Framing the Candidates: The Daily Show Parodies

    by Henry Jenkins
    September 28, 2008

    Over the past two posts, I’ve suggested ways educators could use the campaign bio videos produced for the two national conventions as a way of encouraging civic literacy. I’ve suggested that they are powerful examples of the different ways that the parties “frame” their candidates and platforms. The focus on personal biography brings to the surface what linguist George Lakoff calls the GOP’s “Strict Father” and the Democrat’s “Nurturing Parent” models, both of which see the family as a microcosm for the way a president will relate to the nation. I’ve also suggested that the videos surrounding the Vice-Presidential candidates help to broaden the appeal by bringing in aspects of the other party’s “frame” so as to speak to swing voters.

    Today, I want to turn my attention to the parodies of these videos produced for The Daily Show. I’ve long argued that one of the program’s greatest functions is to educate us to reflect critically on the discourse of news and politics, especially to focus attention on how issues get “framed” by commentators, how stories get handled by networks, and in this case, how the campaigns construct representations of candidates. As we laugh at its comedy, we learn to look at the “serious news” from a different angle.

    In this case, we might see the parody videos as representing the “return of the repressed.” That is, these videos include the elements the parties themselves could never feature, because they reintroduce gaps or contradictions in the candidate’s personas or elements which would play badly in the heartland of the country. At the same time, the parodies are deft at capturing some of the conventions ( in terms of narrative structure, rhetorical framing, and audiovisual style) of the campaign bio as a genre. And, as with the Photoshop parodies of Palin I focused on the other week, these parody videos also use a language drawn from popular culture to help us make sense of a political process that is often insular in its use of specialized language.


    Obama and Mother Africa

    In subtle and not so subtle ways, the official Obama video engulfed the candidate in America, excluding anything exotic in his background, stressing his mother’s side of the family to the exclusion of his father’s, stressing Kansas and not Kenya. Here, Africa speaks back, asserting itself again and again as the central frame for understanding Obama, “the earthly son of a goat herder from darkest Africa and an anthropologist from whitest Wichita.” The video uses images and music from The Lion King to continually return us to “Mother Africa” — and in the process, to make fun of the often mythic language the Obama campaign uses to describe his candidate. A key moment in his biography here is his trip to Kenya during which he has a “vision” of a Goat who guides him to run for the state senate. Obama’s African background has been a large part of his international appeal with some suggesting that he may be uniquely situated to restore America’s image in the developing world because he is seen as “one of them.” Yet it is an idea that can not be spoken in an American context where Republicans often ridicule Democratic concern with international reputation, one of several meanings of their theme of “putting the country first.”


    We also see a parody of the idea of “predestination,” which as we’ve seen is played more seriously in the McCain campaign biography’s suggestion that he escaped death because God had bigger plans for him. Here, this idea is pushed to its logical extremes with the birth of Obama seen as a cosmic event that will set right the rift between the continents created during the Earth’s formation 180 Million Years Ago. We are told, “a child is born, destined to heal that rift.” Or as the title of the video suggests, in a reference to Jerry McGuire, “He Completes Us.” The Obama campaign often deploys his mixed race background to bring together contradictory views of America. Obama, according to this logic, can embody the “American Promise” because he contains within his family background so many different parts of a multicultural nation. As the narrator tells us, “he was black and white, Christian and Muslim, land mammal and sea creature.” The idea that an early childhood experience might foreshadow later political philosophies is ridiculed here with the suggestion that in working at Baskin-Robbins, he “united an astonishing 31 flavors of ice cream.” And there are later images of blacks and whites, Arabs and Jews, even cats and dogs, embracing, as he delivers his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

    And of course, running throughout the video, there’s a spoof of the excesses surrounding praise for Obama’s rhetorical prowese. “Every time Barrack Obama speaks, an angel has an orgasm,” we are told, alongside promises that he will “unite the world” and that “change is coming.” The narrator is unable to contain his excitement about Obama’s speeches, lapsing into profanity which can’t make it onto the air, in his enthusiasm.

    John McCain: “Reformed Maverick”

    The Daily Show‘s spoof of the McCain video works amplifies certain tendencies within the Republican framing, especially the desire to depict McCain’s youth as one of rebellion against authorities (here transformed into the ongoing motif of Marlon Brando which runs through the video) and acknowledges elements that might be repressed in the official videos (such as his involvement in the Keating scandal or his shifts on many major issues.) The video reminds us that the candidate many Democrats knew and admired in the 2000 election is a very different person than the candidate who is being presented this time around, suggested by the way the video divides his life into “The Wild Years, 1936-2006” and “Abandoning Everything He’s Always Stood For, 2006-Present.” As the video explains, “if John McCain was going to be president, something would have to give.”

    The closing moments of the video illustrate something The Daily Show does very well — raiding the news archive for footage that sheds light on recent statements by political leaders, often catching them in overt contradictions. It’s a pity more mainstream news programs don’t do the same because such juxtapositions can be deeply illuminating about what’s going on in American politics.

    There is a fair amount going on here designed to parody the hypermasculine imagery surrounding the candidate’s official self-representation. His military career is framed in terms of recurring images of failure (which sometimes gets reframed as rebellion). So, we are told, “Everyone assumed this son and grandson of admirals would be a star at the Naval Academy. He showed ‘em.” The slow pan down the list of his graduating class, showing McCain at 894, makes fun at the way old documents and family photographs are used to authenticate ideological assertions. McCain is depicted as fighting back “against The Man” by crashing five Navy airplanes, while his fellow servicemen are described as “pussies” for keeping them in the air.

    The video treads lightly around his POW experiences, certainly hard targets for humor, but then, it makes fun of the fact that these experiences insulate him from criticism, seeing this “inoculation against all future political attacks” as one of the many awards he was given in recognition of his service, alongside the Purple Heart and a “hotter, richer wife.” The video also suggests his wife’s wealth has also “insulated” him from the harsh realities of everyday lives. Here, the POW is seen as “decorating and redecorating the rooms of ten different imaginary houses,” a reference to a recent moment when he was unable to answer a reporter’s question about how many homes he owned.

    Media Literacy advocates have long argued that as we study a piece of media content, we should ask our students to reflect on what it doesn’t show or say, what’s missing from this picture. The Daily Show parodies give us a great resource for doing just this, asking students why the official campaigns would not use such framings to represent their candidates and looking at what gets left out of the official videos.

    I hope I’ve inspired some of you to take these materials into your classrooms. I’d love to find out what happens when and if you do so. Drop us a line and share your experiences.

    Tagged: barack obama election 2008 john mccain lakoff the daily show video

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