How The Obama Campaign Lost My Vote
I woke up this morning, eleven days before the election, to discover a friend had emailed me this video, starring Lena Dunham, creator of HBO’s Girls, and paid for by the Obama campaign. Go ahead and watch it if you haven’t seen it yet.
I find this ad unbelievably tasteless and offensive, but so far I seem to be anomalous among left-leaning people in feeling this way. The mainstream online feminist community doesn’t seem upset, which is part of why I wanted to write this. Feministing.com has made no mention of the video, nor has Feminist.org. Jezebel.com, meanwhile, ran a story called “Obama Wants You to Vote Like Your Vagina Depends On It”, which called the reaction against the video “frantic pearl-clutching from conservatives”.
I am disappointed that the discourse about women’s rights has become so narrow-minded and politicized that we are encouraged to laugh at the unfunny idea of “binders full of women”, but we are supposed to ignore or approve of an ad that encourages young women to vote for Obama by asking them to imagine voting as a sexual act. Maybe I can’t take a joke. Maybe I’m missing the forest for the trees. Maybe I’m simply clutching at my nonexistent pearls. But I am going to try to articulate exactly what bothers me about this video.
The problem with this video is that it enacts precisely what the liberal community keeps re-iterating is the problem with the GOP: the objectifying, dismissing, and politicizing of women’s bodies. It is already bad enough that girls are told that they need to legitimize their existence by having sex . Now this ad is not only reinforcing these paradigms, it is also telling women that the only way to legitimize their existence, to become women instead of girls, is by walking into the polling booth and drawing back the curtain and voting for Barack Obama. It is telling women: you should feel bad if you’re that little girl who didn’t know any better than to fall for Romney’s lies. It is telling women: you should feel bad if you think about voting and decide you’re not ready. It is telling women: you should feel bad if you vote for Obama but it doesn’t feel “amazing”. And it is telling women: we know the best way to win you over, and it is by being just a little bit suggestive.
Let’s look more closely at the text of this ad:
“Your first time shouldn’t be with just anybody. You wanna do it with a great guy.”
If you’re really going to wait for a great guy, you’ll be waiting a long time. Anyone who is running for president at all is already morally suspect. Running for president requires you to think that you are qualified to hold one of the most powerful positions in the world. It requires you to think that it’s okay to put your friends and family into the glare of the public spotlight. It might require to compromise your own beliefs in order to try to win votes. Being president might require you to spend your twentieth anniversary in a televised political debate. Being president might require you to send people into harm’s way and take personal responsibility for what happens to them.
“You should be with a guy with…beautiful…”
“Someone who cares about and understands women. A guy who cares whether you get health insurance, and specifically whether you get birth control.”
What does “understand women” even mean? Slightly more than half of all people are women. Good thing it’s easy to simplify them into the ones who want birth control!
“The consequences are huge.”
The consequences of who wins the election are huge. But not the consequences of your individual vote, especially because of the electoral college system. Individual voters registered here in Connecticut, for example, have virtually no chance of affecting the outcome of the presidential election.
“You wanna do it with the guy who brought the troops out of Iraq.”
Why didn’t she add “and went after al-Qaeda and bin Laden”? That’s what Obama said in the first debate immediately after he mentioned ending the war in Iraq. Sexy!
“You don’t wanna do it with a guy who says, ‘Hey, I’m at the library studying, when really he’s out not signing the Lily Ledbetter Act.”
It’s true, Obama signed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, and Romney said “I’ll get back to you on that.” But this is a weird way to bring up this issue. Romney can’t have been out signing the Lily Ledbetter Act, because he hasn’t been president.
“Or who thinks that gay people should never have beautiful, complicated weddings of the kind we see on TLC and Bravo all the time.”
Gay people want to get married just so they can have beautiful, complicated weddings like on TLC and Bravo! Supporters of gay marriage want gay people to get married so they can watch more beautiful, complicated weddings like on TLC and Bravo! To reduce the argument for gay marriage to the level of spectacle is offensive. Also, who wants a complicated wedding, I ask you?
“It’s a fun game to say, ‘Who are you voting for?’ and they say, ‘I don’t wanna tell you,’ and you say, ‘No, who are you voting for?’ and they go, ‘Guess!’”
We have a secret ballot for a reason.
“Think about how you wanna spend those four years. In college-age time, that’s a hundred and fifty years.”
