To Observe and Affect

Over at Jezebel, Dodai writes about a reported "dispute heating up between photographers and the Obama White House when it comes to pictures of Sasha and Malia" (emphasis mine):
One the one hand, you have children whose parents would like them to lead a somewhat normal life.

On the other hand, you have the government telling photojournalists — not paparazzi but news organizations — what they can and cannot publish.

According to Politico's Michael Calderone, the AP wouldn't put pre-approved White House photos of the girls' first day of school on the wire — the same way a newspaper wouldn't print a White House press release, verbatim. That's not journalism.

…It's tough to figure out what feels right in this situation. Of course there's a curiosity about the Obama daughters and how they live. Kids! In the White House! It's exciting. Then again, they shouldn't be followed by paparazzi or thrust into an unwanted spotlight.

But isn't it troubling how the President is trying to control the media? Because there's a responsibility to your children, and there's spin control and censorship. And we're lucky to live in a country with a free press, where the government doesn't control the media. Where do the President's rights end and the photojournalist's rights begin?
That seems like precisely the wrong question to me. I wonder instead: Where does Sasha's and Malia's inviolate right to privacy end, and why should public curiosity about them justify its contravention?

I take the point about the troubling nature of a president trying to control the press, but it seems to me he shouldn't be put in that position in the first place via the insistence the public has a "right" of access to his children. The elemental issue here is not censorship, but how much ownership we think we have of the Obama girls.

There's a cultural narrative about female ownership that leads us to treat any female body as community property in a way we don't do to male bodies, which is certainly at play here on some level, but, more importantly, there is the unholy marriage between our narratives about celebrity and consumption, which manifests as a collective belief that we own, to one degree or another, anyone in the public eye.

We deserve pictures! We have a right to comment on them! What they're doing! What they're wearing! Whether they're pretty! Whether they're fat! They belong to us! They are ours! Gimme gimme gimme! We demand more! CHOMP CHOMP CHOMP KACHING More more more more more moremoremoremoremore! Mine all mine! The preciousssssssssss!

That's the going price for having a public life—even if, like Sasha and Malia, the life was not requested or sought.

President and First Lady Obama have tried to strike a compromise between the fucked-up cultural sickness of consumption and belief in a right of ownership of public figures; they acknowledge the curiosity about their daughters and try to satiate it with regular photo-ops—such as the one from which the image at the top of this post was taken, one picture of, literally, thousands taken that day.

That should be good enough.

Even if it is not: To what end, to what purpose, exacting more?

Those whose voracious appetite for material that grants the opportunity for self-soothing judgment or vicarious adventure leaves them always clamoring for more, want something they can never have. They want unfiltered access; they want an intimate knowledge of the Obama girls and their lives without the falsity created by a staged photo-op—but the very process of observation itself creates falsity, unreal versions of little girls whose desperately-sought authentic nature is altered by any attempt to detect it. Call it the Double Obama Experiment.

Perhaps, unconsciously, buried deep behind the assertions to want access to the "real" Sasha and Malia, there is a recognition that observation affects that which is observed. And maybe attached to that recognition is a desire, a longing to influence just by looking. Maybe we all have some sense of the power in our gaze.

All the more reason to respect the wishes of anyone who might wish to stay out of it.

Shakesville is run as a safe space. First-time commenters: Please read Shakesville's Commenting Policy and Feminism 101 Section before commenting. We also do lots of in-thread moderation, so we ask that everyone read the entirety of any thread before commenting, to ensure compliance with any in-thread moderation. Thank you.

blog comments powered by Disqus