Title

Obama's Masculinities: A Landscape of Essential Contradictions

Document Type

Book Contribution

Publication Date

12-1-2011

Description

In The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama recounts his experience on the day he was sworn in to the Senate, when the longest-serving member, Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, spoke to the new senators. As one of the few African Americans elected to that body, Obama writes, "Listening to Senator Byrd speak, I felt with full force all the essential contradictions of me in this new place, with its marble busts, its arcane traditions, its memories and its ghosts."1 Obama goes on to discuss Senator Byrd's oftrecounted involvement with the KKK as symptomatic of the time and place he was raised, but the phrase "all the essential contradictions of me" is worth focusing on for our purposes here, and not only with the racial allusions that Obama first intended. "All the essential contradictions of me" functions as a point of entry into something more general than just Obama's Senate induction that day. The phrase shows an awareness concerning identity, and differing aspects within one individual. In Obama, we currently have a president who is fully aware that identity is an ongoing construction and, more specifically, that the self is actively gendered as it is presented to the world. And that identity, Obama's masculinities, is full of essential contradictions. Obama is both a black man and a white man, but also neither completely. He is both feminized and masculinized in the popular media. He plays the part of both nerd and athlete, guy next door and Harvard elite. He has shown his Zen-like calm but also his relentless attack mode. He is aware of his self-construction but maintains a refreshing authenticity. He is familiarly presidential but refreshing and new. In a notable passage of Barack Obama's first book, Dreams from My Father, he asks about the complexity of the term family. Obama's examination of this term is important because it shows his ability to navigate and think through complexities of identity, in which we might include the subset of masculinities: What is a family? Is it just a genetic chain, parents and offspring, people like me? Or is it a social construct, an economic unit, optimal for child rearing and divisions of labor? Or is it something else entirely: a store of shared memories, say? An ambit of love? A reach across the void? I could list various possibilities. But I'd never arrived at a definite answer, aware early on that, given my circumstances, such an effort was bound to fail. Instead, I drew a series of circles around myself, with borders that shifted as time passed and faces changed but that nevertheless offered the illusion of control.2 Those changing borders and circles make the landscape of an individual, just as contradicting masculinities evolve over time. This fluidity in construction marks Obama's attitude toward identity, whether familial or masculine. While Obama is not speaking overtly of masculine identity here, his attitude toward identity reveals complexity and nuance. The notion of contradiction is nothing new to masculinity studies. R. W. Connell asserts, "Masculinities are not fixed. They are not homogeneous, simple states of being. They are often contradictory desires and conduct" even in the same individual.3 In addition to contradiction, those same masculinities live up to the Obama mantra of "change": Connell reminds us that "[m]asculinities change. Masculinities are created in specific historical circumstances. Circumstances change." 4 So when we talk about America becoming America again-to paraphrase a Langston Hughes poem-we know that in every new contradiction there is something of the old. Certainly, in contradicting old ways of thinking, change is manifest. The "arcane traditions" that Obama experienced during his Senate swearing-in are mirrored in the arcane traditions of gender expectations for our leaders and society at large. Identity is not static, and Obama's identity influences and potentially changes our conceptions of the black male, men in general, the office of the presidency, fatherhood, the middle-aged body, and the professional male body, among other aspects of masculine identity.

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