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March 8, 2005

Betty Boop Takes Lebanon

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If you’ve been following the Lebanon story, this certainly isn’t the first photograph you’ve seen of demonstrators in Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square.  I would be willing to bet, however, that this particular shot differs significantly from the majority of newswire photos you’ve seen.

If you’ve been following the BAG, you probably saw the post I did recently about The Economist’s coverage of George Bush’s European trip. (Bush Snakes Through Europe. Or: Art of Darkness - link).  In commenting on the nonsensical cover illustration, a number of you felt the image was skewed for an American audience.  One BAG reader, Pedro, even pointed out that the magazine we see in the States is actually a U.S. edition.

If it’s true that The Economist skews their covers for an American audience, I would say they just did it again.

So, what’s happening in this shot that you wouldn’t necessarily find in the typical AP or Reuters version?

For one thing, similar images don’t feature voluptuous young women
sporting shirts featuring the American movie icon, Betty Boop.  Also,
in most other shots, protesters featured on someone’s shoulders tend to
be holding at least one Lebanese flag.  Instead, this woman is making
two peace signs, a symbol an American viewer could easily claim as
homegrown.  (In fact, doesn’t the Nixon estate hold a patent on this
gesture?)

The Economist also caters to the American viewer by divorcing this
woman from the scene.  This is accomplish in a number of ways. The
young woman is so close-up, everyone behind her constitutes a
background — or a backdrop.  Also, because the woman is actually
closer to us than she is to the other demonstrators, it invites an
intimacy with the viewer (especially male ones) while setting up a
comparatively impersonal relationship to her compatriots (who are,
after all, behind her back).  And I didn’t even mention that the girl
is also facing a different direction than almost everyone else in the
crowd.

Of course, there is one other fundamental way this reveler is separated
from those behind her.  The predominant color of the "Cedar revolution"
is red.  Notice, however, that this woman (except for the token scarf)
is entirely green.  Her shirt is green, her sweater is green, and even
her jeans (if they haven’t been altered) are also green.  As a cooler
color that tends to evoke nature, the photo would also provide a
State-side audience with a warmer, fuzzier sensory experience of what
is otherwise a highly volatile situation.

(By the way, am I imagining this, or is that the face –or someone
wearing a mask — of the assassinated leader, Rafik Hariri, on the far
right amidst the protesters.  Look just directly above the hand in the
lower right corner, holding up the flag.  The Hariri figure seems to
have a bent arm, with a hand resting on his chin.  …Who knows.  Maybe
that Martha Stewart Newsweek cover messed me up good.)

So, those are the obvious elements.  However, I think the image also hits other domestic chords.

Specifically, I think the Brits are going to school on 60’s
nostalgia.  I didn’t have time to track it down, but I’m almost sure
there’s a famous shot from Woodstock (perhaps, from LIFE Magazine?)
that looks near-identical to this one.

And who can think about Woodstock and the sixties without the allusion
to free love?  Certainly, this image is full of elements which recall
what a "turn-on" the movement was.  How about the hand reaching for the
girl?  What about that expression of rapture?  How about the fact she’s
riding this guy?   (By the way, what’s that in the mouth of the guy to
the left, who has the excited guy on his shoulders?)  With all this
suggestion, what’s so interesting about this image is how the politics
reinforces the sexuality, which in turn, reinforces the politics. 

Finally, on the subject of sex and political liberation, it seems
fitting this young woman brandishes the image of Betty Boop.  As an
American icon during the jazz age of the ’20’s and ’30’s, Betty stood
for the rejection of racism, an end to the subjugation of women,
economic and social justice, and also a defiant break with victorian
morality.  As you look at this picture, Betty is George’s ally.

That said, I just hope somebody has the courage (maybe those wild
daughters of his) to tell George democracy can’t flower without flower
children.

(image: The Economist)

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