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Superhero President: the commodification of Barack Obama

Posted on Tuesday, January 13th, 2009 at 10:54 am

Author: Feature Writer

Gc contributor: Sarah Jaffe

Picture courtesy of Amanda Jaffe.

When the presidential primaries started, Barack Obama was already something of a celebrity. And from the beginning, his campaign’s posters and Web site were aesthetically far superior to those of his competition.

As the primaries slogged on, the Obama phenomenon branched out into the art world. The iconic Shepard Fairey Obama image hit the streets and quickly sold out several print runs. T-shirts bearing the image were available from Fairey’s Web site–and soon from Urban Outfitters.

You couldn’t walk the streets in a major city without tripping over street vendors selling their own Obama gear. Obama volunteers made their own Obama buttons, T-shirts, posters, and art. Sure, some people were just cashing in, but others seemed genuinely inspired by the candidate and his message. The Obama Art Report is a blog cataloguing the phenomenon, complete with photos.

The election of Obama on November 4th launched a whole other stream of Obama gear, though. From newspapers and magazines launching Obama “commemorative editions” to coins and plates , you can get your little piece of the president-elect for just $19.95! Call now!

Driving home to South Carolina for my holiday break, I stopped at a fast-food joint to grab a quick bite, my Obama button (yes, fan-made, a pink and yellow version of the classic Fairey print) still pinned to my purse. The girl who took my order at the counter asked me where I got my button.

“Me and my husband didn’t like him,” she continued, “But now you’ve gotta have one, don’t you?”

Obama has become something you have to have a piece of–a commodity for sale, sometimes on eBay to the highest bidder, other times for the bargain price of way too much for whichever tacky design was slapped on some material that will last long enough for your kids to sell it back on eBay twenty years from now.

The similarity to the ubiquitous Che Guevara (himself back in the pop culture spotlight with the new Soderbergh movie) is interesting, but ultimately Obama has become a symbol before even really having the chance to be President. He won’t be sworn in for another week, but his image is being appropriated all over the place. Before the election, no publicity was bad publicity, but the post-election explosion of Obama image-plastering is less about propaganda than it is about profits.

Marvel Comics is releasing a Spider-Man variant cover with Barack Obama on it, to go along with a five-page mini-story where Spider-Man meets Obama. Its first printing is already sold out.

Brian Johnson, of Brave New Worlds comics in Philadelphia, has been fielding phone calls for weeks asking about the Obama comic. The shop’s top-selling book for last year was another Obama issue, IDW Publishing’s Barack Obama biocomic. But this was in part because one customer ordered 300 of the Obama book.

“He’s sitting on them to sell later,” Johnson said. “But they won’t be worth anything because there’s going to be so many of them.”

Johnson has a point. The market is so flooded with Obama images right now, from plates to posters to Spider-Man comics, that keeping them for their perceived value later seems ludicrous.

It is interesting, that Obama had the largest organization of any presidential candidate in history, the largest number of volunteers, and that he’s asked people to take part in a national day of service on the day before his inauguration, and yet people still feel that they must buy something to be a part of this historical moment.

Artist Ron Wimberly noted, “The commodification of Obama at this point would be based on his image and potential actions, whereas Che’s deeds made him an icon before that posterized graphic found its way into every pop activist’s drawers.”

Certain presidents have an iconic image years, decades, hundreds of years after their deaths because of things they did. Obama’s image right now is a symbol of a step forward, of hope and possibility. That symbol was used very effectively during the campaign, but now it’s been transformed from something we could have for free to be inspired by, into a thing we can keep on a shelf.

Obama’s image is salable in part because he is a black man. The first black president. History being made. Get your slice. Artists and intellectuals have noted the connections across history with the commodification of black bodies, from slavery to celebrity.

Obama’s opponents often mocked his celebrity, but in our capitalist culture, none of them have shown up to critique the transition of Obama into a good to be sold. Perhaps, after all, that is how some people are most comfortable with Obama. He’s a thing they can control, if they can buy and sell it.

Right now, Obama is frozen in the moment between senator and president. He can announce appointments and suggest policy, but right now he is largely unable to act. After January 20th, when he is officially president, it will be harder to freeze him onto a page or a coin. He will be taking actions, and no doubt many of them will anger large portions of the population. He will remind us all that he is a person – not an icon, a superhero, or a commodity.

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  1. Pingback: Blog@Newsarama » Blog Archive » Superhero President.

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  3. Pingback: Links - 2008-01-19 at Racialicious - the intersection of race and pop culture

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  6. Obama’s team capitalized on sophisticated marketing and media, deftly using symbols, graphics, and images. The marketing capitalized in part on some of the factors that are now being commodified. What goes around, comes around.

    While your point about black bodies being commodified historically is well taken, the analysis here posits Obama as someone who is being taken advantage of, and has less agency, in comparison to white politicians who were commodified even before the internet got big (I remember the Clinton dildos, for example).

    I think that does Obama a disservice. He’s a bestselling author and believe it or not, wrote his books for both political and economic gain. I wouldn’t look at him as the victim here.

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