PEOPLE OFTEN TALK ABOUT the significance of Barack Obama’s status as our first African American president. During the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries and the general election, however, there was another discourse in the media, one concerned with Obama’s femininity. Journalist Carol Marin expressed that point of view in an editorial in the Chicago Sun-Times: If Bill Clinton was once considered America’s first black president, Obama may one day be viewed as our first woman president.
I would argue that Obama was more feminine than most mainstream presidential candidates precisely because he is both black and male—an argument I base on my theory of the bipolarity of media representations of black men.
My theory of the bipolarity of black masculinity says that the media tend to portray black men as either the threatening Bad Black Man or the assimilated Good Black Man. Obama, an almost preternaturally calm politician who favors negotiation over imposition, clearly falls into the latter category. In his autobiography, Dreams from My Father, Obama suggests that he learned to be calm in order to assimilate. Obama’s calmness has roots in the general need of black men to avoid confrontation and conflict in order to achieve mainstream success. Black men are often warned to be non¬threatening, for instance, in order to avoid police brutality, which is disproportionately visited upon young black males. Similarly, they are urged to adopt a patient and cooperative demeanor in the workplace in order to put others at ease.
Yet these same qualities—calmness, inclusiveness—are ones often perceived to be feminine traits: women are more often seen as nurturers than bullies. Thus Obama’s desire to avoid the Bad Black Man stereotype during the 2008 election is precisely what earned him his nominal status as the first female president.
Obama’s feminization strategy was potentially dangerous, however, since femininity is still a slur in our male-dominated culture. In fact, during the primaries, Hillary Clinton went out of her way to appear tough and hawkish, apparently in a bid to downplay her own femininity. Obama’s calmness and inclusiveness led some to worry that he was not tough enough to be president. The title of one editorial captures the spirit of this criticism: “Where’s His Right Hook? Barack Obama Seems Refreshingly Decent. Can He Survive Hardball Politics?” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 5, 2007).
Obama resolved that dilemma by being masculine enough to pass the commander-in-chief test yet feminine enough to make people comfortable with his blackness. He gave a tough-guy acceptance speech at the Democratic convention in Denver, yet was comfortable playing feminist folk songs at his rallies. He sharply criticized absentee fathers during a Father’s Day speech, yet openly expressed affection towards his wife and children while on the campaign trail. The appropriate term for such a variously inflected style is “unisex.” Accordingly, I argue that Obama was not our first female presidential candidate, but our first unisex presidential candidate—and is now our first unisex president.
What are the implications of Obama’s unisex style? In light of his election, many people’s dominant understanding of black maleness will be of calmness rather than anger. For black men, therefore, Obama stands as a redemptive figure; this is the racial payoff of Obama’s success. The gender payoff is that it could remove some of the stigma from femininity. As a result, Obama’s example may allow both men and women greater movement along the gender continuum.
I never imagined I would live to see our country elect a black president—and I am not especially old. Nor did I ever expect to see anything but a macho man (or woman) win the presidency. In a small but fundamental way, Obama’s refusal to assume a hyper-masculine style challenges our assumptions of both race and gender. If the president can be both black and unisex, maybe we are all freer to embrace our identities as we see fit.
Suffolk Law Professor Frank Rudy Cooper writes on both popular culture and criminal procedure from the perspectives of critical race theory and masculinity studies.
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