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Reading into the Obama-as-Joker poster ... or not

August 5, 2009 | 11:50 am

Joker There's nothing like a controversial political caricature to get people talking, blogging and tweeting.

But when it comes to understanding those same cartoons -- as opposed to rehashing, reblogging and retweeting them -- context is key. 

The New Yorker magazine's infamous cover illustration of Barack and Michelle Obama in radical drag, bumping fists in the Oval Office as an American flag burns in the fireplace, is understood to be a parody of conservative paranoia, not an attack on the first couple. But put that same image on the cover of the Weekly Standard and the illustration takes on a vastly different meaning.

In this respect, the image of President Obama in Heath Ledger Joker-face is especially disturbing because it is completely devoid of context -- literary, political or otherwise. The image seems to have emerged from nowhere and was created by no one. Deracinated from authorial intent, Obama-as-Joker becomes a free-floating cipher that can be appropriated and re-appropriated by everyone.

Clearly, the poster -- which has already mutated into countless variations on the Internet -- communicates a virulent hostility to Obama, but in a vague and flailing way. It can mean anything and it could mean nothing. (The latter seems more likely than the former.) In some versions of the image, the word "socialism" has been appended to the poster. But as media outlets like CNN have pointed out, the Joker (as portrayed by Ledger in "The Dark Knight") was a rabid anarchist, which doesn't jibe well with the accusation of socialism.

Like Shepard Fairey's "Hope" poster, the mystery "artist" behind the Joker prank has borrowed and altered an existing media image of the president for his or her own creative ends. (It's from a cover shot of Obama featured on Time magazine.) In many ways, the Obama-as-Joker picture can be viewed as the evil twin of Fairey's "Hope" -- one is laudatory and arguably hagiographic while the other is mean-spirited and demonic. Maybe one day, a publicity-savvy museum will mount the two of them side-by-side in an exhibition on the malleability of the digital image.

Understandably, some people have latched on to the poster's white-face significance. Is the creator saying that the president is pretending to be someone he's not? Again, it's impossible to know for sure. The Joker was a garish parody of a clown, and a clown can be any race -- the white makeup doesn't necessarily have an ethnic subtext.

At one extreme, the poster suggests that Obama is a psychopath who is completely out of control and running afoul of the law -- which he clearly is not. For a cartoon or parody to work, it must have at least one toe placed firmly in the realm of reality -- a credible starting point from which to launch into the free-for-all ether of comedy.

The most that can be said about Obama-as-Joker is that it's a prank that the Joker himself would have been proud of. It has exploded like a cultural grenade -- an act of cultural terrorism? -- and has left meaningless chaos in its wake.

-- David Ng


Obama "Joker" Poster Causing a Stir in L.A. - KTLA

Image credit: Unknown

Comments () | Archives (94)

In effect, the poster promotes socialism, by advertising it as a force to be reckoned with, giving the philosophy power and encouraging people to learn more about it.

So, bottom I think the columnist's thesis about the poster being an ill-focused, ill-conceived, confusing mess of unintended meaning and consequence.

It's a bone-headed, mean-spirited shallow counterpoint to Fairy's Hope poster, and a perfect example of how bankrupt the conservatives and Republicans are morally, philosophically and artistically. The Hope poster made people feel good. This lame socialism poster is a downer, just as is so much of the tea bagging, birther conservative movement.

The comparison between Obama and the Joker is valid. The Joker wanted anarchy. Under Obama's big plans we will have anarchy when we go bankrupt and owe the rest of the world our GNP. Wether or not this is his intent is debatable. But the effect is the same.

America has been somewhat socialist for quite some time now. Education, the military, local, state, and federal government. People get real. Only when we accept each other can we move forward was a species.

Robbie Conal makes a statement with a poster and the LA Times gushes! Our anonymous joker artist makes a poster and the Times frets. Why? Because the Times editorial staff hypocritically refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of a voice which does not worship The One.

For context, let's look at the movie.
But before that, let's look at perceptions. It is perceived that Obama has this socialist agenda. The reality is that what Obama is doing is called liberal socialism. There is a difference; both at the practical level and at a slightly theoretical level. True socialism, both theoretical and practical, prepares a country for communism.

Let's go back to the movie. What's perceived about the joker, what's his "agenda?" And it has to be something that turns out not to be exactly true. The joker says it in the movie, "introduce a little anarchy…upset the established order…and everything becomes chaos. I'm an agent of chaos. And you know the thing about chaos? It's fair" (wikiqoutes-the dark knight). Chaos can be fair, but not when the chaos is caused/forced upon by violence. And socialism can be liberal, but not when it does not prepare the country for communism. Hence, the joker is to fairness as Obama is to socialism. And the joker is to chaos as Obama is to liberal socialism. Perceived ends:real means. Maybe that is what this piece/poster is about. If the artist made a poster of Heath Ledger's Joker, the word might be fairness.

