Obama as Sex Symbol

Obama as Sex Symbol

A desperately needy America warms to the hot married love of Barack and Michelle.


This Comment marks the debut of “Carnal Knowledge,” a regular feature devoted to the subject of sex. Why sex? Like sports and art, sex elaborates, in its expressions and rituals, what it means to be human. Market culture understands this, which is why we have advertising and Paris Hilton. The right understands it, which is why we have porno crackdowns and anti-gay marriage initiatives. Even religious fundamentalists, with their advice columns on “How to Strip for Your Husband,” recognize that there’s more to life than sin, fear and elections; a little mind-blowing sex takes the edge off and is as good an argument for the existence of God as anything. Most acutely, gay liberationists and pro-sex feminists have long understood that sex, religion, economics, power and freedom aren’t discrete little categories; they’re of a piece. Accordingly, “Carnal Knowledge” will explore sex as desire, as work, as play, as the screen against which America projects its fantasies and fears. JoAnn Wypijewski, who has written widely for this and other publications about class, sex and politics on topics such as Madonna, the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, the Catholic priest scandal and torture at Abu Ghraib, will be our guide. The path she sets here will hardly be straight or narrow, but full of zigs and zags and surprises–like politics, like life.    –The Editors

In politics as in pop, legions of little girls jumping out of their panties can’t be wrong. That’s the vital lesson so far of Election ’08. I watched a throng of them in November 2006, teenagers in their short skirts and breathlessness, jumping and jittering, hands to cheeks, screaming for Barack Obama. White and black, they crowded to the front of a rally for Jim Webb in the onetime capital of the Confederacy, Richmond, Virginia. Jim who? One of the white girls awkwardly told me that she didn’t really know anything about the beet-faced warrior for the white working class running for the Senate, and she wasn’t really there to find out. Obama hadn’t come there to say much about the candidate or Virginia or even that year’s election, either. He glided across the stage like a crooner, one slender hand gracing the microphone, the other extending long fingers to trace the imagined horizon of his hopes and dreams. He must have talked for thirty minutes. It didn’t matter what he said; he smiled a thousand watts, put a little Southern sugar in his voice and mentioned his mama. Webb steamed in the wings as the girls keened, and from somewhere in the crowd grown-ups started calling out, “Obama for President.” He wasn’t yet a candidate. He was Frank Sinatra, so cool he’s hot, a centrifugal force commanding attention so ruthlessly that it appeared effortless, reducing everyone around him to a sidekick, and the girls in the front rows to jelly.

Those girls represented what they always have in America, a cultural longing. By ’07 even the boys were Obama Girls, and their parents were borne along on the energy, feeling young and hip and a little damp in the drawers themselves. “America is back!” Obama told crowds he would announce to the world if they elected him. Hillary and the others didn’t have a chance. They had welded themselves to prosaic needs and familiar lies. Obama recognized a different need, requiring a different lie, a pretty lie, not just “change” but “change you can believe in.” Tell me again. Yes, darling, you really are beautiful… Like someone ground down by years in a bad relationship, America needed a seduction and, then, like the starlet on the crooner’s arm, the reflected shine.

In an earlier era when America was losing a war and “All Systems Fail!” summed up a summer of multiple disasters, journalist Andrew Kopkind could look upon the smoldering cities, the black radicals, white dropouts, free-lovers and acid-trippers, and declare, “In lots of ways, America is swinging.” It isn’t swinging now. It’s desperate and needy, outwardly brash but inwardly a mess and not sexy at all, like Tila Tequila, self-styled bisexual maverick, rejected on her own reality TV show by the contestant she chose for “a shot at love.” In that long, hot summer of 1967 no one confused the whole culture with the white, tight, flailing power structure around LBJ; but today, with no major pole of countercultural revolt, it feels as if America itself is in the Uncool column with the tawdry crimes and embarrassing flubs of President Bush–“Airball!”

Enter Barack Obama, loosening up on the basketball court between campaign stops–“Swish.”

If politically he now appears to be not substantively different from any other neoliberal, as a sex symbol he is the new man. New, most plainly, because in his mingled blood those born since 1980 or so can see their future lovers and children, if they don’t already see themselves. For this generation, interracial sex is a normal experience, still complicated but nothing that 60 percent of them have not already entertained (polls use the word “dating”), nothing more risky than love. That Obama’s parents are not alive as fleshy reminders that sex is part of a political and not just personal past means that the historically combustible idea of a black man and a white woman in bed together, and the larger reckoning with racism’s long reach, can be avoided. And yet the past is newly potent in one sense. Suddenly, casually, it is hard to think of desegregation within the narrow limits set out by the schoolbooks, as a simple fight for a seat on a bus or in a public toilet rather than as a radical claim to express one’s full humanity–through a kiss, a caress, a child, a life of one’s own making, an unbroken line of free choices linking all those who have ever struggled for equality and sexual liberation.

There is something old about the new man, as well, though, or, rather, something of a romantic update on an old model. Not JFK. Obama resembles him only in his projected nonchalance. JFK’s libido was like the Strategic Air Command, on permanent alert, meaning he’d spot a woman out the window, in a park, on a street and take her against the wall, while Jackie took to the White House trampoline. Barack and Michelle Obama channel some of the style of the current early-’60s revival–sleeveless sheaths and chunky pearls, Ocean’s 11 and Mad Men–without the alienation. America, they say, you can be cool and sexy again, “back!” and swinging, but secure this time. Those “excesses” of the ’60s that Barack mentioned, those family fractures across the demographic board, they can all be resolved through hot married love.

When he leaned into Michelle as she wrapped her arms around him from behind after the New Hampshire loss, when she cradles his face in her expressive hands while kissing him, with every dap and nuzzle and palpable vibe between them, “you see love onstage,” said Harriette Cole of Ebony, the first in a long line of popular magazines to certify the two as a “hot couple.” The right will no doubt try again to paint Michelle as a bomb-thrower and might mine the vein of white fear of unbridled black sexuality that Barack prospected disturbingly close to when he scolded black fathers. But it’s hard to see smears trumping the desire of millions of people for the promise of the most conservative thing in the world, a happy marriage. For youth the image of hot married love stokes the fantasy that maybe one day… For marrieds, it raises the notion that maybe this is the best sex they’ll get. For Christians eager to sell the marriage bed as pleasure dome, it affirms that this is the best sex there is. Even homosexuals have a place inside the magic circle now that Obama has come out against California’s anti-gay marriage proposition. All in all, a wholesome package as Barack and Michelle make America cool and marriage cool by making both sexy, or at least ready for their close-up.

It is still possible that voters will decide to hitch the national identity to the stiff, asexual, erratic McCain and his zombified former drug addict wife, instead. And if McCain were to choose the old bachelor and onetime merkin Charlie Crist of Florida as his running mate, there would at least be some frisson on the Republican side, as the governor’s self-advertised old boyfriends marred the celebration of his hurry-up nuptials to a Halloween-costume heiress, and his old gay-hating religious-right allies had to choose whether to pull away or shout, “Hallelujah! He’s been saved!” But right now, that all seems like too much reality for a nation hungry for a makeover.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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