YOU KNOW YOU’VE reached celebrity status when your name replaces God’s in the sack—and you’re not even the one getting laid. “Mike,” a 52-year-old moderate Republican in financial services, recently picked up a hot blond twenty-something at Townhouse Bar on East 58th Street in Manhattan.
“He was very excited about Obama,” Mike recalls, “very into the campaign. I didn’t want to talk politics, but as he rambled on and got more and more excited, I expressed a few reservations about the anointed one. He dismissed them outright.”
Mike bit his tongue, worried that admitting his intention to vote McCain Nov. 4 would end the encounter. The two eventually wandered to Mike’s place on the Upper East Side for more drinks. One thing led to another, and soon the pair was naked. That’s when, Mike says, things got weird.
The young Democrat was a bottom; and as Mike mounted him, the younger man grew animated. “Ohhhh, ohhhhh,” Mike says the man cried. “Obaaaama!” Although Mike is white, it seems that the young blond had his own fantasies about who was fucking him.Let’s face it: Barack Obama is hot. As we move into the final days until the election, it’s become more apparent, however, that people are not making rational decisions based on voting records or even debating skills.
They are voting with their emotions, their passions, even their fantasies about who they would rather kiss, fondle or fuck. Bammers has single-handedly inspired the kind of adoration usually reserved for cultural icons like The Beatles, Elvis or Tom Cruise (circa Risky Business). That’s right, he’s a Barack star.Women weep at his rallies. Photos of him frolicking shirtless on a beach get splayed across pages of People.The media can’t get enough of him. He’s America’s sweetheart.
Even Barbara Walters, during Obama’s guest appearance last March on The View, couldn’t resist a little flirtation. “We thought you were very sexy,” she told Obama, when he said his distant cousin Brad Pitt got all the hot genes. Oh, please.
Obama’s celebrity factor is undeniable, but it also toes a strange and potentially dangerous line between media darling and over-sexualized caricature. The YouTube video early on the campaign, “I Got a Crush… on Obama,” was named the biggest Web video of 2007 by People magazine, the AP,Newsweek and AOL. A new line of Andrew Christian designer men’s underwear has Obama’s smiling face sketched over the front-right hip. Pop-culture site Gawker has held roundtables about Obama’s body looking too good for a president. Rolling Stone magazine refers to the president-hopeful’s sphere of admirers as “Planet Obama.” A New York magazine feature on Obama’s highly anticipated cover shot in Men’s Health included a photo-illustration of Obama’s head on a chiseled (and topless) male model’s body. Even Playgirl came out in June with an endorsement of Obama as America’s Sexiest Citizen.
The fact is, many people are so busy wondering whether they could date or screw Obama, they seem to forget the polls show he’s ahead of John McCain. Shirtless shots of Obama vacationing this summer in Hawaii seemed to raise more questions of whether he was too attractive to rule a country. Do we need a paunch on a president? Is Obama’s sex appeal steeped in race? And is it possible for people to stop thinking about Barack Obama’s penis? Imperative in this discussion is the find a line between Obama’s race and general celebrity.The man transcends the intersection of several stereotypes: With the cool looks of JFK, the oratory mastery of Martin Luther King Jr. and the imagined giant penis of Lex Steele, he’s been pushed further into the celebrity spotlight as as academic-black-man-turned-super-hero. It’s enough to scare Republicans shitless. A recent T-shirt announced Saving My Virginity For Obama, My First Vote! But could this coy sexual irony actually hurt Obama on Election Day?As editor-in-chief at Playgirl, I’ve witnessed the gamut of women’s perceptions of male sexuality. Unlike men, for whom nudity is often enough of a turn-on, women base a disproportionate amount of weight on how a man “seems.” That’s why you always hear women talk about understanding a certain man, or having a sixth sense about someone. Women love feeling like they have an inside track on what makes a man tick.
This is why gossip rags and tabloids sell so well—they’re glimpses into people’s personal lives, offering context for Shia LaBeouf’s wild streak or what goes on in John Mayer’s head.
