Sex and racism in Obama photo stir

 
President Obama poses for a camera-phone photo with British Prime Minister David Cameron and Denmark's Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt. What's more scandalous: the selfie or the media's reaction?

US President Barack Obama's friendly photograph with Danish PM Helle Thorning-Schmidt at Nelson Mandela's memorial service has one columnist writing that the US president acted like a "hormone-ravaged frat boy on a road trip to a strip bar".

The New York Post's Andrea Peyser had a look at the newswire photos of the event and contends that Mr Obama was too jovial and flirty in his interaction with Ms Thorning-Schmidt, a "Danish hellcat" who "hiked up her skirt to expose long Scandinavian legs covered by nothing more substantial than sheer black stockings".

And won't somebody think of the poor first lady, Michelle Obama?

"Michelle frowned and looked as if she wanted to spit acid at the man she married, a good-time guy who humiliated her in front of their friends, the world and a blonde bimbo who hadn't the sense to cover up and keep it clean," she writes.

Mr Obama owes the world an apology, she concludes: "President Obama has some 'splaining to do. To the woman he married. To his daughters. To the people of South Africa. And to the scandalized folks here at home."

OK… While Ms Peyser's column was over the top, even by the Post's standards, the rest of the media weren't too far behind. The memorial service "selfie" photo exploded across the Internet on Wednesday, and it supplied plenty of fodder for the chattering class.

CNN turned to Elaine Swann, who runs an etiquette academy, for her take on the matter. She writes that the circumstances of the selfie were important in considering its appropriateness:

Start Quote

The fact is, the Internet didn't know what was happening between the two, and decided to fill in the blanks in the lowest way possible”

End Quote Kayla Epstein The Guardian

Roberto Schmidt, the photographer who captured the photo told the Today show that he shot the picture during a jovial, celebratory portion of the service. He said people were dancing, singing and laughing as they celebrated the life of Nelson Mandela. Michelle Obama, he said, had been laughing along with the trio seconds before he snapped the image.

Her judgement: "President Obama's behaviour was appropriate for that particular occasion, for that particular culture at that precise moment."

The Guardian's Kayla Epstein writes that the real embarrassing performance during the memorial service was that by the media:

It essentially turned a memorial service for one of the greatest modern leaders into a soap opera. And like any good soap opera, it divided the female players into sexist archetypes: in this case Thorning-Schmidt played the blonde, ditzy seductress and foil to Michelle Obama, the jealous, shrewish wife. …

The fact is, the Internet didn't know what was happening between the two, and decided to fill in the blanks in the lowest way possible. It just couldn't accept as normal that two vibrant and smart women sat shoulder to shoulder with two of the world's most powerful men. Instead, the media chose to imagine that Thorning-Schmidt clearly like to hit that, and Michelle Obama was about to fly into a jealous rage.

Racial bias, particularly the characterisation of Ms Obama as a woman scorned, drove media reaction to the selfie, writes Salon's Roxane Gay:

More than anything, the response to these latest images of Michelle Obama speaks volumes about the expectations placed on black women in the public eye and how a black women's default emotional state is perceived as angry. The black woman is ever at the ready to aggressively defend her territory. She is making her disapproval known. She never gets to simply be.

A picture's worth a thousand words. A presidential selfie, it seems, is worth at least as many columns.

 

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