Thursday, January 22, 2009

Barack Obama as Jimmy Stewart

An of-the-moment documentary is going around the Internet, entitled something like How Obama Won the Election, and it features interviews with average people whose minds were largely created in a media environment talking about what they know about the man who is now President. The punchline is that they know very little about the man himself- the image is the thing. So the film could be called You Didn't Vote for Our Guy Because You're Stupid! And, naturally, in the resentment-drome of the Internet, this video is quite the thing.

Now a secondary punchline to this cri du coeur is that it was produced by people whose minds were also created in the media environment- in fact, by a talk radio host who responds to Obama in much the same way that old timey entertainers once responded to Elvis- it's the cheek of the thing that bothers him. And, so the truths that he thinks these interview subjects should have affixed to Obama the Avatar are just as shallow and trivial as the things they know! They are supposed to pick up on buzzwords like: friend to terrorists, corrupt real estate deals, closet radical, socialist, and so forth; as opposed to the buzzwords that they have picked up on: Hope, Change, Leader, etc. In other words, this is one television demographic criticizing another television demographic for choosing Pepsi over Coke.

The Elvis example actually works well here because Obama the Avatar is completely misunderstood by baby boomers generally, and conservative talk show hosts specifically. They attack the image by refering to memories of their own youth- Black Panthers, Weather Underground, and so forth, that people my age find as emotionally engaging as The Byrds. Oddly, enough though, Obama is referring to a more retro archetype than any from the 1960s.

In fact, I finally placed the archetype- forget the Black Panther nonsense; he's playing Jimmy Stewart. That has nothing to do with Mr. Smith Goes to Washington- a fine film, by the way. What I'm talking about is the image of masculinity that Jimmy Stewart represented. It's very much a 1950s, post-war model of masculinity- power without overt presentation. Quiet power.

People think of Jimmy Stewart as sort of corny nowadays, but what you spot- and I think Hitchcock spotted it- when you watch his dramatic roles, is that Jimmy Stewart represented a very American sort of power that never announces itself. It's more yeoman farmer than commando. The great George W.S. Trow describes Stewart's reference to, ''this kind of straightforward, brave man with enormous power, in a way, wherever he went, whether he was a hospital administrator, or a doctor... or a man on Wall Street- these American men educated in the liberal arts, but not very deeply, securely lodged in an American success construct, which they perfectly understood and moved forward in with considerable confidence...'' Well, that's it.

Understand here that I am speaking of this as an archetype, not taking into consideration what sort of person Obama is in reality. I'm not saying that the man is brave or straightforward- just that this is what he's evoking. What the documentary people don't get is that Obama presents himself as the Jimmy Stewart archetype, the 1950s school principal, the masculinity of these figures who moved in a matrix that was designed to protect them. Power that never announces itself. Remember that these men lived in a society that valorized well, men, and industrial production; both of which were reaching a sort of historical peak.

I was curious to see if anyone else had made the rather-obvious connection, so I did what you do now- I googled 'Barack Obama' and 'Jimmy Stewart'. The only thing that came up was great though- a story about Obama's favorite actors: Jimmy Stewart, Spencer Tracy, Humphrey Bogart, Meryl Streep, Susan Sarandon and Angela Bassett. Notice that all of the men were actors who peaked before the 1960s. Susan Sarandon is perhaps the closest we come to Spencer Tracy these days. But, the important thing here is that Mr. Obama is, perhaps unconsciously- although that's hard to believe- evoking these quietly powerful male actors whose dominance peaked before the Baby Boom.

And I think that's the rub of it- he's a figure that evokes Eisenhower's America. There's a real sense among people my age that the Baby Boomers were essentially rudderless- they appear bristling, historyless, unsure of themselves, ironic, and cynical. We have a feeling that the 1950s, which most of us have heard were 'conformist', 'racist', 'sexist' and so forth from Baby Boomers, had something to them that wasn't worth getting rid of. Especially since we turned out to be just as bristling, historiless, rudderless, decontextualized, ironic, and cynical as the 1960s generation.

But as far as masculinity goes, we have this choice between insecure milquetoasts like Al Gore and big babies like George Bush, and sense that something was left behind. In films, the choice is the same- between little boys like Leonardo Dicaprio and wounded homosexual brutes like Vin Diesel- it's no choice at all. Masculinity is taken as something to apologize for, or something to camp up like a George Bush or John McCain pretending to be Rambo- another lost boy character.

The Avatar Obama is an image of non-tragic masculinity, a masculinity that is not self-consciously masculine. The zeitgeist at his back is an attempt to flush the last four cultural decades down the toilet and return to Eisenhower's America. Most of us are Big Babies and fairly sick of ourselves. Jimmy Stewart never seemed to think of such trivial things.


Brian Dunbar said...

I think you're on to something.

Rufus said...

Thanks! I think the theory might still need some fine tuning because the Obama character is a bit more focused than the Jimmy Stewart character; but that could come from being a black man in a high pressure role- it's a bit more of a high wire act, I suspect.

SecondComingOfBast said...

He does present a picture of calm assurance, which comes across as reassuring. Strong, but not belicose. Serious, but not grim.

Rufus said...

Yeah, I think he's tapping into the midwestern part of his background there. It's more Kansas than Kenya.

This is also why I think he needs to stop associating with celebrities- it's too dischordant with what he's going for otherwise.

Rufus said...

And let's also remember Reagan here, who was definitely one of those calming personalities. Even if you hated his politics, there was something about the man himself that was impossible to hate. It would be like hating your grandfather.

I really think that the key to understanding Reagan is that he made it alright to forget about the 60s and 70s altogether just by his force as a reassuring presence. This isn't to say he was a great president. To make another comparison, people did actually like Ike, while they found Reagan pleasant. There's a difference there.

Brian Dunbar said...

Even if you hated his politics, there was something about the man himself that was impossible to hate. It would be like hating your grandfather.

He had that effect in person as well. Not that I did more than shake his hand (twice) but still.