by Virginia Postrel on February 03, 2011 in
This version of Shepard Fairey's 2008 Barack Obama poster, one of 200 prints the artist signed for campaign staff, will go up for auction at Bonham's on January 11. The auction house estimates its likely sales price at £1,000-1,500 ($1,546-2,319 at current exchange rates).
Not to underplay the glamour of the famous version, but that Obama looks more like a regular politician or businessman—a dreamy guy in a suit—compared to this one. Here he not only looks less calculated and ordinary but a bit less like a Communist dictator and more like someone you'd find on American currency.
The one false note is the placement of the campaign's horizon logo. On the more-famous poster, where it appears on Obama's lapel, it reads as a campaign button. Here it looks like the artist said, "Oh wait, where can I stick that logo? Here's some empty dark space."
Check out this cropped version to see what I mean about currency.
Did the campaign make a mistake to reject this image and prefer the later one? Or was that version more appealing?
Editor's note: I'm often asked if Michelle Obama is glamorous. My usual reply is that she is stylish but that her appeal, like Sarah Palin's, is based on being an extraordinary version of an ordinary person and she (unlike her husband) thus lacks the mystery and distance for glamour. In this guest post Sarah Sá Couto, who blogs at First Order Goods, offers a different answer. What do you think? --VP
Michelle Obama is said to be you know who with a law degree, someone for whom fashion is second to social purpose, yet whose sartorial choices move markets. There is a general sense that she has brought glamour back to the White House, something that is greeted with wild applause and mild outrage. While we might appreciate her wardrobe in abstract, let it not be confused with glamour.
Virginia put it best when she called glamour a process of “idealization, glorification and dramatization” to achieve a particular purpose. In any given context, the first lady’s words, gestures and, yes, clothes project a vision that is larger than herself and loaded with meaning.
Michelle Obama was at her most glamorous during the presidential campaign. The purpose was simple and her proposition alluring: she, a striking woman and gifted speaker, high-powered executive and nurturing mother, exemplified how you can rise above your circumstances to fabulous heights. This idea was reflected in her dress code of smart, bold and feminine outfits. Young fashion designers gave her a modern air, while a touch of high-street made the dream seem accessible. The personal nature of her story and the confidence, even enjoyment, with which it was presented, made it look easy.
As first lady she continues to pose as an example of what is possible, but now pride has given place to conceit. In line with her husband’s message of openness, Mrs. Obama has welcomed thousands of people to the White House, to give them confidence to rise, as she says, from “mediocrity to fabulousness.” Her first major initiative ‘Let’s Move!’ serves to lecture kids and parents alike on the inadequacy of their way of life. All is delivered in great style, which at this point gives her an air of arrogance. Back on the campaign trail for the mid-term elections, she consolidated her fashion credentials, by wearing the latest trends from the hottest designers. The style was often relaxed and even flirty, in sharp contrast with the mood of the disenchanted electorate. As has often been said about her husband, she appeared out of touch.
On the international stage, Michelle Obama may have won on the fashion stakes, but surely the point was to inspire trust and good will. An electric blue gown, combined with rhinestones, sapphires, glittery makeup, and elaborate hair was always going to stand out, if not outshine everyone in the picture. That was her solution to improve understanding with Mexico. In the first state dinner, meant to honor India, the first lady’s approach was to display her athletic figure in a strapless golden number, even though it was obvious that her guests would don saris and turbans. She looked dazzling, but did she inspire?
Another poignant moment was when the Obamas were received by Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip for tea. Her outfit wasn’t particularly daring, but a voluminous black skirt, worn with high heels and high hair made her host, a formidable woman, appear frail by comparison. The Queen was actually compelled to remark on their height difference. If her purpose was to out-Queen the Queen, she succeeded.
Decorum is not always the solution. The first lady can be young and beautiful and dress to impress when the occasion is right. She can even redefine the rules, but always with purpose in mind. In fashion matters, Mrs. Obama has repeatedly said that it is more comfortable for her to be “Michelle than it is to be first lady”. The result is very stylish and often dazzling, but her self-centered approach fails to inspire at home or abroad. Glamour involves something other than dressing up, it’s about dressing for.
