Impact of 'Socialist Joker' Obama Image

Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Cultural Critic
Thursday, August 6, 2009; 12:00 PM

The Post's Philip Kennicott discussed the spread of an image that depicts President Obama as the "Dark Knight"-version of the Joker, above the word "socialism."


Philip Kennicott: Good morning and welcome. Questions about the Obama as Joker poster, and our critique of it, are coming in. Keep them coming.


Bethesda, Md.: Is anyone suggesting that, rather than being an expression of right-wing paranoia, this image might in fact be a lefty lampoon of right-wing paranoia ?

Philip Kennicott: Last I checked, the poster's source remains anonymous, so it's hard to speculate on the motivations of the artist or artists. We could all be surprised, but I'd say a left-wing parody of right-wing imagery would be a rather dense bit of irony to unravel. We'll see.


Valley Center, Calif.: In art there is truth.

Philip Kennicott: And deception and irony and simply, in many cases, failed messages.


Washington, DC: I guess I missed this forum when Vanity Fair first portrayed GWB this way. Question: Where were you then?

Philip Kennicott: The Images column is an occasional series. We took a bit of a breather during the political campaign last year becuase it seemed like there was no dearth of cultural criticism. Just because the column takes on a subject doesn't mean that there aren't a thousand other interesting subjects. We'd love to get to all of them.


Arlington, VA: Philip, I read your column and I have to say, take it easy. Maybe you need a little time off. It's a poster, Philip, nothing more. Not that long ago we had a poster appear associated with Bush 43 showing an image of him with white powder under his nose and on his lip with the caption "Got Coke?" Whether anybody liked it or not, the republic somehow survived. This is not a big deal unless the media makes it one. It will pass. Take it easy.

Philip Kennicott: I agree I should take it easier, and I'm passing on this suggestion to my editors. I think you're right about the general sturdiness of the republic in the face of withering political caricature. We have a long history of it, back to images of Andrew Jackson as emperor, and beyond. I tried to analyze the poster, and draw out some of the racial imagery, without declaring it a major blow to the body politic.


Madison, Wisc.: Is it fair to characterize all people who share the "joker" image as racists? I believe for many Republicans (assuming that's what they are) the poster is simply payback for the demonization of George W. Bush by many liberals.

I see also a bit of sports boosterism overlapping into the political realm. Each "team" has its own mascots and its own exaggerated image of the other team's mascot or star player. Politics for many is entertainment, hence many political expressions lack any real thought or circumspection.

Philip Kennicott: I think in your comparison to sports mascots, you're on to something important here. I don't think the Obama as Joker poster works very well because it doesn't characterize (in a simple, graphically obvious way) the real worries about Obama among his detractors. But many people have embraced the image because they hope it is a sign of the president growing in unpopularity. Not because it is the best image for the job.


Washington, DC: Couldn't the poster simply be two separate messages -- Obama's a joke(r) and Obama's a socialist -- that don't mesh well? Why are you so convinced there's some nefarious racial scheme behind it? It strikes me as simply not well thought through.

Philip Kennicott: In fact, I saw exactly that at the top of the piece. That there's two independent messages that don't jell as bluntly as the pro-Obama Fairey posters. The racial observations at the end of the piece draw out implications in the choice of the Heath Ledger Joker, with its more explicit suggestion of urban fears.


Reston, Va.: I find the demonizing of President Obama to be actually dangerous. It has been reported that Obama already gets 400 times more death threats per week than his predecessor. Will the birthers, the haters, and the other wing nuts be jubilant if this President has an attempt on his life? Sadly, I suspect they will.

Philip Kennicott: We have, for more than two centuries, lived in a democracy with a robust vocabularly of political demonization. We have yet to find a quick and easy litmus test to determine what is old-fashioned and legitimate political name calling, and what crosses the line. We never know where that line is until it's crossed. That is the tragedy of democracy, and a tragedy one hopes doesn't visit very often.


Downtown: I find the poster rather clever. Is anyone really going to deny that POTUS is, in fact, a socialist? Come on already.

