The Obama Man Crush

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Most men have gotten used to observing their wives or significant others grin at the TV whenever Sen. Barack Obama graces the screen. The Democratic nominee does not even have to be delivering one of his historic speeches—which seems to be every other day—to elicit such an adoring response.

What men might not be accustomed to are the powerful reactions that Sen. Obama has generated among other men. The indelible image of an African-American man crying during an Obama speech in Pennsylvania posted on the front page of The Rootin March, vividly captured the powerful reaction that Obama has been able to generate among some men. And while commentators may attribute this particular level of reaction to feelings of "racial pride" or being "caught up" in a moment, the reality is that these intense male reactions to Obama are not limited to black men. A recent article in Salonchronicled the passions that that Obama had generated among men.


Why do men as diverse as Colin Powell, Michael Eric Dyson, Andrew Sullivan, Tom Joyner, Ted Kennedy, Bill Richardson, Christopher Hitchens and numerous others, appear to have such a "man crush" on Sen. Obama?

The answer: his white-collar masculinity.

Despite the economic trend away from blue-collar jobs, many of the most powerful expressions of masculinity within contemporary American society continue to be associated with blue-collar imagery. The unprecedented popularity of video games like Grand Theft Auto, Halo, Madden Football, movies like 300 and the explosion of professional blood sports like ultimate fighting speak to the kind of tough-guy masculinity celebrated in media and popular culture.

These pop-culture touchstones, along with the ubiquitous images of rough masculinity in hip-hop continue to demonstrate a basic tension for males in modern society; that at the very same time that society is becoming less reliant on male brawn, the dominant cultural images of masculinity are largely derived from the "traditional" ideas of maleness.

With degrees from Columbia and Harvard and a background teaching constitutional law at the University of Chicago, Obama surely represents a break from "traditional" images of masculinity. But it must be more than his educational bona fides.


The reason men crowd televisions to watch Obama speak is the same reason NBA players rushed home to watch Michael Jordan play or the reason people who have no knowledge or interest in golf will interrupt their day to turn on the TV and watch Tiger Woods: It is because these men perform at levels that are without equal in their respective fields. It just so happens that the type of masculinity at which Obama excels is a type white-collar masculinity.

And Obama manages to blend blue-collar sensibilities into his image, as well. He not only plays word games like Taboo, he also plays basketball. And before he was the editor and president of the Harvard Law Review, he was stomping the streets on the South Side of Chicago as a community organizer.


This seamless melding of white- and blue-collar achievement has rendered Obama the embodiment of smooth. Like one of the agents in TheMatrix trilogy who moves so fast that you cannot tell he is actually dodging bullets, Obama possesses a grace under fire that men have always found intoxicating. He's like a Billy Dee Williams or a black Frank Sinatra.

The result is that Obama has accomplished what men like Sen. John Kerry and former Vice President Al Gore were not able to accomplish; he has brought sexy back to white-collar masculinity.


For African-American men, Obama has accomplished something even more extraordinary. He has arguably single-handedly transformed the black public sphere. In their eyes, it is no longer "easy" to view black men solely through the lens of deficiencies, bad behavior, their bodies or even their relationship to black women. As a result, Obama occupies a peculiar place in the collective black male imagination.

He may be the only black man in America that can smile as often as he does and still be taken seriously by other black men.


Martin Linsky attempted to explain this unique blending of masculinity in Newsweek by referring to Obama as the "first female president." His argument was that Obama embodied the qualities and values normally associated with women. While it is true that modern, white-collar masculinity can be viewed as couched between the emergence of "pink-collar" jobs and contemporary fears of the "feminization" of professional categories, Obama's appeal among men does not necessarily represent a front in the culture wars between men and women, as much as it represents a culture war among men.

In other words, middle-class white men compete with the public masculinities of a Howard Stern and Ben Stiller, just as middle-class black men compete with the public masculinities of Flavor Flav and Pacman Jones. Perhaps the easiest arena to see the battle between blue-collar and white-collar masculinities play out in this election is over the coveted white-male vote. Often derisively referred to as the "Bubba voters"—as in Thomas Schaller's trenchant article So Long, White Boy, working-class white male voters have not been nearly as receptive to Sen. Obama's change-we-can-believe-in message as college-educated white-male voters were during the Democratic primaries. The implication is that it will not be racism, nor regionalism, but class that will be most likely to determine the white-male vote for Obama in the November elections.


After a failed a presidency, where men gravitated toward the man they would rather have a beer with, Obama's brand of masculinity as president would likely resemble that of current heads of state like French President Nicolas Sarkozy or British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

What it comes down to is this: The guy with the big ears and big brain personifies a post-industrial version of masculinity for many men and boys, in a world that is still not quite sure what to do with them.


Jewel Woods is a gender analyst specializing in men's issues and executive director of the Renaissance Male Project . He is also the co-author of 'Don't Blame it on Rio: The Real Deal Behind Why Men Go to Brazil for Sex.'

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