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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)

"...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."

Are you so sure of this conclusion? He is an out of touch, dishonest, narcissist, unwilling to let niceties like the law or the Constitution stand in his way.

If the artist had "dumped" flour on Obama (remember the Indian kids in "Billy Jack"?), then a case could be made for racist intent. But any attempt to attribute racism in this case is merely a means to shut down debate.

But what if it is blatantly racist? We are constantly being hectored that we need to have a conversation on race. Seems Obama just arranged a White House photo op for this very purpose. Wouldn’t this “racist” poster be a useful means to get it all out in the open, put it all on the table, etc…

No, Obama is a one sided deal. All that flows from Him is an unquestionable and good. All opposition is evil and racist.

Bush spent four years in liberal hellfire and didn't complain. This author misses the point and impact - the Dear Leader has to be subversively criticized so that the racist tag isn't applied.. It's underground criticism, you know, like in a Communist country, and Obama is frantic because he's the cool, hip, underground leader, right? HE"S the subversive, no? It hits him right where he lives. Perfect.

Posted by: Michael | August 05, 2009 at 08:37 PM
Historically, Anarchists have worked with Socialists. Case in point, the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution
You don’t need to go that far back. Look at the anti-globalization riots, the Earth First! people that torched the Hummer dealership and the housing development in San Diego, the animal rights folks that terrorize researchers at home, and the illegal alien rioters. Groups like ACORN and ANSWER are often found at these disturbances.

Anarchists and Socialists, yes. But you left out one group: Democrats. These folks are the democratic party base.

For me the poster says:

"I am Barrack Obama and I have managed to FOOL everyone who supported me by telling them I am change you can believe in!"

The Liberal Agenda is being actively pursued by the Obama administration make no mistake about that.

To control or slow down the bullet train the Administration is running a Loyal Opposition, (Loyal to the American Constitution and the founding Fathers of these United States), needs to stand up and voice their opinion.

People tend to view everything through the only lens they have: their own. If you see the poster as racist then you probably have some inner racist feelings or attitudes about others. The white make-up is what the joker wore. period. Vanity Fair magazine ran a similar photo of George W. Bush in aug. of '08. No media outlet brought attention to that. I wonder why? hmmm? The Obama Joker poster tells us, "the joke is on us". The "hope and change" has turned into massive government takeover never before seen in our history. It is pure obtuseness to refuse to see that interpretation, which is playing out in the polls and at town hall meetings with REAL CITIZENS, not some "organized" mob like the ones our president, the "organizer-in-chief" organized in Chicago when working with ACORN. In fact, what is wrong with being organized? Our CONSTITUTION gives us the RIGHT to organize in the first amendment: "the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." We've been loud but peaceable and that is our right! Obama has appointed over 30 "czars" who are not answerable or accountable to the people, ONLY TO HIM; he is going to pass healthcare legislation, even without representatives from the Republican party, where is bipartisanship? This would never have stood muster with Bush! All of you kids who think Obama is doing just fine WAKE UP. Your future is going to be totally in the hands of government, long after Obama is out of office (if he ever leaves!) and you will lose your freedom to drive, eat, live and die THE WAY YOU WANT. Bush had nothing on Obama. He was a piker compared to Obama!

The ObamaJoker poster allows liberals to finally see the evil we've all seen in Obama since the Democrats "Trojan-horsed" him into power.

"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."

Exactly, and that's what makes this an incredibly exact portrait of Obama. He comes from nowhere, with little past, and has no substance or strong personality. He is everywhere physically, and nowhere substantively. Which definitely makes him a political cipher. Ng, you get a star in art critique today.

