Masculinity, Performance and Photo Scandals

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It’s an unusual looking photograph that got Anthony Weiner into trouble. It apparently depicts the congressman’s underwear bulging from an erection. On May 27 Weiner sent a link to the photo via twitter to a 21 year old woman. And so the ‘Weinergate’ scandal unfolds. It is difficult to determine Weiner’s motivation for sending the photograph to one of his ‘followers’ but, for the sake of argument, here the photograph clearly fulfills the function to communicate a message. On a primordial basis, Weiner communicates to his follower that he is a man and that his body functions as nature intends to. Yet this message is also slightly coded as the photograph is taken from an odd angle and upside down. The photograph thus becomes a type of visual game, alluding to a bodily function while not disclosing it entirely.

While Weiner initially denied sending the link to the photograph, claiming that his twitter account was hacked, the photo scandal was still unfolding. On June 6 a photograph emerges which depicts Weiner’s shirtless torso. This image too appears to have been sent to a follower on twitter. Yet it is the background of the image that I find most intriguing. While Weiner was careful not to depict his face, in the background there are several photographs that reveal his identity. In one image Weiner can be seen meeting Hilary Clinton. Other images in the background show Weiner with his wife, with his family and friends. Here, the collection of family photographs fulfills the function of communicating that Weiner wishes to be perceived as a family man, embedded in a community, with friends in high places. It is the type of image a politician nurtures for decades and then loses in seconds. ‘Exposed’ the newspaper headlines read. It is not a coincidence that ‘exposure’ is also a photographic terminology. In other words, the photograph is a crucial aspect, if not the determining factor, in the scandal itself.

The Chris Lee photo scandal unfolding only three months earlier, in February 2011, evokes some startling similarities with Weiner’s case. Both Lee and Weiner are congressmen from New York, Lee is 47, and Weiner 46 years of age, they are both married, Lee has one child, while Weiner’s wife is expecting a child at the moment. The most intriguing similarity is not however some biographical detail but in what the photographs depicts: both Lee and Weiner appear to be proud of their bodies, tensing their muscles as they photograph their shirtless torso. They are men who perhaps go to the gym on a regular basis and work out. Lee and Weiner use the photographic self-representation and performance to the camera as an opportunity to present their otherwise fully dressed bodies. In a sense, the ideological turf for the photo scandal is not necessarily in what it depicts, but the contrast it creates in comparison to the public image of the person depicted. In the construction of a photo scandal and the parallel destruction of a politician’s public image, the question as to whom the images were sent to and for what reason is crucial. Lee sent the photograph of his shirtless torso to a transsexual he met on Craigslist. Embarrassed and humiliated he resigned shortly after the scandal hit the headlines. Weiner meanwhile sent his photographs to female followers on twitter. He is, at the time of writing, still clinging on to his job.

The photographic self-representation of Lee and Weiner underlines that at all times the focus is on their own bodies. Perhaps they wish their bodies to be seen in certain ways by others (a virtual stranger, a ‘follower’, a random bystander). But I am willing to speculate that above all, the photographs are predominantly representative of how they wish to see their bodies themselves. Like Narcissus falling in love with his reflection, the photographs allude to a deeply embedded love with one’s self-image. In one of his most quoted passages, the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan writes:

“The mirror stage is a phenomenon to which I assign a twofold value. In the first place, it has historical value as it marks a decisive turning-point in the mental development of the child. In the second place, it typifies an essential libidinal relationship with the body image.”

While it is assumed that Lee’s and Weiner’s photographs are taken and distributed for sexual satisfaction supplied by others, Lacan’s formula suggests that this satisfaction can also be produced self-referentially. In other words, Lee and Weiner might photograph themselves for their own satisfaction. Similar to the mirror, the (digital) photograph is used to supply an almost immediate representation of the self. And this is perhaps the most scandalous aspect in the case of Lee and Weiner: that the photographs allude to a type of autoeroticism usually hidden away from the public. The photo scandal thus becomes representative for the immediacy of digital technologies, the instantaneity of social media but also the unrelenting allure of individuality explored via the internet.

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7 thoughts on “Masculinity, Performance and Photo Scandals

  1. Hi Marco,

    I would just like to add to your deconstruction of the images the notion of power and gender. Both being men and in politics, hold power positions. For them, this could mean that they can get what they want. Thus, their (self-)representation is twofold; they both maintain a ‘social status’ (power, wealth, etc), which they want to enhance by mediating a ‘body status’. What we see here is the ‘battle’ of their ego with the Id and Super-ego. Both cases become even more interesting, since we can assume that politicians know and understand the power an image entails. Nevertheless, they hadn’t calculated the burden of self-representation in the age of digital technologies and social networking. For Sontag, “to photograph is to appropriate the thing being photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge—and, therefore, like power” and this is what both of them did by exposing themselves to their ‘targets’. In addition, politics often meet sex(uality) and vice versa. Bill Clinton, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Silvio Berlusconi and Dominique Strauss-Kahn could be some recent examples that testify this.