[Editor’s Note: With this post, DG intern Crystal Hubbard, an aspiring television writer and organizer of the L.A. chapter of Liberty on the Rocks, joins our writing crew.]
“A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image…” wrote art critic John Berger in his text on visual culture, Ways of Seeing. Berger’s perception hinges on the word “must,” implying that there is something inescapable about the female vigilance to appearance; something within her psyche that compels a woman to preen and then guard the finished product.
But it is one thing for a woman to watch herself at trivial and mundane events (though she will) and a completely different matter when she has committed herself to public service. Suddenly, a decision to wear (or not wear) X-item becomes a clue as to how she will vote, how she will govern, how she will wield power.
When Senator Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) announced she would support the Senate’s motion to keep health care reform legislation alive, her historic decision—Lincoln’s was the last, and necessary, vote to further debate—was marked not with an accompanying dossier of accomplishments, but by what she was wearing. A relative unknown, Licoln chose to make her biggest senatorial moment into something almost not worth mentioning. “Her attire was school-principal prim—blue suit with knee-length skirt, orange silk scarf tied tightly at the neck,” wrote the WaPo's Dana Millbank. A meekly feminine showing, at best.
One has to wonder why she chose something so uninspired. A more memorable ensemble would have communicated that Lincoln realized she had climbed to the pinnacle of power, and had seized the national spotlight with an outfit worthy of the moment.
"My decision to vote on the motion to proceed is not my last, nor only, chance to have an impact on health-care reform," Lincoln said, having outlasted all the other pork-barrel beggars, and as Millbank noted, “She took a streetcar named Opportunism, transferred to one called Wavering and made off with concessions…”
If there is further motive—Lincoln is sure to remind her party, in the coming weeks of debate and deal making, of her solidifying vote—her propriety now becomes suspect. Following Berger’s observation to its logical conclusion, this may turn out to be only a penultimate moment for the senator from Arkansas, who gave a major piece of legislation a much-needed second wind, and may show up in something significantly more eye-catching the next time Harry Reid is found holding his breath.
In his same essay, Berger also said, “men act, and women appear.” Which helps explain why fashion plays a less important role in the career of a male politico. Men are physically imposing without having to adorn themselves, and powerful just by being. If a man fails in the fashion—or appearance—department, we do not automatically question his judgment or ability to govern. We merely chastise him for not being mindful of the moment.
During a 2005 visit to Auschwitz to commemorate the liberation of Jewish prisoners, then-Vice President Dick Cheney sported an ill-advised parka, that, as Pulitzer Prize winner Robin Givhan wrote, made him look “like an awkward child amid the well-dressed adults.” Former interim UN Ambassador John Bolton also received the Givhan treatment during his hastily made-up appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in the days leading up to his failed (permanent) appointment as Ambassador.
…when he settled in before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week to answer questions about his record, his philosophy and his intentions at the U.N., he looked as though he did not even have enough respect for the proceedings to bother combing his hair -- or, for that matter, straightening his tie, or wearing a shirt that did not put his neck in a chokehold. Bolton was one wrinkled suit away from being an insolent mess.
For men, we playfully mock and move on; for women, we analyze and critique ad nauseum. It’s one thing for Dick Cheney to look as though he should be clearing the driveway at Number One Observatory Circle; it’s another to say that since a woman looks like she could be the offspring of Tammy Faye Bakker we should question her political acumen. When the contentious results of the 2000 presidential election put Katherine Harris in charge, fair or not, the nation took one collective look and said, “Uh oh.”
We react this way because we count on women to “continually watch” themselves. And if our elected women aren't watching, if they too are schlepping around their closets like the worst of the boys, then they are—whether they know it or not—signaling that they are an aberration, out of touch with what it means to be a woman, and negligent of one of their most sacred weapons: themselves.