UC Berkeley News


For Obama, the act's the thing
Theater prof Shannon Steen peers into the candidate's political persona and finds Horatio Alger, Abe Lincoln, and Stanislavski looking back at her

| 30 January 2008

Shannon Steen, an assistant professor of performance studies who looks at how categories of social identity are reinforced or altered through performance, has been keeping an eye on Barack Obama since he delivered the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Steen, who also teaches American studies, is interested in the ways in which the Illinois senator's candidacy acts as a barometer representing the nation's feelings about race.

Shannon Steen (Wendy Edelstein photo)

Steen's notion of "performance" extends beyond the stage, embracing all of the ways we present ourselves in everyday life. In examining race, one of the most persistent categories of social identity in America, Steen focuses on how racial hierarchies are a product of codes of behavior that individuals learn to adopt and manipulate to suit their situations, in much the same way stage actors do with a new character. And it is from this perspective that Steen finds Obama so important: "Biracial people like Barack Obama give us a special opportunity to examine social actors and racial roles in action," she observes.

Though Obama's father is black, his ancestors weren't brought to this country as slaves. His childhood in a mixed-race family has meant that he has had to be highly conscious from a young age of how to choose his social roles and how to fashion a social character - one that allows him to achieve his goals when interacting with white and black people alike, explains Steen. "In some ways that background gives him a competitive edge when thrust onto the national political stage - in effect, he has had his whole life to perfect a character that he can use to connect with constituencies, that, in the conventional political wisdom, have been at odds with one another," she says.

On Thursday, Jan. 31, Steen will give a campus lecture, "Barack Obama: Performing Blackness on the U.S. Political Stage," in which she'll examine the construction of the candidate's political character. While the title of her talk may evoke the stereotype of the politician as the great pretender, that's not her intent. "When people talk about politicians as actors, they almost always use [the term] as a criticism," explains Steen. Implicit in that critique is that actors on the political stage are insincere, and that politics is about pageantry, which distracts voters from the issues at hand.

Steen argues that when politicians behave like actors, it doesn't necessarily mean they're being duplicitous. They may or they may not be lying about their policies. What's key, though, is that "to convince an electorate of your platform, you actually need to connect with them," much like an actor does with an audience. "Political scientists discovered 50 years ago that most voters don't support a candidate based on their policies; they vote according to their emotional response to a candidate."

A new political character

Obama bases his political character upon a constellation of personas, or what sociologist Erving Goffman called "fronts." Goffman (1922-82) studied at the University of Chicago with Robert Park, a founder of modern sociology. "Park argued that when people interact socially they have a kind of shell on, but that external shell is no less a part of them than the shell of a mollusk is - it grows organically out of who they are," explains Steen.

Goffman created a lexicon based on that idea, says Steen. When people engage on a one-on-one level, he called it "acting." According to Goffman, people use fronts in their interactions or "performances" to attain goals. "The way Goffman talks about that front is very much the way we talk about what an actor does when he creates a role," notes Steen. To be convincing, a person's front must be consistent in mode of address and expression; it must also align with how the individual carries himself. Otherwise, says Steen, "people don't believe in the front and think it's fake."

To be a competitive presidential candidate, Obama has been forced to invent a new social role for himself, says Steen, who notes that "new social personas are created when other ones are disappearing from the social horizon." She labels the character Obama has fashioned "the black political executive" - a real departure from the familiar character of the black civil-rights leader exemplified by Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, both of whom have mounted presidential campaigns in the past.

"The other fronts that he uses are smaller pieces of the master character of the black political executive, a character that enables voters - especially white voters - to identify with him," Steen continues. "They can't identify with a black civil-rights leader, but they can identify with a black political executive." (The media, for its part, has called Obama the first "post-civil-rights" black candidate, reflecting the conventional political wisdom that a civil-rights leader can't become president.)

Obama, says Steen, has been "consistently canny about creating characters that don't distract from one another." One of his most heralded personas is that of the plain-talking outsider, which segues neatly into the persona of the unifier. When Obama appeared on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, he charged that people in Washington, D.C., play roles that everyone recognizes as fake. "Because he is [positioning himself as] the outsider, he's able to lay claim to how everybody else is invested in playing a role but he isn't," says Steen.

Channeling Abe and Horatio

Perhaps the least likely of Obama's fronts, Steen goes on, is that of "a neo-Abraham Lincoln, which is really bizarre coming from an African American." Obama makes that persona work by drawing parallels between himself and the 16th president: He's "the tall, skinny kid who looks weird, who's from the outside, and who worked really hard to be the great uniter."

The fronts don't end there. Recognizing that Americans like nothing better than a good Horatio Alger story, Obama pre-sents himself as someone who wasn't born into privilege but who by virtue of luck, perseverance, and hard work has achieved the American dream. Steen calls that particular front "a classic story that's at the heart of American self-mythologizing" and a "key to his personal narrative."

Steen observes that "the fact that Obama's black and his father is Kenyan and he has this Muslim name really does affirm the possibility of the American dream for all kinds of people who feel like they've been deceived by it, that it's hollow at this time and the game is fixed against them. I think when they see someone like Barack Obama, it allows them to believe they can still make it, even if they're born outside of the structures of power."

Then she adds, parenthetically, "Whether that's true or not is a whole different issue."

To convince an audience - the American public, in this case - of one's authenticity requires more than offering a slate of policy arguments, says Steen. In the late 19th century, long before Goffman developed his theories of human interaction, Konstantin Stanislavski originated the first system for acting, which became known in the U.S. as "method acting." Stanislavski, founder of the Moscow Art Theatre, evolved the idea that the actor's goal is to create communion with the audience. The phrase sounds mystical, which is no accident, says Steen. "Communion is a kind of poetic metaphor that runs throughout Stanislavski's writing. It's this idea that the actors are creating a moment of alchemy between themselves and the audience."

Today, terms like charisma and presence evoke what Stanislavski was trying to convey - qualities Obama arguably possesses in plenitude. But without the character Obama has created - an up-from-the-bottom unifier at a time of momentous national division - even his charisma won't get him elected, observes Steen. The "outsider" character helps create that vital sense of identification or "communion" with voters.

Then Steen points to an irony: "It's really fascinating that Obama has been hailed as the great unifier and Hillary has been pegged as being this impossibly divisive figure who's too liberal and too interested in all of these problematic ideas for people who are centrist." Clinton's voting record hews close to the G.O.P. on key votes, notes Steen, while Obama is the third most liberal voter in the U.S. Senate.

Such confusion is a sign that he's been an extremely effective actor, says Steen. "Obama has been able to make his voting record palatable to people for whom it would otherwise be a problem."

Shannon Steen will be discussing "Barack Obama: Performing Blackness on the U.S. Political Stage" on Thursday, Jan. 31, at 5 p.m. in the Durham Studio Theater, accessible from the west entrance of Dwinelle Hall. She also writes a blog called "Political Theater" that explores politics and theatrical performance (politictheater.blogspot.com).

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