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Barack the Riveter? A new media take on an old image

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November 30th, 2008

By Guest Blogger Frieda Werden

In the weeks since Barack Obama won the U.S. election, I’ve been reflecting on some curious new media imagery. A Canadian Facebook friend sent me this picture: Obama Yes We Did

She changed the caption from “Yes We Can” to “Yes We Did.” The original montage is on several websites with no artist attribution; it’s a manipulation of this famous US government propaganda poster drawn to encourage women factory workers during World War II:
We Can Do It

I find the Obama-faced parody witty but disturbing. That Rosie-the-Riveter poster was co-opted more than 30 years ago from being a war image to a ubiquitous feminist movement icon; seeing a man’s triumphant face in place of the woman’s reminds me that a core feminist issue was and is how men keep pushing women off the stage. Even if he was a stronger candidate than Hillary Clinton, which the results have shown, Obama’s presence in this feminist image could be seen as gloating that he kicked her butt – kicked her out of the picture.

Men dressing in women’s iconography troubles me. Right now, the WACK! show from New York’s Museum of Modern Art is at the Vancouver Art Gallery. It glorifies how feminism changed 20th century art. But I remember from the ‘70s a huge Women’s Caucus for Art event in New York: many venues big and small filled with women’s highly original works drawn from their lives. Shortly after, New York galleries filled with work of male artists copying women’s ideas – the doll boxes, fabric art, dressup self-photos, and more — and the women still could not get shown. (Later, the Guerrilla Girls performed a creative snit against MOMA’s sexist policies – winning more renown as anonymous protesters than as artists using their own names.)

Something else that makes this picture itch my psyche: racism. A white woman baring her bicep is an image contrary to type; a black man baring his bicep reminds us of black people enslaved in America mainly for their strength, to the disparagement of their hearts and minds.

I don’t know if Obama’s campaign was behind this poster, but I feel it represents something about him. He is a clever borrower of other people’s symbols. His now-famous chant “Yes We Can” is a direct translation of Dolores Huerta’s favourite farmworker chant, “Si Se Puede.” His election-night address incorporated the phrase “for as long as I shall breathe, I shall hope” — an awkwardly translated version of the Latin proverb “dum spiro spero,” which happens to be the state motto of South Carolina. He used more than one quote from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address; and images of him often seem tailored to evoke Lincoln – another lawyer from Illinois, and the first Republican President.

Like others, I want to have hope in Obama, that he will govern well. With his recognition of others’ symbols, he could become the kind of leader W. claimed to be: “A uniter, not a divider.” Time will tell.

Guest Blogger Frieda Werden is series producer of WINGS: Women’s International News Gathering Service, Vancouver BC, Canada

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