Give us an attractive politician, and the sky is the limit to our fascination as his personal life is turned inside out, his character put under a microscope, his beach body paraded through glossy pages of magazines and his opinions about the world publicly aired. Throw in a race card, and watch the exoticism grow. Give us Barack Obama, and we’ll give you hundreds of thousands of women (and, for that matter, men) poised on the edges of their seats asking for more.
The Sept. 26, 1960 presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon marks the day politics joined forces with television to propel a candidate’s appearance into the spotlight and brand politicians as celebrities. We all know the story: Radio listeners overwhelmingly called the Kennedy/Nixon debate a toss-up; but those watching television gave the winning honor to the 43-year-old Kennedy. Sporting a dark suit, lustrous tan and disarming smile, Kennedy swept the visual crowd that day. A pasty-faced Nixon, representing an anxious demeanor under blotchy makeup, was fresh out of the hospital for a knee injury. He’d lost weight and barely filled out his suit, and he looked far inferior to the highly energized, youthful Kennedy. No matter whether the men’s oratory skills were a match; Kennedy won hands-down.
George Farah, author of No Debate and founder and executive director of Open Debates, argues that before debates were widely televised, “no one would ever pick up on the contradictions [of a candidate]. How a candidate presented himself was really irrelevant.”
After the Kennedy/Nixon debate, Farah says, the landscape of politics was decidedly different. A candidate’s appearance suddenly mattered as much as—if not more than—his sound bites. New political concepts, such as “likeability factors,” reared up as litmus tests for the presidency. Television turned presidents into stars. “Today,” Farah says, “the visual image displaces the substance of their words.”
At McCain and Obama’s second debate Oct. 7, the men each held their own verbally; firing shots at each other on their varying policies. But water-cooler chatter the following morning circled around the men’s appearances, notably McCain’s restless pacing on stage. A Dallas Morning News reporter interviewed an expert who noted the Republican nominee’s stiffness “calls attention to his age and infirmity.”
Conversely, The Daily Show With Jon Stewart drew attention to Obama’s exaggeratedly relaxed seated stance, relating his cool demeanor to the cover of a 1960s soul album jokingly titled Barack Obama: Songs in the Key of Hope. The Los Angeles Times went so far as to dissect the men’s tie choices: McCain’s selection an “intense red,” Obama’s a “glacial shade of blue”; and the paper said two of three body-language experts interviewed for the piece marked the young Illinois senator as the night’s clear winner for his calm and comfortable vibe.
Later that evening, comedian Bill Maher appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno to plug his movie, Religulous. Although the segment was taped before the debates, Maher summed up what a lot of people were thinking. He called Obama the “Jackie Robinson of American politics” and said that much of the Republican pundits were couching their discussions in veiled racism, playing off his funny-sounding name or going so far as claiming Obama has a “big, black uncircumcised penis and it smells like curry.”
Whether the idea of that big black dick is a turn-on or a turn-off is up to the individual. No matter how much we try to take race off the table and focus on the issues, this campaign has literally become a dick-waving contest. It’s summed up rather crassly in a T-shirt that reads “Your Candidate,” with a white figure with a small bump for a penis and a McCain label, next to “My Candidate” a brown figure, labeled Obama, with a long schlong.
George Carlin had a bit back in the ’90s in which he referred to war (and politics, by extension) as nothing more than a “big, prick-waving dick fight.” Throw race in as a wild card to this equation, and the debate kicks into high gear.
The assumption that black men have the largest penises was disproved decades ago by Dr. Alfred Kinsey, who performed the most comprehensive study to date of penis size. He found that black men generally enjoy a mere .1 inch more length and girth than white men. Hardly enough, it seems, to warrant so much intrigue.
The mythology surrounding the size of a black man’s penis is steeped in racism, says Rashawn Ray, a PhD candidate and National Science Foundation Fellow in the department of sociology at Indiana University-Bloomington. “Black men have always been seen as physically superior, yet intellectually inferior. We will let black men pick cotton, run a factory machine or run a football, but actually running the company or the country is something different because being intellectually inferior is part of the stereotypical package that black men embody to others.”