Philip Kennicott: In the interests of fair representation, here's a comment that says in a pithy way what many visitors to this chat are feeling.


Springfield, VA: Isn't your political bias showing? The Joker image of Bush is fine, political satire. The Joker image of Obama is innapropriate and racist. I still don't see how calling Obama a socialist is racist.

Philip Kennicott: I hope my bias isn't showing. I'm a critic, so I try not to referee political discourse. My comments about the Bush as Joker image are simply about its effectiveness (marginally better as graphic art than Obama as Joker). Why is it more effective? Because to Bush's detractors, he was dangerous and unpredictable, and those qualities were all on the surface. Bush's rhetoric was also Bush's reality. The Obama detractors who are looking for an effective grahic attack on Obama embrace this poster, but I think there are better images that might capture what they feel: That Obama is hiding something, a secret agenda.


Fairfax, Va.: It looks to me like Obama in "whiteface," much as the old minstrel show performers used to wear exaggerated racial makeup known as blackface. It's not just the white makeup; it literally looks like blackface around the eyes and mouth, but in reverse colors. The implication seems to be that he is making himself up as white by being elected president.

What's interesting to me is that the word doesn't match the image. It's like this poster is saying "for all of you who are too dumb to pick up on the racial undertones and code words, maybe this picture will simplify it for you. Look at it. Our objection isn't really about 'socialism' or ideology, it's about the color of his skin."

Philip Kennicott: Interesting observation on the idea of "white face." I agree with you about the message not matching the image, hence a dissonance that works against the power of the poster. But it's also possible that "socialism" is simply a distraction. It earns the poster immediate sympathy from people who worry about Obama's domestic agenda, and then creates a convenient distraction away from the racial messages in the image above.


Arlington, Va.: George W. Bush portrayed as Alfred E. Neumann was funny, because IT WAS TRUE! Bush was characterized as inarticulate, incurious, and vapid, and what do you know, IT WAS TRUE. This poster ranks right up there with the rabid right who think Obama was born in Kenya and compare him to Hitler.

Philip Kennicott: In the interests of balance, there are also people in the chat forum today who feel this way...


*yawn*: Looks like Democracy at work to me. What's the big deal? Can we go back to talking about something important, like Paula's salary?

Philip Kennicott: Fortunately, we all multitask information. Paula's salary, Bill Clinton's North Korea visit, Yoga, Marion Barry. It's a bumper crop of information and distractions every day. The great thing about newspapers is that you can flip through the. Pick and choose. What a fabulous medium.


Arlington, Va.: To Obama's detractor he is socialist. Just like Bush wasn't actually a murderer, but if it said that or criminal beneath the VF picture, it would have expressed how that group felt about the former president. Obama to them wants to socialize medicine, and has made numerous Fortune 500 companies government owned. Its not like there is 0 argument for their view. Your hypocrisy is amazing.

Philip Kennicott: Without copping ot hypocrisy, I think you make a very important point. If the Bush as Joker poster had included some tag line underneath, it very likely would have been a weaker poster. I think the current poster of Obama as Joker would be better without the socialism label (not because I have any stake in the debate about socialism, simply because the word weakens the power of the image).


Washington, DC: The fact that you even wrote the article and are now hosting this seminar makes clear how well the poster works. The truth about Obama is starting to form and America is entitled to complain.

Philip Kennicott: This is a very complicated point. I tried to allude to it by writing the following: "The Obama Joker poster leaves you with the sense that it has said everything it has to say, and waits only for the media to endorse the message through the legitimizing process peculiar to our new age of rapid-response journalism: that we are talking about it because you are talking about it, which means it must be worth talking about."

The chicken-and-egg cycles of the media are taken to be almost as inevitable as weather patterns. But we are all complicit in them.


Washington, DC: I'm really disgusted at your very transparent attempt to portray the creators/supporters of this poster as racists. Why don't you just hurl the Nazi label at them, too, while you're at it? Demonizing Obama's critics as racists is a cheap, juvenile tactic that avoids responding to the criticism on its merits. You should ashamed to stoop to that level.

