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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  • Bes

    I haven’t watched this. I don’t find it appealing. What ever happened to “ask what you can do for your country not what your country can do for you”. I don’t expect the government to solve all my problems I would just like them to get out of my way. Another thing I don’t like is this prejudice that you either go to college or yo are a failure. It seems to be everywhere these days. We need to put relevant job education back in to High Schools. Not everyone likes school and that does not make them stupid. OK now I am going to have my coffee and perhaps cheer up some.

  • Kathleen Wynne

    Women are going to be the decisive vote in who gets into the WH and the obama team know it.

    I consider this “Julia” ad an insult to women’s intelligence, to say the least. It’s a fictional character upon which the obama marketing team can write theory as if it were reality. It’s obvious that since obama is no longer a clean slate upon which peoal place their own definition of who he is and what he will do, they must now resort to “theory” of a fictional woman to bamboozel the populace, once again. This is nothing more than an Axelrod marketing scheme. If somehow they can cheat him back into the WH, I have no doubt Julia will all but be forgotten and, instead, what we witnessed when obama whispered to the Russian guy that he would “have more flexibility once he’s re-elected”, is more indicative of what we can expect from a second obama term than this brazen marketing trick being used to get women to vote for him.

    I’m appalled at the lengths this administration will go to win…it’s obvious they will say and do anything to win. A huge RED FLAG. A second obama term will either end up in total grid lock for 4 years or he uses his executive powers to centralize power even more than he has already done, in order to force through an agenda that I am convinced would push our country over the edge.

    I would rather see Romney get in…it certainly would rock the boat enough to force the establishment off balance, at least, give more time for we, the people to continue to build critical mass in our opposition to the corrution and cronyism which has taken over the government.

    As GW once tried to say, but couldn’t quite pull it off…”Fool me once, shame on you…fool me twice…” well, you all get the picture.

  • JeanLouise

    No eyes or mouth on a very pale woman in a graphic that looks like it came from the 1970’s? That is so Obama.

    I’ll never vote for Obama but Romney scares the bejeezus out of me.

  • marille

    A friend of mine voted in the green party primary and had the choice between two women, one of them a medical doctor who had worked for environmental causes. that’s a choice I’d like to have.

  • Kathleen Wynne

    Obama scares me as well. While I would prefer other choices than obama or romney, the reality is that no third party will win. The system has been set up to prevent that so that the “power establishment” can select who will be running for the highest office, not the people.

    We won’t be able to change the system until the people take back their elections and are in control of it, rather than corrupt elections officials and non-transparent voting systems which can easily be manipulated — this fact has been proven so many times over that it amazes me that the American people still haven’t marched on Washington demanding the banning of the very same kind of voting systems that the German people over 2 years ago banned because they argued no democratic republic exists when the votes are not counted in the open for all to see!

    Until we take back our elections, the people have to do what they can to undermine the power elite’s choice for president. If obama gets a second term one can only imagine how far he will go to centralize power and undermine the checks and balances put into place by the Founders in anticipation of this kind of power grab. To assume that voting for someone who has no chance in hell of getting into office is only aiding and abetting the very system we want to change.

    We have 2 choices obama or romney — both are scary, but particularly obama because he has already shown enough of his true self to frighten me more than romney does. It’s got to be country over party and ideology. Party, ideology and sexism stopped the better candidate from winning — Hillary — because obama was the one the power elite knew could be controlled to do their bidding. I don’t want to give them satisfaction of getting a second chance to finish what their puppet has started. As bad as many think romney is, obama is worse. This is what happens when the American people allow their elections to be taken over by corrupt election officials and voting machines sanctioned by a corrupt Congress without even a whimper.

    Until the people rise up and take back their elections and follow the German people’s example of what constitutes an election worthy of a government of the people…like it or not, we will be stuck with the 2 bad choices given to us by the power elite.

  • Kimble

    You forgot to post this one to TNA’s Facebook page.