Media, culture, and politics from an aesthetic-materialist's perspective.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

A Looming Aide

Here are my and Lorien Olive's (of Roadkill Politics) comments on this article from the Times, about Barack Obama's top aide (and Duke graduate), Reggie Love. The article strikes both of us as trafficking in stereotypes about black masculinity in describing the invaluable work that Love does for Sen. Obama; but we advance different interpretations about how, exactly, it does this. Send us your own thoughts on this and Lorien's blog.

KN: After reading the story and giving some thought to its title, I remembered the author mentioning that Love is 6'5'', a good three inches taller than Barack Obama. The title likely references this fact, but that doesn't necessarily make the use of the phrase "loom over" judicious: it still rings of someone figuratively "pulling the strings," and it no doubt reduces Love's complex personal story to his height and athletic build.

For me, the undertones of sexual tension between Love (oh, what a name!) and Obama are expressed most clearly in the author's extensive description of their sports/workout routines. There are the basketball games on primary days, the morning hours spent at the gym, and a rather admiring description of Love's athletic prowess (benching x number of pounds). But more than all of this, I found the description of their end-of-a-campaign-day routine of watching SportsCenter on ESPN to be most intriguing. The prose almost makes it seem as though Obama and Love share a hotel room when they "unwind before bed" and watch ESPN. The detail of Obama flossing his teeth while lying down and watching TV is almost too intimate, a touch of voyeurism that happens to be mediated through Love's eyes.

To be fair, this homoerotic bond over sports is not particularly shocking -- with its attendant locker-room antics and penis/sex metaphorizings, this bond is probably the most common form of homoerotic male bonding that our culture affords. This fact makes it difficult for me to determine whether the author's description of Love is any more racialized than other accounts of tight-knit male-male work relationships. I suspect that it isn't, with the caveat that Reggie Love's body is given an inordinate amount of attention in the piece, and usually at the slight expense of Obama's body (Love is taller, stronger, and more "fit," according to the author). Now this dynamic -- comparing black bodies as though they were specimens of athleticism and not political power-brokers -- is most certainly racialized, and that's where the real problem of this piece lies.

LO: Yeah, I agree, but I think that it is the special attention to the body that makes the piece carry a suggestion of carnality. Maybe I just haven't paid enough attention in the past, but I don't remember any other personal assistants being popularly known as "body men." Maybe they are by campaign insiders, but this is the first time I have ever heard that term in the mainstream press. Also I think that even if bonding over sports is a pretty typical thing to discuss, there is something that just didn't feel quite right about how the article describes their relationship. I mean it would be like if they ran an article about Hillary's "body person" pampering her, giving her manicures, and unwinding with a romantic comedy every night. Or McCain's "body person" giving him an enema, a sponge bath, and playing a game of Scrabble with him before bed. Anyway, I just don't hear any other stories that are similar to this one in relation to any of the other candidates, so maybe that's just sort of what makes me suspicious. I also don't like the way that they downplay the work that he does, as if the only thing that a former (black) college athlete could contribute to a political campaign is the equivalent of a butler or low-level service worker. This seems to, perhaps unintentionally, emphasize the hierarchy between educated, light-skinned, elite blacks such as Obama (who is exceptional somehow) and other blacks who do not share his unique cultural/ethnic background who will continue to be confined to service, sports, and entertainment roles, despite the possibility of having a Black president. Maybe I'm just reading too much into it, but I think that this is also what unsettled me.

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