Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Superhero

What does it mean to be president of the United States of America? What kind of person can get elected to the land's highest office and succeed at driving the biggest baddest SUV on the world's highway? A regular man? A super man? Is a president, by his very ascendancy to the office, a hero? Despite the fact that Franklin D. Roosevelt was a powerful president, we never really saw representations of him as a superhero, a la Superman or Captain America. Similarly, Nixon, Carter, Clinton . . . all were important guys who did super things, but I wonder how many Americans would describe them as heroic?

Whether he wins the November election or not, some already see Senator Obama as a hero, and, at least on a metaphorical level, others even perceive him as some sort of superhero. This is not to say that people actually believe he can breathe underwater or fly without the use of cables, jet engines, or hallucinogens, but, many Americans do see his accomplishments as super-human. Some recent representations of Obama as a superhero speak not to his uncanny feats of strength or his tendency to shoot webs from his palms but to his even more bizarre ability to leap the tall building of race in a single bound and to dash, faster than a speeding bullet, to the crossroads of American political discourse.

Representations of Obama as a superhero take many different shapes and play on a diversity of semiotic signifiers. For example, the image on the right depicts Obama as a crazily muscled but jolly hero that plays with many key semiotic texts. At first, one notices how Obama's 8-packed chest is at odds with his soft, calm, facial features. Unlike most super hero poses (think Batman), where hero's visage is brooding and threatening, we have here a happy hero, ready to stymie bad guys or listen to your complaints about the new tax code. Even more interesting are the classic icons of America that frame him--the two furling flags and the White House. What SuperObama has conquered here, the image suggests, is not Penguin or Lex Luthor but American voting records, racial prejudice, and every possible odd known to man. It's also worth noticing how excited all of the white people around him are, even though no one has any idea who or what Super O. is pointing at.

Missing from the version on the left are the gleeful Anglos, the white house and the generous codpiece, but present is the all important flag--one of the strongest semiotic texts anywhere in the world. The previous illustration is clearly a persuasive text designed to facilitate associations between Obama's accomplishments and those we attribute to super heroes, but this one is just bad Photoshop. It's funny, but mostly because it's just not very good. It's also hard to tell if this image is clearly pro-Obama or just pro-satire. Still, it plays on the super-ness of Obama's persona. And, he gets a cape!

The button on the right is less vague. Both satirical and political, it speaks to Obama's ability to make otherwise statured Republicans look small, ineffectual, and unutterably geeky. You'll notice that this version and the one above give Super O. his own insignia--the O--reminiscent both of Superman's S but also of the prominent O of his campaign banner, which sort of gives him a super branding opportunity as well. Here, the non-Anglo, non-suited-and-tied Obama is also ripped beyond non-steroid means, further distinguishing himself from the pasty, flabby, aging Republicans.

A future post will look at the various permutations of the image that introduces this site--the photo of Obama mimicking the pose of a Superman statue--but for now, I'll simply close by drawing a distinction between Obama intentionally and comically mocking Superman and imaginary renderings by others of Obama as a superhero. Though small, the distinction is important because it circumscribes how Obama sees himself and how others choose to see him. He positions himself as a real world parody of the invented superhero, while others position him as a metaphorical hero. Both Obamas make the actual candidate that much more likable.

From a semiotic perspective, these various images of Obama-as-super reveal how some Americans are choosing to represent visually what Obama has accomplished culturally. By making him a superhero, he becomes, by association, a pop culture icon, a figure larger than life, a canonized persona in the make-believe world in which real people live. Once that happens, being a mere president is almost Rove-like in its utility.


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