Lily Ledbetter—complete with sensible blond bob and an Alabama drawl—is the kind of lady who would tell a you to stop wearing peek-a-boo blouses to work and making cookies for the office because both make you look unserious. The poster girl for the 77 cents to a dollar that American women make in the workplace compared to their male counterparts, Ledbetter's not one to be trifled with. The personification of the Obama campaign’s somber economic appeal to female voters, she’s also the kind of lady who calls Mitt Romney out for not taking a stand on equal pay issues. She also appeared in a video released by the Obama campaign talking about what the Congress can do to alleviate barriers to unequal compensation.
But Ledbetter’s substantive, real-world message of feminism in action is being undercut by some old-fashioned sexism.
Sarah Jessica Parker’s promotional video for the Obama campaign stands in stark contrast to Ledbetter’s. Parker, of Sex and the City fame, is throwing a campaign dinner party at her home for two lucky plebs who win an online raffle. On-camera she is the picture of a woman used to pressed linen napkins and pre-dinner French 75s; she tosses her beach-hair-takes-the-city locks from side to side, and with coquettish inflection, talks about President Obama as “that guy,” an obvious mimicry of the Sex and the City dating confessional style. She’s the cool girl trying to help the campaign regain some of its 2008 pop culture relevance, appealing to women in much the same way as she did in her stint as a shampoo spokeswoman.
On the surface, all of this is fine—nothing wrong with using a little glitz and glam to spice up the dreary business of politics (God knows, that’s still why we’re talking about Jackie O.) Nothing wrong with appealing to a much sought after demographic like the women of America. Indeed, a lot of us have seen Sex and the City and have participated in unfortunate conversations labeling ourselves as “Carrie’s” or “Samantha’s.” The messaging wizards down at the Obama campaign have also figured out that a decent portion of the female populace reads fashion magazines and blogs every once in a while, which are, contrary to popular male opinion, more than just pictures of people standing around smoking on the streets of New York. So they got Anna Wintour, the much-parodied editor of Vogue, to stump for the president on tape.
But dig a little deeper, past the glossy camera work, and you’ll realize that Parker and Wintour don’t actually saying a damn thing in their pitches for the President. Rather, each shoots out warm-as-spit platitudes about a really neat guy they know. Of course, no one’s expecting the starlets to be policy wonks, but there’s something alarmingly retro about the way the Obamanians have framed these purely political appeals to women. Parker and Wintour are faces of a world that is wildly old-school—the last bastion where women are outwardly and unabashedly judged for their looks. Couldn’t the campaign have gone for a theme less stereotypically feminine than fashion? Wouldn’t a charming, altruistic chanteuse have done the same trick? Or at least a pair that isn’t quite so closely associated with conspicuous consumption (did you read the last jobs report???).
When you realize Parker grew up poor and on welfare, you can’t help but mourn the campaign’s missed opportunity to talk about real issues that matter to women around the country. There’s no shame in using a famous face to talk about the struggles the nation’s poor could face if basic societal safety nets are destroyed by over-zealous budget hawks in the White House and Congress.
The base fact of it is that the Parker/Wintour shtick is a reductive technique that doesn't quite sync up with the sophisticated, modern messaging that we’ve come to expect from the Obama campaign. It’s just plain irritating to see one more banal instance of sexism from an organization that’s staked its reputation on harnessing progressive ideas and marketing them to the masses.
The Sarah Jessica Parkers and Anna Wintours of the world sparkle and draw attention to the cause, but I wonder if they also don’t undercut the Lily Ledbetter stories just a bit by hogging all the attention. At least George Clooney has some do-gooder chops on him—there’s nothing like getting arrested for protesting genocide the same weekend you go to a State Dinner—weeks before throwing a star-studded, well-publicized fundraiser for the president. But Parker appears to be mostly about what clothes she’s wearing; she’s all about what you thought your life was going to be when you were a teenage girl. Lily Ledbetter is all about what your life is going to be like when reality strikes—and sometimes it’s depressing. You can’t blame people for wanting to dream of what it would be like to perch on raw silk ottoman and tipple champagne with a celebrity.
It’s not just that the whole fashion-obsessed, ditzy-Debbie-throws-a-dinner-party act trivializes the interests of women; it represents a missed opportunity to reach women who might not have a solid grasp on all the reasons why Obama’s policies might benefit them more than Mitt Romney’s would in the long run.
So why not put Ledbetter and Parker in the same video and have the gals gab for a bit about all the reasons why the Republicans are screwing women economically? You get substance and flash at the same time—meat and potatoes topped with Nutella and marshmallow fluff. Yes, women talk about shoes from time to time, but they’ve also got a few things to say about their incompetent 25-year-old fellow employee with Bieber-fever hair who’s making more than them.
You can’t argue with the fact that the Obama campaign is a targeted messaging machine, able to tailor the content of emails to supporters more snugly than an Italian-made suit, but with great power comes great responsibility. That age-old question—what do women want?—may well be an unanswerable one, but I can say for damn sure that that Obama team needs to find a better way to ask a lady out to dinner.