Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Obama's masculinity policed in Rolling Stone illustration

According to Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson, the earth must be protected by a now-dead climate bill. I can get down with that. I can agree with that. They have a pretty smart article about it, but the picture used to represent it is not so smart.

In the above illustration by Victor Juhasz, Obama cowers next to a feminized Earth, with pronounced lips and a 1950s-style bikini body, while a hulking personification of oil companies piping smoke kicks sand on them.

This is straightforward sexism, as Rolling Stone seems to specialize in. The implication, the humor, of this cartoon lies in Obama's emasculation and failure to protect Earth. Earth is in need of protection and thus is feminine.*

It's meant to evoke the 1950s Mr. Universe type ads, which were, guess what, sexist - that whole phenomenon was a great example of the patriarchy hurting men, too. It’s not critiquing the ad for its outdated sexism - it’s copying it without critique of anyone but the sufficiently masculine oil companies and the insufficiently masculine President. If this were Mad Men, I might would give them a pass, but Rolling Stone is not a source that I trust.

There's not a ton more to unpack, frankly. The sexism here is pretty blatant: women are in need of protection from hulking men, and if other men fail to adequately protect them, then they are failures for their substandard masculinity.

Climate control and environmental issues are a big deal. But protecting the environment is not a measure of Obama's masculinity: it's a measure of his effectiveness as a President. Men having to measure up to certain measures of masculinity is unfair and a product of sexism, and women are not there to be protected. Climate control has nothing to do with sexism; Rolling Stone has imbued the issue with sexism where there is no relevance or cause.

*The reason for personifying Earth as female is not solely tied to sexism, I must admit. Earth is often personified as female, i.e. Mother Earth, and these reasons tend to be more pagan-feminist from my point of view (I could be wrong, not really an expert, just wanted to give credit where it's due).


  1. I'm really surprised you didn't also mention how strikingly racist that caricature of Obama is.

  2. My boyfriend mentioned that too, actually, but I didn't see it myself. Guess I probably should have worked it in. Thanks for filling in the gaps of my analysis.

  3. I'm not convinced quite how feminist in derivation the practice of gendering Nature as feminine is, given that it was commonly used by decidedly masculinist thinkers for centuries. The association of women, and particularly mothers (as the term Mother Earth suggests), with an immanent, intellectually inert, sustaining, nurturing force/substance seems slightly dubious to me simply because it subtly, cumulatively reifies the historic set of oppositions whereby men represent the privileged categories of action, thought and culture and women the 'complementary' (but in practice devalued) categories of passivity, feeling and nature. I know there are complementarian feminisms that are well worth engaging with/aren't biologically essentialist (Irigaray, probably some other French feminists I haven't read yet..., but generally I think *unexamined* use of practices like describing certain classes of objects etc as female plays into older, patriarchal cultural tropes.

    I also thought the artist's rendition of Obama seemed slightly suspect (and rubbish! - it looks nothing like him. But I suppose that's par for the course with magazine comic strips).


  4. Katherine, thanks very much for that intelligent expansion on my footnote - exactly the kind of discussion I was hoping to spark.

  5. I applaud you for still reading Rolling Stone. I myself gave up seeing it as anything especially relevant or meaningful years and years ago.

  6. Katherine has a lot of valid points regarding the Mother Earth concept. Conversely, though, a number of religions have a creation myth involving a mother Goddess, a living embodiment of the Earth, in some form or another. In some of these, that Goddess forms the basis for worship, in others she is essentially never heard from again after "procreation" results in the creation of a fertile planet and worship is from then on focused on the male figure.

    This idea, though, isn't strictly pagan. In Jewish lore, in Bereshith in the Tanakh it is commonly written, "In the beginning YAHWEH created the heavens and the earth. And the earth being without form, and empty; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of YAHWEH moved over the surface of the waters," but more literally, it means the sky God "moves over" the ocean Goddess and they create Earth. You generally won't get this from any religious Jews, but knowing culture Jews with a working knowledge of Hebrew and Greek results in some interesting findings. This work being the basis of the Christian Old Testament means that, in reality, the basis for the Abrahamic religions as a whole include a reference to a female deity who comes from and helped to form the Earth.

    Additionally, numerous polytheistic religions worshiped one or more Earth Goddesses, sometimes as literal embodiments of the Earth itself, or in relation to those things that the native people believed the Earth provided: food (and by association, fertility), fire (and therefore warmth), water (for life or spiritually), and other basic needs.

    Most (but not all) current neo-pagan feminists relate the Mother Goddess to the moon and it's cycles, but some groups do still worship the Earth and it's live-sustaining abilities.

  7. Rolling Stone isn't the only media voice casting this situation in terms of Obama's "manliness" or lack thereof. Kathleen Parker in the Washington Post along similar lines (purporting to show how "feminine" he is from the grammar of his recent speeches). Academics have pulled the more technical linguistic aspects to pieces, but I've not seen any discussion of this from a feminist point of view.


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