Saturday, September 27, 2008

Part V: People

People magazine is to The Atlantic or The New Yorker in terms of "sophistication" what The Weekly Standard is to Mother Jones in terms political bias.

As a "low-brow" cultural artifact, People is dedicated to celebrity gossip and human interest stories. We should be aware, however, that focusing on human interest stories above issues does not make People apolitical. In fact, in the current climate that thrives on identity-politics, People may (unfortunately) be dealing with the core issues upon which the upcoming election will be based. This being the case, a brief look at the cover story is in order.

The first thing that is striking about this cover is the arrangement of the members of the McCain family. They are divided by gender and by race. The men are at the top of the image, followed by the women in the second tier, and Bridgette McCain is at the bottom left of the image.

It is difficult to read this image in a way that is not hierarchical. Even if one were to say that Bridgette is located at the bottom left due to being the youngest, this does not account for the gender segregation or the fact that Cindy McCain is older than everyone above her except for the Senator. Given that framework, even the sympathetic onlooker cannot deny the potentially sexist/racist underpinnings of the portrait.

To make the point even clearer, a quantitative analysis of the distances between family memebers reveals that Bridgette is mathematically the furthest away from any other family member in the portrait (see right). And the point is underscored by the two-page spread within the magazine which has Bridgette sitting on the floor in front of the couch while the rest of the family is either seated or standing above.

This gives her the disturbing appearance of being a sort of "family pet," but it is doubtful this is the true subtext of the message. It is far more likely that Bridgette is being used as a prop to demonstrate the humanitarian qualities of the McCains, particularly Cindy. Moving on to the next image in the article, this becomes very clear as we are offered an overt image of Cindy in Cambodia doing work for CARE and Operation Smile.

The title above, "Her Mission of Mercy," not only frames Cindy as a selfless philanthropist, it seems to portray her as being on a mission from God and lend her significant symbolic value from the woman whose pose she is adopting in the photograph...

While it would be unacceptable to compare a billion-dollar beer fortune heiress to the late Mother Tereasa using words, images that contain suggestive poses are capable of the subtlety necessary to do the trick.

For People magazine and its readers, it isn't the candidates' policies or positions that are important, it is how the reader feels about the candidate as a person. This is what distinguishes it from the other publications in this five part analysis. Unlike Mother Jones or The Weekly Standard, People makes no arguments or claims that can be refuted. They present images that can be critiqued as I have done above, but the ambiguity inherent to images and stories about personal qualities deflects criticism and slips under the critical radar to strike the reader at the level of emotion.

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