May 8, 2012 / Leadership

Obama, Women Voters, and “The Life of Julia”


The opinions expressed herein are those of the author, and not necessarily those of The New Agenda.

The summer blockbuster season is upon us and Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign is officially in wide release. Unlike most Hollywood executives, however, Obama is targeting women. Last week, he launched a new slogan, debuted a campaign video, rallied supporters, and flooded the Twittersphere with appeals to women voters. Obama is attempting to demonstrate that his pro-woman sentiment is more than a bumper-sticker slogan . . . by offering to send women free bumper stickers with this slogan on it:

(See how the “Est. 2007” detail wipes out the pesky 2008 Democratic primary—when Obama alienated a large group of women voters.)

The campaign also introduced a new tool designed to reach out to its target demographic: an interactive timeline titled “The Life of Julia.” The timeline provides snapshots of the hypothetical American “everywoman” at different life stages, pairing snippets about Obama’s and Romney’s policy proposals with a vaguely mid-century modern aesthetic—like a dowdy Mad Men Yourself.

On the positive side, “The Life of Julia” focuses on policy rather than personality, highlighting significant differences between the two candidates and underscoring the ways in which policy stances affect everyday life. Unfortunately, certain stylistic choices reinforce common misconceptions about “women voters.”

1.  Julia is “everywoman”: Julia is meant to stand in for the “average” American woman voter—a demographic that politicians routinely attempt (unsuccessfully) to define. Jimmy Carter wooed “working women,” Bill Clinton championed “Soccer Moms,” and John Kerry tried to convince so-called “Sex and the City Voters” to help him hold George W. Bush to a single term. And it’s not just liberals who deploy catchy but reductive labels. Bush had his “Security Moms” and Sarah Palin her “Mama Grizzlies.” Each of these monikers reduces diverse groups of voters to a single, caricatured facet of their identity. “Julia” can’t be everywoman because no one woman is every woman.

2. Julia is thriving financially: although the presentation makes clear that 18-year-old Julia is attending college aided by a Pell Grant, the site’s visuals have the trappings of economic security—from the laptop she studies on to the small business she eventually owns. This fits the Obama administration’s narrative of economic recovery, but glosses over the fact that the bounce back has been termed by some a “he-covery“ Writing for the New York Times, Catherine Rampell observes that although “men bore the brunt of the job losses during the recession,” they “benefitt[ed] disproportionately from the modest job growth during the recovery,” with women’s employment declining as a result of “layoffs by local governments, which disproportionately employ women.

3. Julia is a Democrat: It’s true that the 2012 presidential election will be affected by the widening gender gap, and Obama knows that if he wants another four years in the White House, he has to convince women to send him there. But not all women see eye-to-eye with Obama on matters of policy. The short shrift given to GOP policy proposals in Julia’s narrative could backfire with Independent swing voters who would like both political parties to find compromise solutions to the problems Americans face.

In addition to the troubling overgeneralizations present in the “Life of Julia” narrative, there are more subtle verbal and visual cues that could be off-putting to women voters. Julia is white—or, more precisely—she is blank. Her pale skin also lacks two critical facial features: eyes and a mouth. I’m sure the Obama administration does not purport to speak for women—or claim to see the future more clearly than women—but Julia’s sightless, voiceless visage is off-putting nonetheless. Julia’s visuals might have seemed more innocuous if the Obama administration included more women, but after nearly four years in office, Obama’s inner circle remains largely a boys club. The patronizing tone is exacerbated by phrasing repeated in each text box, which describes Julia’s well-being in terms of which president she happens to be “under.” Had Hillary Clinton won the presidency four years ago, that phrasing would, no doubt, be off the table when characterizing Hillary’s relationship to her constituents. (For that matter, Bill Clinton would also have steered clear of that verbiage, but for an entirely different set of reasons).

Of course this close reading of the “Life of Julia” pictograph, is not meant to obscure the sexism that resides in other corners of political culture. The Funny Lists blog has aggregated some of the (so-called) “Funniest ‘Life of Julia’ Spoofs,” and their list features a litany of misogynistic, homophobic examples that deride everything from working-class employment to a liberal arts education to birth control. There is, unfortunately, plenty of sexism to go around. If women want our voices to be heard, we need to ensure that our elected officials listen to our perspectives and represent our interests more than once every four years. The “Life of Julia” should include her volunteering with civic organizations, donating to political campaigns, and running for elective office herself.  Now there’s a future worth picturing.

Follow Karrin Anderson on Twitter @KVAnderson

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