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A Hug Is Just a Hug

Nov 19, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 10 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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Sometimes a picture just isn’t worth a thousand words. Or to be more precise, the 947 words the Washington Post’s Philip Kennicott published the day after the election about a photograph of Barack and Michelle Obama embracing earlier this year. It’s a lovely photo, and we don’t doubt that it captures an affectionate moment between the president and his wife. Kennicott, however, wants to inform us of a deeper significance in the photo, hidden to the unenlightened masses who gaze upon it:

But the photograph has a remarkable and specific latent message, too. Unlike many images of political marriage in which the man lays claim to his wife through a symbolically possessive gesture​—​touching her shoulder, raising her hand up or kissing​—​the embrace between these two people seems mutual. The first lady is, among many other things, a big woman, famed for her well-toned arms, and in this image of hugging, she’s giving as good as she gets. .  .  . 

It’s impossible to know the reality behind this image, whether the president and the first lady are indeed in love in the way that photograph suggests. Perhaps this is just another very successful variation on the carefully staged depiction of love that is mandatory for political success. But regardless of the reality, that variation is significant. The photograph strongly suggests an ideal of mutuality in marriage, unencumbered by older ideas of possession and obedience that still hold sway in some deeply traditionalist religions.

The Scrapbook is not entirely sure what Kennicott is driving at, but he seems to be laboring under the delusion those with traditional views on marriage are morally opposed to hugging. It is, further, astonishing, even at this late date, to see the Judeo-Christian marriage ethic reduced to possession and obedience; this characterization of it seems more like willful hostility rather than simple misunderstanding. 

If the Obamas’ marriage and fidelity to one another seems admirable, that might be because they seem to have a pretty traditional marriage. The Scrapbook doesn’t want to be mistaken for a Philistine​—​unlike Kennicott, we are not a two-time Pulitzer finalist—but it seems to us that this is just a nice photo of the president and first lady embracing. Looking for much more meaning than that is bound to be political axe-grinding. But when it comes to grinding axes, Kennicott is a veritable Paul Bunyan:

That [the photo] went viral on the same night that voters in four states broke with decades of anti-gay-marriage voting patterns and endorsed equality for same-sex couples may not be entirely accidental. Opponents of same-sex marriage often speak of the necessity of “defining” marriage in traditional terms, and anxiety about gay marriage is frequently expressed as a broader fear of redefining long-standing gender norms and categories. Conservative authors have produced books that decry the feminization of the American male, describing men as an endangered species.

The Obama photograph shows another reality, what might be called the limitless possibilities of true mutuality, of marriage beyond strict definitions.

Of course, there’s much more revealing political context regarding marriage this Election Day than the success of gay marriage referendums. Not that Kennicott found room to acknowledge this, but those who actually enjoy the security and importance of marriage tend to be at odds politically with the president. Married voters favored Romney by 14 percentage points​—​had only married people voted, the president would have lost in a landslide. However, unmarried voters, who now make up an astounding 40 percent of the electorate, went for Obama by 24 points. 

The Scrapbook can sum up its bottom line in 945 words fewer than Kennicott: We’re pro-hug.

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