Fox News host Sean Hannity claims that President Obama’s official Smithsonian portrait is sexually perverse because it contains “secret sperm cells.”
“Obama’s portrait – a stark contrast to predecessors with inappropriate sexual innuendo,” the right-wing host wrote in a now-deleted tweet on Tuesday. The post linked to an article on Hannity.com, titled, “PORTRAIT PERVERSION: Obama Portrait Features ‘SECRET SPERM,’ Artist Joked About ‘Killing Whitey.’” That article has now also been removed from the website.
“Controversy surrounding Kehinde Wiley’s wildly non-traditional portrait of the Commander-in-Chief broke out within minutes of its unveiling,” Hannity.com staffers wrote. “[I]ndustry insiders [claim] the artist secretly inserted his trademark technique — concealing images of sperm within his paintings.”
Wiley, the artist behind the portrait, which was commissioned for the Smithsonian Institution’s “America’s Presidents” exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, has indeed used subtle sperm motifs in many of his past paintings. As Smarthistory explains, the details are meant to “pok[e] fun at the highly charged masculinity and propagation of gendered identity that are involved in the Western tradition of portraiture.” Washington Post art and architecture critic Philip Kennicott has also noted that Wiley’s portraits of young Black men — intended to “[skewer] the pomp and grandiloquence of historical portraiture” by French, Italian, and Flemish painters — often have “a distinct homoerotic quality.”
It’s unclear whether Wiley actually did embed sperm imagery into Obama’s portrait, which is separate from the president’s official White House portrait.
The basis for Hannity’s controversial claims seems to have stemmed from a racist 4chan thread criticizing the “really bad official portraits of king and queen n—-r.”
“While it is well known that the artist who painted the portrait is obsessed with sperm and puts it all of his work, it appears his portrait of Obama is no exception. You cannot deny that on his forehead there is a representation of a sperm cell,” the thread’s original poster writes. “Best timeline lads. All hands on deck. Let’s get this in the news.”
The Hannity article also blasts Wiley for “jok[ing] about ‘Killing Whitey’ during an interview. That quote, however, stems from a 2012 interview Wiley gave to New York Magazine, in which he described his reinterpretations of Caravaggio’s classic painting, Judith Beheading Holofernes, as “sort of a play on the ‘kill whitey’ thing.” (“Kill whitey” may refer to a study conducted by Cornell researcher David Pizarro, which posed a version of the classic “trolley problem” to its participants, with an additional racial element; the painting is also considered a reference to Black women rejecting white standards of beauty.)
The suggestion that Obama’s portrait — a portrait of the first Black U.S. president — is somehow sexually perverse also plays on a racist trope that suggests Black men are naturally inclined to be sexual predators — a theme that has been examined at length in books like Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.
“The brute caricature portrays black men as innately savage, animalistic, destructive, and criminal — deserving punishment, maybe death,” the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University explains. “This brute is a fiend, a sociopath, an anti-social menace. Black brutes are depicted as hideous, terrifying predators who target helpless victims, especially white women.”
This trope, first popularized in the mid to late 1800s, later inspired “the public rationalization for the lynching of blacks,” museum officials write.
Perhaps most notable is the fact that Hannity thinks the portrait is inappropriately sexual, but he has previously defended accused sexual predators, such as former Alabama U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore, who has been accused by at least nine women of sexual predation. In November, Hannity claimed during his radio show that the accusations against Moore were predominantly “he said, she [said]” and that Moore had done nothing wrong.
“OK, so the two other girls were older in this case. He was apparently, like, 32, and he dated — one girl was 18, one girl was 17. They never said he did — there was no sexual — there was kissing involved, and then they’re saying this one encounter with a 14-year-old [that was] consensual,” Hannity said. “I don’t know how you find out the truth.”
After receiving criticism for those remarks Hannity issued a statement claiming that he had been taken out of context.
The Fox News host has also defended President Trump, who has been accused by 18 women of sexual predation or inappropriate behavior.
Update (6:00 p.m.): Hannity blamed his staff for the post in a statement sent by a Fox News spokesperson to the Daily Beast: “Earlier today my web staff posted content that was not reviewed by me before publication. It does not reflect my voice and message and, therefore, I had it taken down.”