Uncle Sam and The White Male Gaze

 

James Montgomery Flagg, I Want You For U.S. Army, 1917
James Montgomery Flagg, I Want You For U.S. Army, 1917

Uncle Sam is a fictional character who was created by James Montgomery Flagg during the first world war. The ‘I Want You’ posters were placed all over the United States and proved as a highly effective strategy in getting young men to enlist in the military. This poster was one of the most influential visuals of WWI and still probably one of the most famous visuals of all time. What makes the poster important is the technique used to interpellate the intended audience. The exact same technique had previously been used in Britain.

Alfred Leete, Lord Kitchener Wants You, 1914
Alfred Leete, Lord Kitchener Wants You, 1914

Though the posters appear to be similar, the connotations of the visuals are different. The Lord Kitchener poster appears a little less confrontational as he looks to be pointing to a distant crowd and is not making direct eye contact with the viewer of the poster. This makes the Kitchener poster a little less personally summoning. The absence of colour on Lord Kitchener also makes this poster a little less personal. The depiction of Kitchener looks as if it’s a photo from a newspaper; he doesn’t appear as a disciplinarian like Uncle Sam, he looks more noble and inspiring as if he’s asking you to work alongside him. The most important difference which will bring me to my main point is that Lord Kitchener is a real person and Uncle Sam is not. This is a huge difference because Kitchener was a real person of power who was to be respected. As Uncle Sam is a fictional character this opens up a lot of questions. Flagg had the freedom as the artist to create this character who was supposed to be the inspiration to every young man of America to join the war. Why did he not use an already existing person? Instead he decided to use an anonymous middle aged white man dressed in a foolishly patriotic uniform. There is no real or even pretend power bestowed upon Uncle Sam, he is not associated with the military in any way, his uniform suggests only association with America. The only power that Uncle Sam has is the power of the white male gaze. He is physically looking slightly downwards to the view of the spectator, putting him in a position of power or authority over them. His physical stance is also one of authority. The idea that this anonymous white male was a powerful enough icon for the U.S. military to use as their bait for recruiting shows the power that is bestowed upon white men in the United States. Uncle Sam is essentially an icon for ‘America’, he was seen as the authoritative figure of all of America -‘Join the war to fight for Uncle Sam and his well being’; this is the kind of underlying message that can be inferred from this image. The dynamics of the gaze of Uncle Sam against each viewer might be different depending on racial and sexual orientation, but in all cases, Uncle Sam is meant to be viewed as an authoritative figure which if published now would be very problematic -not saying it was not problematic at the time, but analyzing the image through a contemporary lens it’s certainly perceived problematic now.

 

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