Thursday, December 16, 2010

A Tale of Two Political Propagandas

Here is an amusing little photo essay contrasting Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin with the American president Barack Obama.

Now, obviously, this is humor.  The pictures are true enough, but individual photos do not tell the whole story.  Certainly (at least hopefully!), someone can find equally virile pictures of a lantern-jawed Obama looking (as they say) "presidential" even as one can likely find illustrations of Putin being gentle or silly with his family or with a goofy look on his face as well.  The choices are almost without limit as to what one could wish to portray about anyone in the public eye.

I don't know either one of these guys - and to be honest, I'm not really interested in knowing anything about them.  They are politicians.  They are pampered and coddled.  They are handled and treated by the public as demigods.  In fact, to rise to such a level in the slash-and-burn world of political intrigue virtually requires that they be opportunistic bureaucrats and image-hawkers - and both have certainly risen to where they are today with OPM (other people's money). I don't find anything admirable or heroic in either one of them.

But I do find the way they are "marketed" to the public to be interesting.

Once more, we should not delude ourselves into believing that public photo-ops represent reality in any way.  In spite of these pictures, the real Obama may be the manliest red-meat eating dude in all of dudedom.  And while Putin is often photographed bare chested with things that make loud noises, it may well be that in real life he has no idea which end of a rifle to point at a target and may really love reading Harlequin romances and listening to Justin Bieber. [Now I know whether or not my sixth grade students are reading my blog.  If so, I will hear wails of protest Monday morning].  And the point is, I don't care what the real Putin and Obama are like.  What is important, rather, is what is important in Russian and American culture, that is, how these men are being "sold" to their constituencies.

To market Putin as a Russian leader, his handlers and muckety-mucks have consistently gotten him to look, well, manly.  There is apparently an unabashed value in masculinity in that culture. Putin is shown naked to the waist, engaged in martial activities, portrayed as virile, outdoorsy, and confident.  He looks the part of the steely-eyed man in charge.

By contrast, in order to sell the American public on Obama, his marketing hacks have crafted a different persona: an effete metrosexual.  Obama is portrayed as just a snip of the sideburns to the man-side of androgyny.  Why in the world would he appear cross-legged yenta-ing it up on "The View" instead of hanging out with a beer in the booth of Monday Night Football?  And for all of the attempts to make bicycle helmets "cool" - they just look silly on a grown man.  Sorry.  Especially when your every move is watched by an army of secret service agents.  Is there really a danger of a brain injury in a scripted and sterile ride around the block upon an immaculately manicured sidewalk bereft of any and all traffic?  I think we all know that this is part of "setting an example."  Kind of like carefully hiding pictures of the American president having a smoke.

But once again, what is seen and not seen in Official Pictures of the American president is a mirror into the culture the politicians are trying to win over. 

There is something to the fact that Obama is not portrayed riding a motorcycle, a greasy, loud, manly 2-wheeled crotch rocket.  It's not like he can't afford one.  In the case of a bike like that, a helmet could actually be a plus in the masculinity department.  Why?  Because there is actual danger in riding a motorcycle.  That would be something manly for a photo-op.  You might actually see Putin riding that kind of a bike.  Don't get me wrong: I'm not against bicycling.  I ride one myself.  But if I were a politician and actually cared about sending some kind of a testosterone-laced message of being the National Guy In Charge, I would not have my picture taken riding a Schwinn with a little plastic politically-correct kiddie brain-bucket on my head.  It just looks pathetic.

Maybe Obama needs a WWPD? bumper sticker.

But then again, the point is that he doesn't even try to effect a Putinesque image.  21st century America doesn't value the same things as modern Russians.  For these visuals are carefully crafted, posed, and sold.  The reason Obama's pictures are not like Putin's is because America has a different image and expectation of its political class.  Putin's Russia is not Obama's America - especially when it comes to the cultural landscape of the sexes.

I think we are seeing the result of decades of a War On Masculinity - both an intentional denigration of all things male, as well as a subconscious shift based on demographic realities. This is laid out well in "A Generation of Men Raised by Women" from The Art of Manliness. A more detailed study of this trend within the Church can be found in The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity by Leon J. Podles.

And as a bonus (and saving you the trouble of a Google Image Search) here is one more example of the contrast in American presidential photographic propaganda between the fairly-recent past and the present.

What more can one say?

P.S. This just in!  The latest from President Notputin...



The Exiled said...

I am pretty sure as a (former?) KGB agent, Putin knows which end of a gun to use. What always worries me is what is not shown in those photos - who or what is he shooting at? I always think of Putin as Kamal Khan from the James Bond movie Octopussy hunting human game.

The idea of photos portraying a US president in a certain light go back to the early days of the camera. Teddy Roosevelt hunting things, FDR never shown in his wheelchair, Kennedy looking fatherly and strong. We in America don't vote for a person as much as we vote for an image.

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Exiled:

I suppose Putin knows which end of the gun to point. And he may well be genuinely "manly." I'm just skeptical because so much of politics is based on image and perception. Politics is filled with propaganda.

Once again, what has happened in America is that the propaganda has changed from Theodore Roosevelt clad in outdoorsman attire to Barack Obama wearing a bicycle helmet.

That demonstrates a real shift in our culture with regard to masculinity.

Thanks for writing!

The Rev. BT Ball said...

Fr. H.-
It may have been a photo op, or maybe not, but Reagan actually did work on his ranch. He did clear brush for exercise and for horseback riding trails. He didn't have to of course. Plus, he was a man who actually made something of himself, coming from nothing. FWIW.

Father Hollywood said...

Dear BT:

I have to admit that I'm skeptical of all politicians regardless of their party or nation. To rise to that level in national politics (especially in the era of TV - and more so now given the 24-7 nature of cable coverage) requires a certain amount of marketing, image-peddling, and the telling of a story. Entire careers are devoted to this.

Some stories are more authentic than others - but Ronald Reagan was also a Hollywood actor. It doesn't mean there is no truth to the image - but it does mean he knew how to play to a camera audience. Politicians + play-acting = propaganda.

My grandfather rode horses in West Virginia because that was how you got from one place to another in the mountains. But then again, he was a common laborer without a press corps filming him and focus groups monitoring the public opinion polls in response. Our whole political process is contrived and phony. I think that's what turns me off by the whole lot of them, whether they want to be seen as androgynous or masculine.

I don't care if you eat trendy ice cream and stick out your pinky when you sip tea, or fire an M16 and chug long-necks - just enforce the Constitution. That's what gets lost in all this image nonsense.

The pictures that go to press of politicians are never spontaneous. I would not be surprised if Ronald Reagan had stage makeup on when he was being photographed swinging an ax. And ditto for Putin playing James Bond for the cameras.

But at least Reagan was careful not to be photographed hanging curtains or sitting like a princess next to Barbara Walters and the gals. I'll give him that...

Matthias Flacius said...

An interesting contrast in styles: The fascist-machismo of Putin vs. the progressive metrosexual professor.

One could argue that Putin's image is slightly homo-erotic.

Additionally, while one side of American political perspective likes Obama the other side likes the "manly" side too. G.W. Bush certainly portrayed himself as a Texas good ole boy. Despite her beauty, Sarah Palin is more "manly" in her actions than Obama. Ironic....