Voting Like a Girl: Is Obama's Reelection Campaign Patronizing to Women?

I don’t want to make assumptions about anyone else’s genitalia but my vag has a hell of a time manipulating the voting apparatus.
Publish date:
May 22, 2012
electoral politics, politics, obama

Hey, are you a lady? Excellent! We are fast approaching that time of year when you are reminded that your vote is super important, because, unlike white men, all ladies think together via the lady hivemind, and share behavior and priorities. Like those schools of fish that all turn at the same time. Like freaking sheep.

White dudes are individuals, but ladies are always a single voting bloc, their decisions at the polls ruled by their gender.

I’ve long been fascinated by how election campaigns treat women as a special group, regardless of the fact that women make up a significant enough number of voting-age humans that their interests and priorities are pretty varied.

In most instances, there is the campaign proper, and then there is the courting of the women, a process of othering that assumes that women’s interest in straightforward issues is limited, and that the fickle little fillies need to be addressed directly (ideally with soft pastels and relaxing music) in other to keep their attention.

Remember last December, when Herman Cain responded to a flood of sexual harrassment accusations (and one 13-year extramarital affair!) by launching the “Women for Cain” website, which was up for all of three days before Cain left the race and took it down? Which was a shame, because it was pretty funny. You could tell it was a site for ladies because the word “women” was in script, and it had a lavender background! Ladies like lavender, right?

(Better yet, the national chairperson for “Women for Cain” was Cain’s wife, Gloria, which is sort of like having your mom as the president of your fan club.)

Earlier this month, as part of his own efforts at appealing to the ladies, President Obama’s reelection campaign launched an interactive ad chronicling the successful life (by dominant cultural standards, anyway) of a fictional woman named Julia. The story follows Julia's big life moments and compares her access and opportunities under Obama policies versus the policies of a hypothetical Mitt “I’m rich, bitch!” Romney -- the expected Republican Party nominee -- administration.

The ad runs about how you’d expect: Under Obama, Julia’s public school has funding like whoa, she gets help to pay for college, she has access to excellent and affordable healthcare, she has a kid, she gets help to start a small business, she retires at 67 and collects Social Security. Under Romney, everything sucks and Julia’s home is ransacked by student loan repo men the moment she dies.

The story ends with the moral: “From cracking down on gender discrimination in health care costs to fighting for equal pay, President Obama is standing up for women throughout their lives.” Gee thanks, Obama administration!

Not everyone was pleased with the Julia ad, and it’s drawn a lot of incredulous derision as a cautionary tale of a nanny government welfare state. Obviously, “Julia” is one of many efforts by Obama to positively court women’s votes. However, the narrative being built by the opposition about Obama’s efforts seeks to counter the intended “uplifting” message by calling it “patronizing” instead. And it’s fascinating to watch.

For example, check out this PR email I got yesterday, featuring an op-ed written by one Elizabeth Lee Vliet, MD. These are my reactions basically as they happened.

The mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers that Americans remember each May are strikingly different from “Julia,” the star of Obama’s political campaign. [...] Julia does not work from dawn to dusk to build shelter, plant crops, harvest food to eat, sew clothes, haul water, or clean up waste as our ancestors did.

Well, yes. This much is true. But while I don’t want to purport to speak for everyone here, I for one am glad I don’t have to haul water from a well to take my once-weekly bath. I’m REALLY glad I don’t have to “clean up waste” which is kind of a vague way of noting that it’s largely thanks to the government that things like sewers are legally required to exist such that the streets are not rivers of human filth.

That said, all right, I’ll agree that womenfolk are pretty capable creatures, both historically and today.

...Julia does not stand side by side with her parents, brothers, sisters, and husband to build a community and fight to defend it. Julia does not seem to have any of those natural relationships most women have—she only has the parasitic “relationship” with the “government” with her from cradle to grave.

WHOA. Sudden right turn! “Parasitic!” That’s some Ayn Rand imagery, isn’t it? Also, why is “government” in scare quotes? Is that a “libertarian” thing? I’m seriously asking.

