Sunday, September 09, 2007

Oprah’s Star Power Does Zilch for Obama
Earl Ofari Hutchinson

What do Willie Nelson, Madonna, Jon Bovi, Martin Sheen, and in reverse, George Clooney have in common? They are big money celebrities and virtual household names. They all endorsed Democratic presidential candidates in 2004. Nelson endorsed Dennis Kucinich. Bon Jovi endorsed John Kerry. Sheen endorsed Howard Dean. Madonna backed Wesley Clark. One of their picks went down to flaming defeat. The other three never came close to getting the Democratic presidential nomination.
As for Clooney, he publicly declared that he hoped that his non-endorsement of Kerry probably helped him at the polls. It didn’t. But at least Clooney recognized a political truism that’s etched in stone. That’s that a celebrity cheer lead of a presidential candidate does absolutely nothing to boost the candidate.
Yet mega star Oprah Winfrey thinks things can be different now that she’s signed on as one of Barack Obama’s major bankrollers, an ex-officio campaign cheerleader, and celebrity marketer. After all how could millions of voters refuse a command from the closest thing to America’s earth mother to back Obama? It’s simple. Almost no one pays any attention to what celebrities have to say about politicians. A September Newsweek poll removed any doubt about that. Barely three percent of respondents said that a celebrity endorsement had any influence on who they voted for. Oprah will have zilch effect on Obama’s White House run for two common sense reasons.
In between an occasional touch on social issues, Oprah feeds millions of daytime housewives and house husbands a steady dose of sneaks and peeks into gossipy movie star chit chat and self-help marital and family relationship problem solving. Now in one big leap she’s asking the same millions that dote on her sage advice on relationships to shift gears and trust her judgment that Obama is the best to handle global warming, tax policy, the Iraq war, terrorism, job creation and inflation, failing public schools, criminal justice issues, and judicial appointments. That’s like asking millions to accept disgraced Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick as the chair of the Humane Society of the U.S.’s animal cruelty prevention week. It’s a terrible fit, and Oprah lovers will see through that.
The one group, though, that Obama is banking that Oprah can help pry loose from the Hillary column is women. But polls have shown that women voters don't march in lock step with a woman candidate solely based on gender no matter how much personal sympathy and empathy they may have with the female candidate. They also judge a female candidate on their stance on the issues, their political beliefs and party affiliation. Hillary is a tough sell to many women who either like or loathe her, and she's a politician. There's absolutely no reason to think that women voters will stampede to Obama because their favorite female talk show guru told them too.
The ultimate irony is that Oprah's roughest sale of Obama will be to black women. Polls show that they are overwhelmingly backing Hillary. Though most adore Oprah and are well aware of her long standing backing of Obama, that hasn't shaken their support of Clinton the least bit.

The other reason Oprah's lusty public cheer of Obama won't work is Oprah. She’s fabulously bankable, and much beloved, but she’s also an African-American. And so is Obama. Oprah hasn’t given the faintest hint that her tout and bankroll of Obama has anything to do with race, and is careful to make it clear that it’s based solely on her belief that his competence and qualifications make him the right presidential stuff. However, an underlying suspicion is that there’s more to it than that and that she’s just as thrilled as many other blacks at the thought that an African-American can actually bag the presidency. That’s not exactly playing the race card, but for an untold number of skeptical voters, and that include those that are enraptured with Oprah, it edges uncomfortably close to a racial motive.
Recent polls have shown that more whites than ever say they are willing to vote for a black candidate for the presidency and that they like Obama. They also say by big margins that he is to new on the scene, inexperienced, and unknown. His gaffes on foreign policy in debates, and his grope for a killer position that will separate him from the other Democratic candidates hasn’t done much to mark him as a sure-handed, experienced, public policy wonk.
Super celeb George Clooney came closest to sizing up the media and public’s infatuation with Obama when he compared him to a rock star. That's not good. How many voters would vote for Madonna for president, or even Clooney for that matter? That's not to say that endorsements don't help a candidate, but they have to be the right endorsements. The right ones come from seasoned politicians and respected industry, labor, or public interest groups that have the trust and confidence of voters, and a solid track record in fighting for legislation and public policy change.
Oprah can dump plenty of cash into Obama’s campaign coffers, and that counts for something. But it’s not the adrenalin shot that his candidacy needs. That’s the something even America's most beloved day time talk show host can’t give.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press and Hispanic Economics New York) in English and Spanish will be out in October.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press and Hispanic Economics New York) in English and Spanish will be out in October.

