Monday, June 16, 2008

The SockObama

Well, for those of you who had planned on the Sock Obama doll for stocking stuffers, we here at SemiObama regret that we must be the bearer of bad news.

The folks at Sockobama have decided against proceeding with the production of the cuddly guy you see to your right. The company came under some epistolary heat for producing what many see as an icon of racism sewn up in the guise of a snugly bedtime companion. A hint this entrepreneurial project was going to enjoy the same fate as the Karl Rove Binky surfaced on June 12, when the company posted a long letter on their website, of which this is an excerpt:

We at TheSockObama Co. are saddened that some individuals have chosen to misinterpret our plush toy. It is not, nor has it ever been our objective to hurt, dismay or anger anyone. We guess there is an element of naviete on our part, in that we don’t think in terms of myths, fables, fairy tales and folklore. We simply made a casual and affectionate observation one night, and a charming association between a candidate and a toy we had when we were little. We wonder now if this might be a great opportunity to take this moment to really try and transcend still existing racial biases. We think that if we can do this together, maybe it will behoove us a nation and maybe we’ll even begin to truly communicate with one another more tenderly, more real even.

The letter goes on to describe what dolls of the other candidates would look like (Republican = potato; Hillary = squirrel), but one wonders if the entire letter is bizarre performance art. It's hard to believe one's business plan wouldn't take the monkey/African American contingency into consideration, especially after the problems a Marietta, Georgia man had when he printed up a whole slew of Obama/Curious George t-shirts--over which, Houghton-Mifflin, the owners of the Curious George image, may sue.

The statement by the doll-makers-to-be and the reactions of many who are angered by the toy speaks to the often yawning abyss between semiotic intent and semiotic reception. Or, put another way, there really may be very little connection between what the producer of the doll intends and what we, as potential consumers, interpret. They may intend "cuddly." We may read "creepy."

And why might some find the doll creepy?

Let's take, just for starters, the long and not particularly distinguished semiotic history of simian representation of Africans and African Americans, not to mention racial epithets that draw such comparisons in disturbing ways. In fact, a recent post on Intellectual Vanities charts this conscious and subconscious association, making the Sock Obama claim seem either shockingly ignorant or, again, perversely performative--almost a taunt. New York Magazine referred to the letter as an "elaborate mind game."

From a pure semiotic perspective, the doll is . . . cute. Sock Obama is chipper, and his outstretched arms are welcoming, hopeful. The suit and tie are a nice touch--a sort of presidential cue. More than anything else, the button is a semiotic indicator that we are to assume the doll is Obama. The short hair may help this as might the famously large ears--so often the caricatured feature of Senator Obama--but in truth, the doll doesn't really resemble the candidate as much as it resembles other racist caricatures.

Still, the fact that Obama's Obamaness is big enough to elicit this project and the strong reactions, speaks to his importance not only as a politician but also as a lightning rod for American cultural semiotics and American cultural values.


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