Saturday, October 13, 2012

As the 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama has become an icon of the times—a lens through which people worldwide interpret the politics, art, comics, and music in their lives.

To examine this cultural phenomenon, University of Iowa graduate students Nicholas Yanes and Derrais Carter compiled and edited essays and interviews for The Iconic Obama, 2007-2009: Essays on Media Representations of the Candidate and New President, published this fall by McFarland & Company, Inc.


Nicholas Yanes and Derrais Carter stand in front of a building on the pentacrest

The book presents a series of viewpoints that explore the widespread enthusiasm associated with Obama and the resulting implications for the study of popular culture. The essays in this collection focus on the buildup to the 2008 election, as well as Obama’s first year as president. The contributors represent a variety of scholarly viewpoints, each adding a unique perspective on Obama’s relationship to popular culture.

“The book is about understanding the capacity of people to create and unleash their own interpretations of our leaders,” says Carter, a Ph.D. student in American studies and a Dean’s Graduate Research Fellow. “There is no single way to represent them. We do it through different lenses.”

The co-editors see this book as a reflection of our society’s tendency to discuss and characterize political leaders in newspapers, on television, and on the Internet. This type of analysis carries over to other media studies, including music, film, and comic books.

Yanes says the image of the country’s first black president is inescapable. The idea for this book is an example.

“The book was inspired by my niece, who was five at the time,” says Yanes, who is also a Ph.D. student in American studies and a Dean’s Graduate Research Fellow. 

“She told me there’s a new candidate and she wanted me to vote for him. I thought there must be something unique about how Obama influences public rhetoric.”

For Yanes, collecting the essays served as an insightful reminder of the world’s interconnectedness.

“People around the world are borrowing our cultural tropes, but redeploying them in unique ways,” Yanes says. “In the United States, we had the Obama Girl phenomenon with the YouTube video of the girl singing, ‘I have a crush on Obama.’ In Japan, they had the Obama Girls, which was a group of women who supported Obama and encouraged people to support Obama.”

The book offers no commentary on Obama’s political agenda, instead emphasizing the possibilities his campaign has created both in the United States and abroad. This project’s overarching argument is that

President Obama’s campaign and transition into the White House has carved a space in which activists, politicians, fans, and artists can converge, using Obama’s image to represent their respective ideologies.

“We are interested in how people work through his image. Our intent is not to say we’re pro or anti Obama,” Carter says. “We’re more interested in how people make meaning of Obama. That’s the more interesting narrative we’re building with this project.”

Carter especially enjoyed Travis Gosa’s essay, “The Audacity of Dope”: Rap Music, Race, and the Obama Presidency.

“Travis has this approachable way of writing that helps us understand how the politics of rap and rap music are connected to political ideologies,” Carter says. “He’s not saying all rap is political, but he’s saying it’s important for us to understand that some of these artists are also making meaning of Obama’s presence.”

Yanes and Carter’s collaborators for this project include national and international contributors. University of Iowa contributors include doctoral students Rauf Arif, James Carviou, Robert Gutsche, and Etse Sikanku (all journalism and mass communication), and Patrick Oray (American studies). Graduate College Associate Dean Dan Berkowitz also was interviewed about how to understand Obama’s election news coverage.

In the aftermath of the 2012 election, additional representations of Obama will proliferate as he enters his second term. All the while, Obama supporters, critics, and analysts will remix the image of the United States’ first black president.