A reader sent in a link to a product that will go on sale later this year, a doll that looks like Barack Obama. The thing is -- and the reason I haven't reproduced a photo of the doll here -- it's being sold naked, and I'm guessing that like me, other bloggers will be blogging about it for that reason. Here's a link, for instance, to a Jezebel post about this upcoming Obama doll.
So what's up with advertising and selling this doll naked? And further, what's up with so few commenters at Jezebel who see that as a problem? And what are the implications, in terms of race, of the Jezebel post's title, "Meet Barbie's New Boyfriend: Naked Barack Obama"?
The Jezebel writer, Margaret Hartmann, who only had the following to say about the product, doesn't seem bothered by a naked Obama doll either -- just a little hot and bothered, in a sexual way, which I guess is supposed to be a "good" way:
For just $55 you can pre-order your own Barack Obama action figure, complete with two pairs of hands, two heads, 38 points of articulation... and no clothing. He can wear Ken's suits, if Barbie doesn't hide them.
I had to do some Googling around to find a site that sells this doll, or rather will sell it, later this year. I found out that it's manufactured by TrueType, which makes a line of such dolls for "adult collectors" (which I gather does not mean, given their Barbie-doll size, that they're sex toys; and if they are supposed to be sex toys, well, I just don't want to think about that). TrueType promotes a line of these dolls as either "Caucasian" or "African American"; here's a link to this product line.
As far as I can tell, none of these male dolls immediately resembles a celebrity, except for the new one, which is a dead ringer for Barack Obama. Which, I'm sure, will make it sell like proverbial hot cakes, compared to the other dolls in the series.
I remember George Bush dolls, and also dolls that looked like other presidents, and I've never seen a naked one. And even if naked-white-president dolls were available, given the stereotypes that still impinge on the lives of black men -- about their supposed, heightened sexual drive, and the supposedly accompanying threat of them as sexual predators -- selling a doll based on the current president naked, and advertising it that way, is worse than selling a naked doll representing a white president would be. The latter could well be construed as excessively disrespectful, but the former is also racist.
I'm reminded of various images that depict either Bush or Obama as primates -- Bush because some think he looks like one, and Obama simply because he's black. When people objected that ape-like depictions of Obama are racist (in part because in many white minds, all black people resemble primates), supporters of Bush, as well as other, usually white people, insisted that depicting Obama as a primate was no more disrespectful than depicting Bush that way -- since they're both presidents, and they're both being depicted as primates, then both types of images are supposedly the same.
However, as with this line of dolls, sometimes depicting a black president in a questionable way is different, and worse, because of the stereotypes that racially clueless (or sometimes, intentionally racist) depictions can evoke.
Racism in such cases can arise from contextual elements as well. Take that Jezebel post title, for instance: "Meet Barbie's New Boyfriend: Naked Barack Obama," which places an unavoidably black Barack in a sexually and racially charged relation to an unavoidably white Barbie. As the person who sent me an email about that Jezebel post wrote,
A naked Barack Obama, made specially "for" white Barbie -- the proverbial "Mandingo," so eager for white female flesh that he doesn't even come with clothes -- brings up issues of ownership, human ownership. His sole purpose is to serve at the pleasure of Barbie. Ken was Barbie's (notably clothed) companion, but Barack is her sex slave. His nakedness leaves no room for doubt as to his limited role.
Barack Obama is arguably the most powerful person of the so-called "free world," and what has he been reduced to? An object that can be purchased, at the right price ($55+), by anyone who so desires. Rather than trying to address the myriad issues plaguing our country, apparently, first and foremost in our President's mind is ... sex with Barbie -- the embodiment of white femininity and physical perfection, no? Black male sexuality is hot, appealing, when manipulated by the purchaser. Black male sexuality controlled by the black male? Significantly absent from this scenario. Although Barbie is woman and B.O. doll is a man, the racial hierarchy, untrumped by gender, remains intact: white controls, black obeys.
Even if you're a highly-educated, faithfully-married, law-abiding, church-going, biracial father of two daughters... you're still a white-flesh-lusting black buck at heart (there goes that "POC are sneaky" assumption again). The scenario also disrespects his marriage to a black woman, Michelle, which also involves a racial hierarchy of desirability and aesthetics, clearly placing black at the bottom and white Barbie at the top.
It shows how black males' humanity is reduced by the over-sexualized stereotype (an odd parallel to the dehumanizing sexual objectification that women of all ethnicities experience, i.e., “that’s all they’re good for”). Rather than a celebration of sexuality, as Jezebel and Random Good Stuff pretend, this doll is used to trivialize and demean the President: you may think you have authority as the President but you will never "rise" "above" your "place," boy* (that place, evidently, being essentially a sexual servicer and nothing more). I am skeptical as to whether any naked dolls of Bill Clinton, that infamous luster of white female flesh, were made. Its probable absence is telling -- and even if it did exist, its existence can be explained by Clinton's real-life predicaments, as opposed to a racist stereotype.
So, if the post on the popular blog Jezebel does spawn other posts, I think we should watch for how the doll is written about, and how commenters react to it. I suspect that if the bloggers and commenters are white, they by and large won't see what's wrong with the image -- some will instead think it's cute, or "hot."
It is of course okay and (to my mind) good to be disrespectful of political leaders, humorously and otherwise. But when that disrespect is also racist, that's just not okay.
*”boy” is exactly right, since adults are presumably in control of their sexuality but children remain at the mercy of whomever takes care of them.