A striking theme in media coverage of US President Barack Obama’s lightning visit to Australia has been the effect of Obama’s personal charisma on the subjects of his vassal state. He has been described as a “rock star”. (A rather haggard one after all that political rocking out, judging from this AFP pic).
And, like superfans, we’ve been hanging out forever for him to tour, and we just about lost our minds once he finally did.
Obama has also been feted this way in his home country, and indeed wherever he goes. It’s not simply that he personifies the world’s greatest political power; Obama has the talent of putting people at ease and making them feel like his friends, despite the fact that he’s surrounded by the apparatus of the American state and has its interests at heart.
“That is why Julia Gillard must get some residual goodwill from her close encounters with him,” writes Barrie Cassidy in The Drum. “The president has quite deliberately sent the right signals through his own body language. It matters more to this Prime Minister than most because she has suffered, almost uniquely, from a lack of status and authority that normally comes with the job.”
Importantly, Cassidy doesn’t claim this is because Gillard is a woman, but rather “because of the circumstances which initially led to her leadership. Then when she went to an election to seek a mandate, she got a hung parliament.”
This is a distinction that seems to have been lost on many other journalists, who have feminised, eroticised and infantilised Gillard’s interactions with Obama.
“Gillard blushes, like a high school girl who has, finally, after much bedroom plotting, captured the gaze of the football captain,” wrote the Herald Sun’s Patrick Carlyon and Owen Vaughan in a breathless colour piece .
“One image that came immediately to mind was that of a puppy wanting its tummy tickled,” wrote a disgusted Neil Mitchell, also in the Herald Sun. “Then there was the unavoidable thought that a 14-year-old girl meeting Justin Bieber would have had more dignity about them.”
But it wasn’t just Gillard, although many remarked, like The Sydney Morning Herald’s Jacqueline Maley, that she “was nervous. Her voice wavered and cracked and she flushed quite pink.”
Maley paints a startling picture of Canberra fandom in action: “Political staffers and journalists, two subcultures known for their cynicism, crowded the surrounding galleries like tweens at a Justin Bieber concert. The jostling was unseemly, the atmosphere jovial. Mobile phones were held aloft for photographs and, yes, when the President waved at us, we waved back. One staffer was so overcome she was heard to cry, ‘I love you! I’m your biggest fan!’”
The politicians, too, were starstruck. “Usually unflappable ministers of the Crown and unknown backbenchers trembled at the knees as they waited anxiously for the chance to shake the leader of the free world’s hand,” reported The West Australian’s Andrew Tillett. “Many swooned, others tried to crack jokes and cram in as much small talk as possible.”
Tony Abbott was among the undignified when he scrabbled to take credit for the Marine Task Force defence cooperation announced by Obama … yet somehow The Advertiser’s Mark Kenny managed to criticise Abbott without resorting to childish, s-xist language.
However, this language does expose Australians’ rather juvenile desire for approval from cultures we admire and aspire to emulate. Previously, perhaps we could have characterised this attitude as a pupil wanting to please a favourite teacher; these days it’s more like a fan dreaming of gaining the attention of an idolised star. It’s no accident that current teenybopper favourite Justin Bieber is evoked so often.
The fact that Bieber was recently embroiled in a paternity suit reveals that the star/fan relationship is an uneasy one, and is far more about the fan’s desires than the star’s. While the star system requires that celebrities be adored, the stars prefer to experience this adoration in a remote, stage-managed and preferably self-interested way, whereas what fans want is genuine emotional closeness to their idol — being singled out for one-on-one attention.
And aren’t the gifts we present to visiting political leaders like the pathetic offerings celebrities often receive from fans as tokens of this desired closeness? It’s always a little poignant to witness the gulf between how meaningful these gifts are to the givers, as opposed to the receivers. World leaders put so much thought into objects that are plainly destined for vast subterranean warehouses, like the one at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
You can say what you like about the Queen’s recent visit and Australia’s constitutional monarchy, but that lady knows how to accept flowers. Actress Megan Fox does not.
Perhaps Gillard would do well to remember Superstar, The Carpenters’ bittersweet ode to forgotten rock groupies: “Don’t you remember you told me you loved me, baby? You said you’d be coming back this way again, baby…”