The relationships angle is a telling one. Much of the negative attention toward the Julia ad picks on the fact that the story never once mentions a husband (e.g., lacking a husband, Julia has no “natural” relationships that matter). Even though Julia eventually has a BABY!

A Wall Street Journal op-ed on the subject even predicts “Obama’s ideal world” as one where “men are replaced by beaurocrats.” Damn that insidious feminism.

In fact, at least one reporter wonders if “Julia” is now going to come out as gay, which is... a weird thing to wonder about a cartoon character, but whatever.

But let’s continue:

Poor hapless Julia can’t even “focus” on her web design work without free contraceptives provided by the government to “ease her worries” about getting pregnant. When Julia does "decide" to have a child, she then sends the child off on a bus to be raised at a government school.

Elizabeth, friend, we’re sounding awfully judgey here. I thought libertarians were all about self-governance, which would mean that “Julia” gets to decide when and if she reproduces -- whether the government pays for it is another matter, but all the scare quotes come across as sort of belittling her right to choose to start with. Maybe you’re not a libertarian after all. I’m having trouble figuring it out.

It is a cruel irony that the very progressives who are reducing our women to this pathetic state are accusing others of making “war on women.” This government nanny kills the soul and the creative spirit of strong women, and creates passive, helpless shells of women living a shadow life.

You heard it here first: college grants and small business loans are killing the souls and creativity of women. You know what inspires creativity? Need, suffering and injustice, like the kind our water-hauling wood-chopping waste-cleaning foremothers knew.

As Ann Romney has recently reminded us, among certain segments of the population, the notion that poverty is a positive character-building experience is alive and well.

OK, so Elizabeth’s op-ed goes off the rails a bit toward the end there. Let’s look at another take on Obama’s lady problem. Late last week, in a New York Times op-ed, journalist Campbell Brown also took Obama to task -- albeit in a less out-there manner -- both for “Julia” and for his "paternalistic" commencement address at Barnard, in which Obama made such astute observations as “Women are smarter than men”:

...Mr. Obama is trying too hard. He’s employing a tone that can come across as grating and even condescending. He really ought to drop it. Most women don’t want to be patted on the head or treated as wards of the state. They simply want to be given a chance to succeed based on their talent and skills.

I take issue with the idea that “Julia”’s whole life relies on government assistance, or that she is a “ward of the state.” I think the ad highlights these things because it’s a campaign ad, and campaign ads can only promote their candidates’ policies -- Obama can’t take credit for the persistence and hard work all hypothetical Julias must also employ in order to succeed even under the most democratically socialist of circumstances. All he can do is suggest the ways in which his policies might help a Julia to achieve her dreams, and in that respect, the ad does the job.

The question remains how Brown’s “chance to succeed” is brought to the women who need it most. It could be argued that this is exactly what Obama’s campaign is attempting to illustrate with the Julia ad -- all the ways in which Obama’s policies may have positive effects on the life of an individual woman.

So why are so many people of such varied political perspectives so offended by the Julia ad? Is it because it acknowledges that the lives of millions of women continue to be affected by sexism and misogyny? Is it because we’ve grown so wary as a culture of any kind of “special treatment” that even modest efforts to level the playing field are read as unfair to everyone else?

It’s true that I don’t like being patronized or condescended to, and I’ll cop to the fact that Obama has made some dumb-ass comments on this account (“Women are smarter than men”? Really? Why not just hand us a lollipop and a balloon and tell us what beautiful young ladies we are?). But it’s not condescending to acknowledge that women still get paid less and promoted less than men and it’s not patronizing to note that there continue to be vast fields of expertise with a stunning lack of women participating.

These are realities that deserve critical attention, and not blase hand-waving. Whether the government has a place in fixing these gaps is a matter of ideology. But ignoring that they exist is not an option, nor is it acceptable to conveniently erase the hard work done by Julias nationwide simply because they also received some form of government assistance to give them a leg up in a challenging environment.

No one succeeds without help of some kind, and the conservative movement to demonize anything but the most austere self-sufficiency is intrinsically unjust, as it is those at the bottom of the social ladder who will be hurt most by it, particularly women, people of color, the poor and the disabled.

Obama might be using the wrong words, but at least he’s into the conversation. How about you?