    • Hi Nikos,

      Excellent observations. Yes indeed, the power relation in regards to these images is significant. As you point out, Lee and Weiner have political power but also, it seems that that they also hold power in relation to (at least in the case of Weiner) their ‘followers’. This power relation is then reinforced by portraying themselves with all muscles tensed, as if they are venturing on a battle field. Sex and politics indeed have always operated very closely to each other (Clinton et al). Yet I think it’s only in more recent years that photography plays such a crucial role in highlighting the link between politics and sex. Maybe Clinton got away with it precisely because there has been no photographic ‘proof’ or ‘evidence’. Imagine the effects on his presidency if there was a photograph of him and Monica circulating on the internet. I think there is also a cultural dimension here. A photo scandal in America might not be a scandal at all in France. Strauss-Kahn’s case is the perfect example. While he stands trial for raping a woman, in France his actions are described as merely ‘lifting the skirt of a maid’. I think that there is a real possibility that Weiner’s photographs would not have received much attention in France. Thanks for reading the blog. Sign up by email here: http://feedburner.google.com/fb/a/mailverify?uri=VisualCultureBlog&loc=en_US

  2. I think this is a fascinating piece — especially in its discussion of self-display, the public/private split, and narcissism. Have you ever read Mark Simpson’s _Male Impersonators_? It is an excellent book of Lacanian, queer, and feminist interpretations of male homosocial relations and self-love.

    I would offer one correction. You note that “the collection of family photographs fulfills the function of communicating that *Weiner wishes* to be perceived as a family man, embedded in a community, with friends in high places.” Considering that Weiner sent this photograph to titillate an internet follower and not to be seen by the world, I doubt that his goal at the time was to highlight his bourgeois professionalism. Yet, I also don’t think it incidental that he took the photograph in a setting that appears to be his office.

    You are very right to point out that the background photographs form an arresting contrast with the foreground content, but I would call that irony rather than Weiner’s wish in composing the photograph. As you intimate, the friction between foreground and background reveals how embedded is this naked sexual quest in the politician’s fully clothed public endeavors. To extend that thought, the secret image invites the recipient, the sexual interest, INTO the politician’s office, shower and bath, if not into the marital bed. In fact, the text/Facebook messages released state that Weiner is thinking about these women while doing his public duties. So, in the end, the private photos reveal to all of us, again, that the pursuit of official status is not divorced from the sexual underside it has to disavow. Perhaps the lesson is to stop pretending that sexual desire should be (or has been) successfully purged from professional life.

    • Thank you so much for your very dense and stimulating comment. I have not read Simpson’s book but it does sound very interesting. I will have a look for it.

      I totally agree with your assessment regarding the contrast between family images and semi-naked self-representation. I did not make that very clear in the post but I am not under the impression that the family photos in the background are intentionally placed in the background. In a sense, I just wanted to highlight the contrast between a carefully nurtured public image (as seen in family photos, nice frames, displayed on a wooden desk or cupboard) and the rather pixelated, skewed and amateurish pics floating on the internet. In a sense, the division between these modes of representation is embedded in the very form and format in which they are produced and consumed in.

      Your comments also mirror those above by my colleague Nikos who points to the deeply embedded relationship between ALL politics and sex. Is the American public coming to terms with this state of affair? I doubt that. But nevertheless, the images are a reminder that the hunger for power can easily be observed in wayward sexual desire as exhibited by Weiner.

  3. Thank you for the response, Marco. I understand now that you were aiming for in discussing the contrasting public and private images. I didn’t mean to be dense… but a career in the academy does that to us sometimes. I have been perusing the blog and enjoying your comments on the American scene, such as the Situation Room photograph. I am not a New Media person (my work is on Very Old Media — ink, dyes, slave tattoos, cosmetics, and blackface makeup). But I enjoy reading New Media people. You might enjoy my friend’s blog, Televisual: http://blog.ajchristian.org/ .

    As for your comments and Nikos above, I do concur. I just have some hesitancy about the metaphor of politics as a form of conquest or power as an aphrodisiac. Something seems too easy, even regressive, about those clichés. But I’ll have to think more about it. I look forward to more conversations.

  4. I agree with your assessment: that like “Narcissus falling in love with his reflection, the photographs allude to a deeply embedded love with one’s self-image” (though the wish to feel self-love probably forms some part of all sexuality, I would think). It’s interesting to me that in the past, it seems the more typical scandal would be male politicians seeking out images of women’s bodies. I wonder whether the new male self-photography is a reflection of changing sexuality today, or of changing politics?

    • That is a very interesting point. Indeed, you would assume a photo scandal involving a male politician would include the representation and sexualization of the female body. The lack of the female body in this more recent discourse also evokes notions of homoeroticism (David Lee actually sent his self-representation to a male-to-female a transsexual). I guess all politics requires a degree of ‘self-love’, but here, this has clear sexual connotations. I appreciate your commentary. Feel free to subscribe to the blog at http://feedburner.google.com/fb/a/mailverify?uri=VisualCultureBlog&loc=en_US

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