Jesus was a socialist, Mother Theresa was probably one too. So was the Buddha and so is the Dalai Lama. Stalin, Lenin, Marx, etc. were not - they were fascists and totalitarians. So if you want to call Obama a socialist, and believe me he's not, go ahead. He's in good company. And guess what? My foriends who live in England like their health insurance and can't believe that we have such a crappy system. And some Americans are now flying to India were they are getting BETTER medical help sooner, and cheaper. Yeah, let's outsource that too....

The purpose of the Obama Joker posters was to expose liberal hypocrisy. It has fulfilled that purpose beautifully.

President Bush was also parodied as The Joker, not on some back alley street poster but on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine. There was no wringing of hands from the guardians of public decency. No one commented on how this image was “mean spirited” or “potentially dangerous”.


But comes now the same concept, albeit executed with infinitely more artistic flair, and the Obama cheering squad, excuse me, I mean, the main stream media, falls all over themselves demonizing an artist that would dare to deviate from myth-bound liberal fascist group think.

The more you know about liberals, the more they look like fascists.

That’s because that’s just what they are, intolerant, myth-bound, hypocritical fascists.

Having them in control of the White House and Congress has given them the opportunity to expose themselves for public review. The ridicule and scorn are soon to follow. They’ve only been in power six months and the Republicans have already taken a five-point lead on the generic Congressional ballot.


By the fall of 2010, George W. Bush, lame defender of freedom that he was, will in comparison end up looking like Thomas Jefferson.

United We stand divided we fall.. Anyone opposed to The form of government that the US has can go and visit such places as North Korea, Iran, Middle east....As a united county we voted for Change and a new president. In order for the US to keep our way of life this sort of Anti Patriotic joke needs to stop. Any anti government Anti Patriotic people can leave the country at will...

"For a cartoon or parody to work, it must have at least one toe placed firmly in the realm of reality."

The Joker robbed a bank.
Obama's stimulus package is robbing future generations of taxpayers to fund more government.

The Joker blew up a hospital.
Obama's health care plan will destroy the health care system.

Obama said there would be no "Lurch to the left." Well what a surprise. The joke is on us.

Get it?

"And in their desperation they turned to a man they didn't fully understand." - Alfred Pennyworth, describing the Joker and the American voter in 2008.

I'm far from Republican, but it blows my mind how this image upsets some people but pictures of Bush as Hitler are ok.

Ha! Ha! What is more comical than this poster is all those political pundits and those talking heads on television performing all these deep analyses of, "What does this mean?"

Experts are called in, psychologists, FBI profilers, Dr. Ruth, Judge Judy, Alan Greenspan, Bernie Madoff even Cardinal Mahony, all expressing their expert opinions on, "What does this mean?"

Shoot, all this means is a teenage boy was sitting around smoking dope, trying out his Photoshop software pirated off the web, sitting around with some boys from the hood, getting stoned, giggling and having a good time messing with Obama, "Oh wow, man, awesome, totally sick!"

"Dude! Let's make some posters!"

There you are, just a bunch of pothead boys out on the streets having a good time, a right good time.

Right now, those boys are probably eating pizza, drinking beer and laughing their butts off, "Check it out, dude, our posters are on TV!"

Meanwhile, all these hyper-head pseudo intellects are scratching their heads and wondering,"What does this mean?"

Now, that is comical!

Okpulot Taha
Choctaw Nation

The poster doesnt really matter. Obama won and McSame lost. And its likely that Obama will be President for 8 years. He is doing a great job.

The one trick racist ponies will be the first to scream 'rathiiiiiism.' How readily predictable.

Y'all didn't mind it so much when the Joker was Bush in Vanity Fair, huh?

I wish non-trolls would post instead of the lunatic fringe...

I think my friend's 3 year old child didn't need to be so analytical. The poster is straight to the point!

You leftist get so antsy when your messiah is made fun of!

Great work sir. Now where were you when vanity fair had their picture of Bush as the joker? Or is Obama simply not allowed to be depicted in a negative light.

Hypocracy is a lovely color on you Mr Ng.

To me the poster reflects the ugly attitude of the person who created it. I find it simply amazing, then disturbing, that people seem to actually hate Obama. There is not a whole lot he has done to justify hatred, so one must suspect it comes from some pre-existing hatred.

With respect to blaming Obama for just about anything - only those with an obvious agenda could disregard the eight years of Bush policies and world events that got us where we are and blame Obama for our plight.

What do you think of the new Obama poster? Well... the people took it to court, and you can be the judge http://bit.ly/obama01

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