Obama Insults Women With Big Government Paternalism

Obama Insults Women With Big Government Paternalism

By Cathy Young - October 28, 2012

Amidst this campaign’s bickering about which candidate is women’s friend or foe, the Obama camp targets young women in an eye-catching web ad intended as feminist but, in fact, profoundly insulting. Its main effect is to show that, while the Republicans have serious “woman problems” of their own making, the Democrats often peddle a pseudo-feminist paternalism that reeks of condescension.

The one-minute Obama for America spot features Lena Dunham, 26-year-old creator and star of the HBO show Girls, addressing a college-age female audience. “Your first time shouldn’t be with just anybody. You want to do it with a great guy,” Dunham says. “Someone who really cares about and understands women. It should be with a guy who cares whether you get health insurance, and specifically whether you get birth control.” At the end of the video, Dunham reminisces in hushed giddy tones, “My first-time voting was amazing… Before, I was a girl; now, I was a woman.” Then, with a coy suggestive grin, she discloses that she voted for (who else?) Barack Obama.

How to count the ways in which this is wrong? To start with, there’s the innuendo-laced voting-as-sex (or sex-as-voting) metaphor, in which a woman’s exercise of her basic right of citizenship is analogized both to choosing her first lover and to giving her virginity to the man she chooses as leader. It plays like a parody of the sexist clichés that reduce women’s lives to their sexual functions—and women’s politics to eroticized worship for the ultimate alpha male.

This particular alpha male is more sensitive than dominant, but make no mistake: it is still his role to take care of the little woman. It’s almost as if the ad makers wanted to validate conservative claims that the Democrats’ pitch to women is the state as a substitute husband -- Uncle Sam taking over the traditional male role of provider and protector.

Many critics saw this theme in the Obama campaign’s famous interactive online ad, “The Life of Julia,” which tracked the Obama-favored government programs that would help a fictional woman through her life, from school to work to motherhood (with no husband in sight) to retirement. But in the “Julia” ad, the “Hubby Sam” theme was only inferred; it could be seen as a more general, albeit female-geared, statement about the benefits of government. In the “First Time” ad, the “let the government be your man” subtext is not even “sub.”

Young female voters, moreover, are portrayed in nakedly stereotypical terms: besides a mention of bringing soldiers home from Iraq and an obscure pay equity reference, they seem to care only about birth control and perfect weddings. Yes, weddings: when Dunham discusses Romney’s opposition to same-sex marriage, she says that he thinks “gay people should never have the kind of beautiful, complicated weddings that we see on Bravo and TLC all the time.”

There’s another cringeworthy twist: The video echoes a Russian campaign ad from earlier this year in which a young cutie consulting a fortuneteller about her “first time” discovered that her “intended” was Vladimir Putin. “I see that it will be for love, and with no cheating,” the psychic told her; “he’ll protect you like a stone wall.” The tagline read, “Putin: The first time, only for (heart).” After watching that, I told a Russian-speaking friend that, however bad American politicking might get, at least we wouldn’t see anything so crass or sexist here. Oops.

When the “virgins love Putin” ad campaign made the rounds of the Internet, it was jeered by American pundits across the political spectrum. An ABC News blog called it “creepy,” as did The Huffington Post. Obamaphile Daily Beast blogger Andrew Sullivan featured it in his “Creepy Ad Watch,” quoting another blogger who summed up her reaction with, “Oh, barf.” Will these commentators be as scathing toward the Obama ad? Don’t hold your breath.

Of course, if the Romney campaign had come up with such a video, there would be cries of feminist outrage. The ad would be (rightly) called not only creepy but sexist and demeaning. It would be slammed for treating college-age women as ditzy girls whose lives revolve around sex and romance, and touted as proof of Republican contempt for womanhood.

Does this mean that Democrats are the anti-woman party? No, of course not; this tacky ad was probably made by women. And its tackiness does not get the Republicans off the hook for sexism in their ranks (comments about the divine blessing of pregnancy from rape rank high on the creepiness meter).

Yet whoever women end up voting for, this ad should remind them that a supposedly progressive “pro-woman” stance can be as patronizing as old-fashioned chivalry. Yes, some government programs including a social safety net are an essential part of modern civilization, for both women and men. But when women are courted as special beneficiaries of activist government, feminists who truly stand for female equality and autonomy should be wary. Being told to look to Mr. Good Government to take care of you is hardly a feminist goal. 

Cathy Young writes a weekly column for RealClearPolitics and is also a contributing editor at Reason magazine. She blogs at and you can follow her on Twitter at @CathyYoung63. She can be reached by email at

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