Obama family in repose
Kennedy family in reposeAnd for this week’s XY FILES (also a little late!), I wanted to share some analysis from my guy Marco, who continues to blog up a storm over at Open Salon. In his post this week over there, “Postcards from Camelot,” Marco offers a comparative analysis of political family portraiture from the days pre-Betty Friedan with today’s, juxtaposing a portrait of the Obama family that appeared on the Obama campaign’s website, and a portrait of the Kennedy family at Hyannisport circa 1962. Writes Marco,

While Barack is dressed identically to JFK, down to the wristwatch (signifier of male diligence during downtime), it is ironically Michelle who seems the more work-ready in the 2008 image. She is much more formal here than Jackie, as befitting a contemporary professional mom, yet it is also possible that the zetgeist is not yet ready for a black First Lady in leisure attire. Certainly this is true in corporate America, where non-white professionals can still feel the need to one-up their white colleagues in formality just to achieve equal parity.
At a time when Sarah Palin’s suitability for office is questioned even by liberals in the context of motherhood, it is significant that it is Barack whom the daughters embrace. Here we have a signifier not only of progressive gender politics but of the increasing importance of family values in the political sphere. The Obamas are in that sense a tighter unit here than the Kennedys; in the Kennedy image Jack looks true to the pre-Betty Friedan era, a man in proximity to his family yet not unduly “enmeshed”, which implicitly allowed him the freedom to work and “play” outside the domestic realm. Not so Obama, who must project utter wholesomeness in a post-Lewinsky landscape.

The candidness of the Kennedy image is poignant in our hindsight. It captures a moment of domestic dynamism that seems to us a hint of the disharmony we feel privy to as survivors and commentators a generation or two on. We know that someone switched scripts on the unsuspecting actors of Camelot, and we wish we could reach across the divide and toss them a clue.

In this context, the control exerted over the Obama image is somehow comforting to me. It is, of course, a branded and vetted image, much more so than the snapshots of Camelot yellowing in the White House archives. John-John and Caroline seem distracted and ready to bolt from the Hyannisport porch. Jack is standing with, but not enveloped by his family. In contrast, the Obamas are eyes forward, directly engaged with the photographer and the viewer. Even the children seem utterly at home around the camera, as they seemed at ease in the spotlight of a stadium of tens of thousands. Finally, the Obamas are composed in the classic stable form of the triangle or pyramid, but while the senator is at the core of the group, there is no top-down hierarchy. This is a picture of family as a unit of strength, dynamic but immovable.

This visual read on family values adds a whole ‘nother level to the rhetoric we heard last night. If any of you have seen interesting analysis of Barack as a new kind of dad, or a new kind of man in general–the 21st century kind, that is–please do share links in comments! I’m becoming obsessed with the discussion of Barack’s masculinity over here.