07/31/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

For Whom the Satire Tolls

Many of our feminist sisters -- among them Eleanor Smeal of the Feminist Majority Foundation and Ms. magazine, Carol Jenkins at the Women's Media Center, and Kim Gandy at NOW -- spent last week asking the New Yorker to apologize for their now-infamous cover. You know the one with Senator Obama in Middle Eastern garb and Michelle Obama dressed like Angela Davis circa her FBI Most Wanted days? The debate rages: was it racist or satire? And if the latter, are the Obamas off-limits?

"There's a weird reverse racism going on," nighttime talk-show host Jimmy Kimmel has said, one of many comics quoted in a recent Maureen Dowd column wondering whether they could mock Obama (and warning that it would be a bleak four years for comedians if Obama makes it to the White House and no one can parody him). All due respect to Kimmel, but the self-censoring is not reverse racism. It's just racism. If only "positive" views of the Senator are allowed, it's only because we believe Obama needs protection.

As two feminists who supported Clinton in the primary, it was hard for us to hear how much some people hated "our candidate." Still, it prepared us as women and as her supporters for reality. By contrast, strikes and innuendos against Senator Obama have been mostly obscured by a media and progressive love fest. Mean things were occasionally said, but they were said by conservatives, making them easier for democrats to dismiss.

The blows that typically hit Hillary Clinton were far from satirical and were, if anything, unable to stir much sustained outrage from anyone. Iron my shirt (from a random heckler in New Hampshire) or the how do we beat the bitch? query (which McCain called "an excellent question") or [she looks] like everyone's wife standing outside a probate court (as columnist Mike Barnicle put it) didn't provoke boycotts. Had equivalent statements been deployed against Obama -- "Shine my shoes," "How do we beat the uppity negro," or "he looks like every black nationalist" -- they would have been viewed as offensive but mostly just absurd; so much so, that one can't imagine hearing them. (Thinking them is another story.)

A parallel that framed the sexism satirically might have been a New Yorker cover with Hillary Rodham Clinton surrounded by castrated testicles. Add a butch girlfriend, Bill sitting in her chair in the Oval Office, and title it "The Politics of Fear" and we have a satire of the fearmongering that assailed Senator Clinton. It appears the feminist groups jumping on board to condemn this cover don't want to be perceived as focusing only on Clinton's negative media. You can almost hear them saying, "It's not just about defending Hillary, our critique about the media in general!"

What did the New Yorker image really convey? For many, the cover picks up on reverberations people hope is just internet marginalia, but may have much more impact on the election (i.e. more believers) than Obama's supporters had previously been willing to believe -- that Obama is covertly Muslim and his wife covertly an anti-American militant. But another read of the cover is to see the fear engendered by an African American woman who had to be tough in order to make it to annals usually reserved for elite whites and a bi-racial man who is knowledgeable and allied with other cultures. Those images are scary to some people (such as Michelle's Princeton roommate) who don't think blacks should be educated with whites or the many that still see America as the sole super-power, instead of in its to-be-determined role as part of a global whole.

It goes without saying that many non-progressive white people are scared of black people in power -- thus, this image justifies their bigotry. But many progressive supporters of Obama are struggling with their own inner racism, too. In some ways, the most racist response to this cover is to condemn it. Whether or not the satire disturbed you personally, it is a challenge to otherwise open-minded people, scared of evidence of our own biases. The cover portrays the politics of those fears most trenchantly -- and certainly New Yorker-editor David Remnick understands this.

--Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards are the co-authors of Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future and Grassroots (both FSG).

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