Philip Kennicott: I avoid the word racist. I do say that the image is racially charged. There is a difference. I don't "hurl the Nazi label" at them because I don't think that label applies. I try not to hurl any labels. But yes, I do analyze the racial coding of the image and some of the darker ideas it suggests.


Dem (Blue Dogish) in New Mexico: I appreciate your analysis of the Obama poster. I agree it is an interesting image and can be critiqued in a variety of ways. As I used to be a Republican, I am bemused by the weirdness currently exhibited by my former brethren. That being said, I wonder, often, why oddness by the Republican extreme is reported without the context of equally odd behavior by the extremes left of my current party. As many have pointed out, Bush and Reagan were the targets of much more harsh imagery. In addition, the lunatic shouting at the health care town-hall meetings, to me, is reminiscent of similar behavior of the looney left over the last thirty years. I remember Reagan's national security advisor being hounded off the stage at a speech in California that I attended, for instance. I don't approve of the recent behavior, but the media seems to report it as if it is a unique and modern phenomena. Why so?

Philip Kennicott: We're having two discussions in America right now. We're having a political conversation (or shouting match) about politics. And we're having a much more difficult conversation about race. The two are often mixed up together. We need to sort them out. And we probably have to accept that because we have an African-American president, there will be more focus on race issues now than when George W. Bush was president. That doesn't mean that we can't focus productively on race, or that Obama is getting a worse or better deal in the political conversation.


Arlington: I really liked your column - please keep up the good work! I think there are lot of folks out there who are in denial (or not) about their racist tendencies and love to hide behind the whole "socialism" argument. I would almost have more respect for people if they just admitted why they really feel the way they do about our President. And for those making comparisons to cariactures of Bush, just remember those took a lot longer to circulate (and after making decisions about things like a needless war) versus the 6 months Obama has been in office...

Philip Kennicott: The column today was controversial, as I can tell by the questions here, and my email inbox. Some people found truth in my analysis, others disagree vehemently. Here's an example of the former.


Baltimore: The Joker is a psychopathic murderer. What "truth" exists in the comparison to Obama?

Philip Kennicott: I hope in that aspect--psychopathic murderer--there isn't any truth imputed to the image. Others point out that perhaps the image should be read as simply implying that Obama "is a joke," or is untrustworthy, a staple of political criticism. I argued that the choice of the Joker, and the Batman reference, is more about fears of the urban (also a longstanding American trope) than socialism.


Overland Park, Kan.: Up until today, I have had The Washington Post as my home page. When I saw the poster I was outraged. It's political crap like this that brings it to the forefront and starts the outrage. There was no reason to print that awful picture and I can see it getting people more riled up. You should be ashamed of yourself and I now have USATODAY as my home page.

Philip Kennicott: Please come back. Really. The Post used the image because we were discussing its meaning and context, not because the Post endorses the images or because we want to further its circulation (beyond the necessary use as an illustration). Is another newspaper website better because it ignores the questions raised here? I hope not. Now click "Tools" and then "Internet Options," and use the reset homepage option. Welcome back.


Orlando, Fla.: Please enlighten us to what artistic negative depiction of Obama wouldn't be racist in your mind?

Philip Kennicott: Any and all that avoid racial images or racially coded images. I seem to remember that Obama was criticized for promising too many things. Easter Bunny images would work just fine. Okay cartoonists, graphic designers, urban poster artists.... have at it!


Arlington, Va: Why do you believe that anything critical of Obama is racist?

Philip Kennicott: I don't. See above.


Falls Church, Va.: So the Heath Ledger Joker is more urban (i.e., "blacker") than the Jack Nicholson Joker because he's scarier? Philip, I think this poster tells us more about the racial imagery with which you view the world than it does about the artist.

It might help to know: Is there any derogatory caricature of Obama that you would not consider offensive and racist? Or is any such satire always going to seem to you to carry the "basic message" that the reason he can't be trusted is because he's black?

Philip Kennicott: As I wrote the piece, I realized that there were lines in it that might be taken out of context, and summaries of ideas that might be imputed to the author. But if you worry that people will confuse what you analyze with what you believe, there's no hope for criticism. I do think the distinction between the urbane and urban joker is imnportant (as important as a Batman reference can be) in this context.