I guess I'm at a loss on this article--it's an attempt to enact a post-structural (deconstruction) reading of this Obama-as-Joker poster, yet it ends up claiming that the poster can mean, on the one hand, anything and, on the other hand, nothing at all. Okay. So, if you did your homework on deconstruction, Mr. Ng would discover that the whole point is that this new poster's subversiveness lies in the very fact that it doesn't signifiy--that it can be, as pointed out, appropriated from competing ideological camps. Okay: so what? Well, it seems to me that like the Hope poster, this too is a decontextualized piece of propaganda, only this time it seems to work against Mr. Obama. I think the claim that there is no authorial context is absolutely important and crucial--and why should we seek out the context? Why can't we simply read the text as it is? And why, Mr. Ng, do you fail to tell us what you think but rather offer a number of competing, often conflicting, claims?

Further, what do you mean by "meaningless chaos?" I suspect that Mr. Ng read his Marx, even perhaps his Jameson, and wants to impose a narrative on the text. In other words, until we have the authorial intent secure, Mr. Ng knows that this poster is a threat to Mr. Obama's image. Moreover, the article places us squarely back onto the Marxist-postmodernist debates of the 1990s--but without a general awareness of these debates and their outcomes.

It is a clever bit of graphics. Like the very cute Hope poster or the GEICO gecko, it is memorable. The Hope poster and the gecko are obviously selling something. This one, as Ng points out, is ambiguous and everyone invests it with their particular paranoias. While the joker may or may not intend to be racist, it certainly brings the racists out, doesn't it?

Isn't it true that Vanity Fair did a piece on President Bush which showed him in exactly the same type of pose a year ago?:

Odd how no one was concerned then about the lack of clarity of message, context, or pondered whether it contained "ethnic" content. And to some, Obama's actions do, in fact, seem "out of control and running afoul of the law," and they won't have any idea how you can't at least see the connection.

The only real question is then, why can't the media see its own biases?

Why don't any of these "journalists" get it?

They are not comparing Obama's political views with the Joker's political views. SHEESH!

They are calling him a joker (liar, deceiver, etc.) because he ran as a moderate and now that he's in office, he's changed his stripes and turned into the far-left (almost socialist) person a lot of us feared he might be.

It has NOTHING to do with the Joker's politics or views! Argh!

Funny... Another magazine (I believe it was Vanity Fair) published an illustration of Bush as the joker. Not news then, no opposition to that by journalists. Bias?

Why he's the Joker... he won't tell you his ultimate goal.

"The American people will never knowingly adopt Socialism. But under the name of 'liberalism' they will adopt every fragment of the Socialist program, until one day America will be a Socialist nation, without knowing how it happened." Norman Thomas (leader of American Socialist Party 1930s)

This is what's going on under our noses.
Some people have finally woken up and are scared.

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

David - you or either or an idiot or very out of touch with reality. Mind you, however, one is able to be both.. At least one toe? How about every single thing he has done since taking office is SOCIALISM. Keep spewing this mindless dribble. Remember not to march out of step, Commrade Ng

he is the joker. He thinks far from reality and is now lost in the world behind the face he has given himself.

It's great! He is a socialist and he is very distructive to this country and what it stands for. And, that has NOTHING to do with race. Most conservatives are most definatley not racist. They are CONSERVATIVE.

Lampooing political figures via image manuipulation is indeed an age old practice, and one I think its safe to say each president has endured. Lest we not forget that images of George W. Bush portrayed varyingly as a Nazi, Satan, or both were near-ubiquitous during his term.

I am the maker of the poster. I do not like how this country is moving and things are not "changing"

The reason I made this poster was because Obama is the "Dark Knight" and a bad one at that.

Why? Dark, because he is well, dark, mysterious, and color. Knight because he was promised to be the knight of the people, the savior to all, the change this country needed.

Of course, that has not come too.

So yes, I did make this poster and with good meaning. I have freedom of speech and will use it, showing the rest of the country WE HAVE FREEDOM OF SPEECH.

This image touches a nerve especially with those duped into voting for this clown. Even though his acquaintances, writings and speeches have given clear clues to his socialist tendencies I believe that most people didn't expect the scope and speed of the change to a socialist country. With the Obama controlling the banking industry, auto industry and aggressively going after the health care and insurance industries people are getting nervous, where will it stop? The image is right on the mark.

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