Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Visuals matter: the faces of power in America

I just finished watching the State of the Union address (and the Republican rebuttal) and am half-listening to the spin doctors on CNN dissect the details of Obama's speech and rhetorical flourishes.

But what I want to concentrate on are the visuals. Because while, of course, the substance of his speech or more importantly, the substance of the policies that his administration have and will make, are what we should pay attention to, first and foremost.


I have to say that visuals matter. Symbolism that isn't simply symbolism but representations of actual power matter. Seeing women and people of color in positions of power on national television matters.

I say this because I was really struck by the visuals of Obama's cabinet walking into the hall. I knew that this cabinet was one of the most racially diverse in the history of Presidential cabinets, but actually SEEING these faces/bodies was really remarkable.

[Aside: I should note that the cabinet is not quite as good in terms of gender equity, but I mean, look at both the Senate and the House, as well as the Supreme Court Justices--still a boy's club any way you slice it. And to test yourself about noticing gender inequity--look at the above image. If your first reaction was that it "looks" like there are equal #s of women to men in the above cabinet photo, count the actual bodies--you might be surprised, but researchers about a decade ago showed that when people are given a photo of equal #s of women and men, they often believe that women are the majority because we are so underused to seeing actual gender parity we confuse it for female dominance when it does occur]

I have never seen 3 Asian American cabinet members, let alone such a mix of African American and Latino cabinet members. And of course I was gratified to see Justice Sotomayor front and center with the other justices.

I was thinking of how important it is to have rolemodels, visual rolemodels. Like seeing Nancy Pelosi as the Speaker of the House. Just knowing that this is possible for women--like it's possible for people of color to achieve high ranking positions of power in our government, is a powerful message.

I was especially struck by these visual images of power given a search for a senior administrator at Southern U. The pictures and bios of all three candidates were published in the school paper recently. All three were older (in their 50s-60s) white men. It was discouraging, to me, as a younger female faculty member of color to see that the face of power in the university system is still white and male. It makes me feel that Southern U. is paying a certain lip service to diversity but that when push comes to shove in terms of positions of real power, we're really interested in the old boys network. And it's disappointing and disheartening and certainly not encouraging of me, as a younger faculty member, to want to go into higher ed administration because it feels like I'd just be giving myself a headache bumping up against that glass ceiling.


Jennifer said...

Speaking visually, I also wonder if it initially appears like there are a lot of women because their clothes stand out - women tend to dress in colors while men wear dark suits.

Jennifer said...

Hi Jennifer,
That's a really great observation about gender differences in dress between men and women--there is a way in which the women do pop out visually because of their difference in dress (color, style, etc...). I wonder if anyone has done studies about this in a business setting and/or if the more conservative the environment the more conformist the dress--men sticking to blue and black suits and women also sticking to conservative skirt suits in muted tones.

Anyway, thanks for stopping by!

FB said...

I also noticed that in the Virginia Governers speach, he was flagged to the left by an African American woman and to the right by an Asian man strategically placed. So, in the screen shot, there were 2 minorities and 3 caucasians. I guess the Republicans wanted us to believe that their party was made up of 40% minorities.

Jennifer said...

Hi FB,

I TOTALLY noticed the same thing! It was SO OBVIOUS what they were trying to do with the visuals (sigh). And yet, that African American woman and Asian American man clearly think that they're part of the "Grand Old Party"--(sigh).