Fairfax, Va.: While everyone wants to make this such a race issue have we forgotten something. Obama is half WHITE. He is biracial, not African-American.

Philip Kennicott: I think racial ideas operate regardless of how Obama's race is defined (which, frankly, is up to him).


What about Andy Warhol?: Maybe Obama is Marilyn?

Philip Kennicott: What about Andy Warhol? Many visitors today wonder if there's any negative image of Obama that wouldn't be considered racist. I think Obama as Marilyn would open another debate (about sexuality or celebrity for example), but it wouldn't be a racial debate.


Boston MA: I think the poster is ironic. Its shows the truth about the crazy right-wingers - they have no idea what the definition of socialism is. Because while Obama is not a socialist no matter what they might want to believe, but the Joker is REALLY not a socialist. I would categorize him as an anarchist.

Philip Kennicott: I'd love to see the Joker's reading list. More Bakunin than Marx, I would expect.


Fairfax, Va.: Why does everything have to turn to race? I think you are over-analyzing the obvious. It simple seems someone thinks he is just destroying our government as we know it and it has nothing to do with the color of his skin.

Philip Kennicott: I include this comment because of the charge of over analyzing. Mabye. But I'm a critic. That's what we do when we're not tediously pettifogging about some poor composer or architect or painter.


Richmond, Va.: I think it is a very appropriate image. In the first "Batman" movie, Jack Nicholson's Joker, tries to deceive Gotham by "giving away free money." However, it is hardly "free." Obama, and the Pelosi Dems, are doing the same. Free money all over the place...nothing really to show for it (yet). But, the future debt, inflation, higher taxes, etc, the JOKE will be on us.

Philip Kennicott: Here's an interesting reading from someone who doesn't feel the same dissonance between the image and socialist label. Thanks for sending it on.


Confused, MD: I studied art history in college and this image confuses me. The Joker advocates anarchy. Socialism's goal is social harmony. Aren't these opposites?

I get the connection between Obama and socialism. What does Obama have in common with a homicidal maniac?

Philip Kennicott: And from someone who feels the label doesn't apply.


Racism? Really?: Your article was interesting. When I saw the poster, I thought they were making a play on the villain's name. It never occurred to me that it could be construed as racist (and the similar Bush charicature was not). Seems like a bit of a stretch to me.

Philip Kennicott: Thanks for your comment. I want to reiterate the distinction between racist and racial. Images carry with them ideas that operate because of a long chain of cultural associations and references. These can be analyzed for what they say about race without saying that anyone who uses the idea is a racist.


Cleveland OH: Shouldn't it be "Socialist" and not "Socialism"?

A weak poster, all in all. Why are we talking about it?

Philip Kennicott: Interesting observation. I'm not sure why the artist choses socialism instead of socialist. It seems to deny the agency of Obama as a socialist, perhaps suggesting that he is merely a tool of the larger idea of socialism. But that's just a guess.


Washington D.C.: Obama's supporters are always so quick to make things an issue of pigment -- in a transparent attempt to delegitimize any argument that doesn't agree with you. In reality, his supporters are far more preoccupied with his race than his critics ever could be -- it's an ace up your sleeves and you all overuse the hell out of it.

The "racial implications" you discuss in your feature require a stretch of the imagination and a healthy dose of personal interpretation. Frankly, it's hard for me to believe you believe it -- I just don't think you have the courage to discuss your messiah on a level playing field.

Philip Kennicott: Here's another comment representative of many others.


Brooklyn, NY: You are assuming urban because he is African American? If that isn't racially charged I don't know what is. Not all of us in urban areas are African American. You are making things up to make this a racially charged poster when it is not. The poster is in simple language.

Philip Kennicott: Is it really that simple? There are always levels, or side channels, or parallel conversations going on. I think we've seen today that the image is far from simple, though it can be given a simple reading if you chose to.


Philip Kennicott: Thanks you all for visiting today, and thank you for your questions. They used to say everyone's a critic. Today, we're all pop culture critics. That's a good thing.


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