I’ve received more than my fair share of angry letters to Playgirl, accusing the staff of perpetuating racist stereotypes by putting well-hung black men into the magazine. The readers writing these letters (overwhelmingly white women) were well intentioned, intoning that Playgirl inadvertently fed into embedded, over-sexualized racist notions by glorifying this stereotype. Readers’ eagerness to draw the race card—to always seek a politically correct route—was hyperbolized by going so far as to demand a magazine designed to show off the beefiest of man meat not show pictures of black men with big penises.
Seeing Obama as an exception to black stereotypes, or “tokenism,” as Rashawn Ray calls it, can lead to “token stress”—what Ray refers to as a “loss of identity, multiple demands for representing their group, sense of isolation and having to show greater competence than majority group members.
“In this regard,” he says, “Obama’s attractiveness—coupled with his race—places a larger strain on him as he aims to cater to multiple aspects of his identity.”
Unlike, say, Sarah Palin, whose attractiveness has served as a way to revive the Republican ticket this fall by slotting her as a MILF hockey mom who kicks ass Sex and the City–style—heels, lipstick and all. She’s been the only secret weapon the Republicans have been able to conjure up—getting boys at rallies to paint and pound their naked chests—to counter Obamaphilia.
“I’ve always been a little perplexed around the media’s obsession with Barack’s looks,” says Carmen Van Kerckhove, co-founder and president of racial consulting firm New Demographic and head of the popular and salacious blog, Racialicious. “He’s good looking for a politician, but he doesn’t have movie-star good looks.” Van Kerckhove calls this overemphasis on the candidate’s looks trite. “People think, ‘I can’t be racist, I think Obama is good looking.’ I’ve always interpreted people tripping over themselves to say how good-looking he is as revealing a level of [embedded] racism.”
But for George Farah, Obama’s looks and demeanor are the chief reason he’s made it this far. “Racist stereotypes can only be rebutted by a visual representation of Obama,” he says. Ticking off all of the ugliest racist stereotypes society has traditionally reserved for blacks—sloppy, inarticulate, lustful, sexual, untrustworthy—he explains how “these stereotypes can breed in a vacuum.”
But give the public YouTube, tabloids and talking heads on every media network, and Obama has the opportunity to disprove each assumption. “Only with cameras, and at the debates themselves, can Obama come out and say, ‘Hey, I am not the negative stereotype of this race.’ He is a post-Kennedy candidate. It’s impossible to imagine a world without TV making Obama this politically successful.”
Perceptions of Obama are complicated, however, and a number of the contradictory, racist and celebrity perceptions of the presidential hopeful reflect what Van Kerckhove describes as “a fine line between fetishization and finding something beautiful and unusual.”
MadTV ran a spoof of Obama sleeping with a white woman. Charges are pending over Obama T-shirts bearing the likeness of Curious George holding a large, phallic banana. An email chain circulated recently features a book cover mock-up of Obama’s face with the title Where all the White Women At?
“It goes to show,” Van Kerckhove says, “racism is well and alive in America. People like to pat themselves on the back and say we’ve moved beyond race—we’re really scared to go anywhere near it.”
“Although most believe that Obama is single-handedly at the forefront of changing perceptions of black men, sociological research does not support this claim,” adds Rashawn Ray. “While interactions with upwardly mobile Latinos and Asians changes the perception whites have of all Latinos and Asians,” he says, referring to extensive research he’s studied and performed, “social interactions between blacks and whites only change the perception whites have of that one black person. So in this regard, Obama is simply seen as an exception to the rule, and thus a token.”
Taken together, Ray says, abovementioned examples of pop-culture Obama obsession “go back to the stereotypes of black men as being overly aggressive, sexually promiscuous, physically superior, yet intellectually inferior.”
Farah posits that this year’s presidential debates are particularly interesting, coming as they do after “Obama’s awe-factor” has faded enough for the public to pay attention to the president-hopeful’s policies.
Still, Farah cedes, Obama-lust may indeed be far larger than the man; so large, in fact, as to overshadow any of his stumping. “Obama is like a Dostoevskian character,” Farah says. “He is an idea in human flesh.”
But we’ll have to wait until Tuesday’s election results to determine if Obama’s “flesh” is palatable to the average American voter.