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January 9, 2013

Boys’ Club Back? White House Gender Do-Over

Did criticism of Obama’s “boys’ club”—I mean, cabinet appointees—prompt the administration to choose this bland shot of a routine sit-down with advisors as yesterday’s White House “Photo of the Day”? It’s surely no coincidence that this image was highlighted the day after the New York Times published a similar photo featuring a slate of male senior advisors and observed that “Obama’s Remade Inner Circle Has an All-Male Look”:

(click for full size)

As the New York Times wryly noted,  the one woman present in the photo they published, Valerie Jarrett, was literally overshadowed by the man in the light blue shirt.  (Her leg is barely visible in front of the desk.)

There are some important differences between the two photos that explain the ways in which the top image functions as a strategic rejoiner to Obama’s critics. In the bottom photo, although the casual attire worn by the male advisors suggests a level of familiarity not replicated in the more recent image, the men are kept at a distance, standing in formation as if awaiting the Commander-in-Chief’s orders.  Conversely,  the co-ed group is seated closer to Obama. Their more relaxed postures suggest both affinity and access, serving as an imigistic counterargument to the contention that Obama feels more comfortable with men than with women.  In addition, although men outnumber women in both photos, the women in the top photo are spaced evenly throughout the picture in a visual display of gender balance. (The fact that a photo with 3 female advisors and 5 males looks balanced is an indication of how skewed the ratios continue to be in Washington. ) The expressions of meeting attendees in both pictures are also noteworthy. Whereas the men in the bottom photo look somber—even concerned—the group in the top photo looks more cordial, with two of the three women exchanging approving smiles with the president. Their nonverbal endorsement of Obama contradicts sentiments like those voiced by the National Organization for Women’s Terry O’Neill, who said that she was “disappointed so far” by Obama’s cabinet appointments.

Finally, in both pictures, Obama has spatially ceded his position of power behind the big desk, moving to the opposite side of the Oval Office perhaps in an effort to foster participation and open dialogue. That move makes for an interesting juxtaposition in the top photo, however, where a fully visible Valerie Jarrett is seated squarely between the two flags—just inches in front of the president’s large chair. The photo begs the question, how long will it take for women to traverse the short yet seemingly impassable distance to the other side of the desk?

– Karrin Anderson |  @KVAnderson

(photo 1 & 2: Pete Souza/White House.  caption 1: President Barack Obama meets with senior advisors in the Oval Office, Jan. 8, 2013. Attending, from left, are: Kathryn Ruemmler, Counsel to the President; Mike Froman, Deputy National Security Advisor for International Economics; Chief of Staff Jack Lew; Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett; Counselor to the President Pete Rouse; Nancy-Ann DeParle, Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy; Senior Advisor David Plouffe; and Director of Communications Dan Pfeiffer. caption 2: (via NYT): President Obama on Dec. 29 with senior advisers in the Oval Office. The only woman facing the president was (look very closely) Valerie Jarrett, whose leg is just visible in front of the desk.)

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