“Also, super uncool to be out and about, and someone says, ‘Did you vote?’, and “No, I didn’t — I wasn’t ready.”
I cannot even put into words how awful this part is. Politically, it is everyone’s right to vote, or not vote, as they see fit. Casting a vote does not automatically make you a cooler person. The great part about living in a democracy is that you have the right to choose your voting behavior for yourself, regardless of whether or not you happen to be a woman.
In terms of the sex metaphor: wow. Just…wow. It’s bad enough that what she says might be true: it is uncool to say, No, I didn’t—I wasn’t ready. But to witness this type of public virgin-shaming in the name of women’s rights is heartbreaking.
“My first time voting was amazing. It was this line in the sand. Before, I was a girl; now, I was a woman. I went to the polling station, I pulled back the curtain, I voted for Barack Obama.”
Either this is a joke in very poor taste, or the Obama campaign honestly believes a tired cliché about the magic of the “first time” will get young women all excited about voting. Sorry, Obama, but I already consider myself a woman, and it has nothing to do with whether I have ever had sex or voted.
The last shot is of a knowing giggle, as if she knows that it’s naughty for ladies to talk about sex and/or politics.
One of the reactions against the video has been that Obama should know better because he has daughters. At first, I thought that this line of attack was taking it too far, until I realized Obama loves using his daughters as convenient signposts of his concern for women’s rights. In the second debate, he said, “I’ve got two daughters and I want to make sure that they have the same opportunities that anybody’s sons have.” I am not convinced that the best way to give women the same opportunities as men is to air ads specifically targeted towards young women that encourage them to make their “first time” special by voting for Barack Obama.
We’ve all heard all of the awful things Republican congressmen have said about “legitimate rape” and so on, and all of the invasive medical procedures they would like to force women to undertake. The metaphorical undertones of these events is so potent that a Michigan congresswoman stood on the floor of the Michigan legislature and said, “I’m flattered that you’re all so interested in my vagina, but no means no.”
If the GOP philosophy towards women is akin (pun not intended, but now that I type it, yes, it’s intended) to rape, the Democratic philosophy seems to me to be akin to seduction. It reminds me of poems like Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”, which claims, “Had we but world enough, and time / This coyness, lady, were no crime.” It reminds me of Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young”, in which he asserts that “Catholic girls start much too late, / But sooner or later, it comes down to fate.” It reminds me of Angelo in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, an authority figure who tells a novitiate nun he will spare her brother’s life only if she sleeps with him: hey, if she were to agree, it would be consensual, right? It reminds me of Barney Stinson, the character on How I Met Your Mother who lies to and sleeps with a caricatured parade of dumb, blonde, busty women—but “always gets the yes” first. And more than anything, it reminds me of Lovelace in Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa. Pardon the spoiler: Lovelace abducts Clarissa, with the ultimate goal of winning her consent to sex; failing that, he eventually drugs and rapes her. And this is why all of the partisan rhetoric worries me. In the end, I am not sure how distinct these two sides are. For all that the “Your First Time” ad encourages us—albeit with tongue in cheek—to imagine a line in the sand, I cannot believe that all these lines in the sand are as firmly drawn as people want to believe they are. Lines in the sand are faint. They are subject to being washed out by water, to being rubbed away by footsteps, to being covered with sandcastles, to being erased and redrawn.
Yes, I am tired of hearing the conservative legislators in my home state of Virginia refer to transvaginal ultrasounds as “trans-v” ultrasounds for fear of saying a dirty word. But I am also tired of seeing the word “vagina” plastered all over the place by well-meaning liberals. To abuse the word in either way is to continue to ensure that women will be talked about as—and worse, talk about themselves as—nothing more than sex objects who will shut up if you just give them their damn birth control pills already.
I was already worried about whether I could vote for Obama in good conscience, whether this meant ethically sanctioning the acts of violence inherent in his support of drone strikes and the Second Amendment. I also did not love his reference to “the mentally ill” in the second debate, which slipped under the radar in the face of Romney’s more blatant references to “illegals”. I was hanging on to my vote for Obama only out of the sense that I was obligated to choose the lesser of two evils, the feeling that our entrenched two-party system gave me no other choice.
But now I know for sure: I have a choice over my own ballot. I will not let any tenuous line in the sand make my decision for me. I can vote for Jill Stein. I can write in a candidate. I can send my absentee ballot back unopened. Whatever I do, I will not vote for Romney, but I also will not vote for Obama.