The Unbearable Whiteness of Viewing Tween-Teen Film

By Sikivu Hutchinson

On Friday nights, after the clamor of the school day dies down and the kid-driven euphoria of the weekend mounts, a simple trip to the video store in search of a children’s DVD can resemble a cultural minefield. While feature length DVDs of Barbie, imperiled princesses, anthropomorphized ponies with flowing hair and big blue eyes, and Europeanized Japanese characters abound, cartoon or dramatic depictions that center on girl of color protagonists are, not surprisingly, absent from the shelves.* The lack is a reminder of how little progress has been made in the tween/teen film industry, despite the widespread mantra that youth multiculturalism in advertising and programming is “hot” and a colorblind standard is the norm.
To be a girl of color and a media consumer is to be positioned as perpetual voyeur. Media savvy, deluged with the latest fashion and glamour news on pop singers and fifteen minutes of fame movie stars, girls of color negotiate a morass of cultural products that supposedly promote “affirming” themes for tween/teen girlhood. In this era of tween/teen consumer sophistication, the narrative of the empowered heroine predominates. One of the more shopworn examples of this empowerment narrative is represented by the scrappy white heroine, alà the protagonist of the summer movie musical hit Hairspray, set in 1960s Baltimore. The scrappy white heroine is a time honored tradition in literature, mainstream movie melodrama and teen flicks. She is generally an outsider of sorts; either in appearance, class station or both. She fearlessly treads where the more self-absorbed won’t deign to venture, breaking curfew, defying the strict Christian mores of her straight-laced family and/or most daringly, consorting with the denizens of black communities. For this heroine racial otherness is an adventure, a resort vacation into heretofore unexplored vistas of self-discovery. As always in these kinds of scenarios blackness holds special appeal for the white outsider because of its transgressive potential. Black music, black dance styles, black lingo—are all ripe territories for vigorous Euro mining and imitation. The exploration of these hackneyed themes via the travails of a white female protagonist struggling with her own “outsider” status in the thin, blond-worshipping, relatively privileged world of middle class Baltimore has its precursor in literature like Norman Mailer’s infamous 1950s “White Negro” shtick and the global appropriation of hip hop by white consumers.
In Hairspray, the white female protagonist’s spiritual journey officially takes off when she is sent to detention and discovers that it is merely a showcase for “funky” black dance shenanigans. The blacks, of course, are just waiting to corrupt an impressionable young white thing like her. Much of the film’s visual spark lies in its near obsessive focus on Tracy’s bright-eyed bushy tailed exuberance over her dalliances with forbidden fruit.
What are young black female viewers to make of these portrayals? While my elementary school-aged nieces loved the singing, dancing and pageantry of the film, they are old enough (with some prompting), to grasp the relevance of all the black students in the film being confined to detention. Disciplinary action at any age is a harsh and ever present reality for black children, one that satirical movie portrayals of frolicking black youth can’t obliterate. Since images of unruly black children abound in American culture, featuring a group of black teens dancing in a classroom with no teacher in evidence is just another slice of comic relief for most mainstream audiences.
When presented with evidence of their irrelevance, children of color make the painful adjustment to misidentification. Socialized with white beauty norms, consuming and misidentifying with whiteness becomes an intimate part of the young female viewer’s experience of visual “pleasure.” Countervailing images of black, Latino and Asian femininity are available in literature (and to a much lesser extent in alternative film by artists of color) but are insidiously measured against the gold standard of white femininity. In fact, a recent revisitation of the 1954 Kenneth and Mamie Clark “doll test” by a young filmmaker named Kiri Davis found that black children still identified white or lighter skinned dolls as being “nice,” while darker-skinned dolls were still rejected as being “bad.” Davis’ widely acclaimed documentary on black female teen self-identity, “A Girl Like Me,” is a welcome antidote to depictions of black female hypersexuality, and a reminder that more black women need to be behind the camera to truly turn the tide of disfigured black images.
The dominant culture’s equation of female agency with unbridled sexuality and exhibitionism is especially damaging for young black women. While white women like Hairspray’s fictitious heroine have always had the luxury to flout patriarchal categories of “good girl” “bad girl” without fear of relinquishing their claim to white privilege, black women and other women of color are already marked as amoral, sexual and hence outside of “normative” femininity. Early exposure to these kinds of narratives sets a dangerous precedent for tween/teen girls of color, who are readily deployed in white TV programs and films as streetwise/commonsensical sidekicks for imperiled white girls and/or the “sassy” antidote to white girl “blandness.”
If efforts like Davis’ are to be more than just a drop in the bucket there must be a nationwide push to train middle and high school aged black women to do similar documentary and narrative film work around image construction. Programs such as L.A.’s Inner City Filmmakers and New York-based Women Make Movies help connect youth with production, development and distributional resources to critically engage the media regime with their films. Without these initiatives, and more, the multi-billion dollar tween/teen film industry will continue to thrive on our complicity in the distortion of black female subjectivity.

*With the possible exception of such popular staples as Dora the Explorer and the Cheetah Girls.

Sikivu Hutchinson is an author and writer specializing on women's and cultural issues.