Between a Rock Star and a Hard Place

In a series of recent ads John
McCain has been doing his best to make viewers connect Barack
Obama to young women.

First came the infamous
"celebrity" ad, flashing images of Britney
Spears and Paris Hilton before sliding Obama in among their ranks. The
McCain campaign acknowledged that the purpose of the ad was to make
Obama seem "frivolous" and irresponsible in company with these two
notorious blondes (who both, incidentally, have been doing serious image-cleanup
recently. Bad timing.).

Now the McCain camp has taken
the messaging a bit further, with an online ad that concludes with a series of interview clips in which young women praise Obama’s
more superficial appeal. One praises his aura. Another his eyes. It
ends with a man blurting "hot chicks dig Obama."


Silly season has begun, say
the pundits. Except it’s more than silly — it’s insidious.

There’s a clear racial subtext
to both these ads, an echo of the "call me, Harold"
that smeared
Democratic Senate contender Harold Ford in 2006. As Kos diarist Kaliki wrote :

    The subtext of the add
    is hot WHITE chicks dig him. The genius of the strategy is that
    Obama cannot call him out without being accused of playing the race
    card …McCain will never run an add saying that Obama will sleep with
    your white daughter, but his ads will all have a subtle insinuation
    of this theme.

It’s subliminal messaging, and should the Obama campaign speak out,
their opponents will quickly dismiss them as whiny, uptight folks who
can’t take a little humor.

Freakish Rock’n’Rollers

Within that whiny construct
lies the other side of this line of attack. When right-wingers smear
left-wingers as "rock stars," there’s a double insult going into

In conservative
minds, rock stars can arouse young women’s hormones with a simple pelvis shake,
but they themselves are also effeminate. Like Bono, Elvis, and
the Beatles, all mentioned in the ad, rock stars have long hair. They’re
not brawny and they wear tight pants.

This dated (seriously,
the Beatles as threatening?), gendered smear remains a golden standard
from the playground politics playbook, particularly of late: when
in doubt, paint your opponent as a girl, or, to use Gov. Arnold Schwarzenagger’s
phrase, "a girlyman."

In Great American
Glenn Greenwald explores how the manipulation of gender politics has played out
in political campaigns:

    Every national Democratic
    male leader over the past two decades–and especially those who have
    fought in combat and who remained married to their first wives–has
    been ridiculed as a week and effeminate, gender-confused freak.

This particular McCain ad appears
to pull off the trifecta: racial insult levied at Obama, then insulting
him again by implicitly comparing him to presumably vapid young
girls and the preening rock stars they may worship.

Take a look at the beginning
of the spot. The ad begins with a man, in a high-pitched voice, describing
the way Obama’s speeches make him want to cry.

Uh-oh. Real men, according
to the unwritten rules, don’t cry.

Contradictions Cohabiting

If it seems weird for such
a contradictory pair of attacks to coexist, that Obama can be tarred
with the the scary-black-man-as-sexual-predator slur and also
the effeminate pansy slur, well, it is weird.

But it works. First of all,
it hems Obama in between opposing stereotypes, making it difficult for
him to do anything without unpleasant associations. This Daily Show
at about 2:40) demonstrates the phenomenon: when Obama misses a shot
during a basketball game, he’s a weak Harvard elitist; when he scores,
he’s an aggressive Malcolm X.

Secondly, by throwing
multiple subliminal insults at the candidate, such negative advertising
manages to seize whichever insecurities — racial or gendered or both — are
most present in its audience’s mind.

Rick Perlstein, author of
, explains this phenomenon:

    In a discourse that plays
    on half-conscious archetypes, opposites can cohabit comfortably–as
    in dreams… Surrogates need only throw various archetypes "out there,"
    as they say; the dungeon that is the human subconscious can be counted
    on to do the rest.

Insulting Women

But the ad isn’t just insulting
to the candidate: it also spits in the face of young women by assuming
they don’t vote for a candidate based on his policy positions, but
rather focus on his dreaminess quotient.

It’s not a shock from
the man who volunteered his
wife for a famous topless pageant

Towards the end of the ad,
when the young women speak about Obama, complementing his aura and then
his eyes, we have no idea what questions they actually were answering.
For all we know, they could have rattled off a list of Obama’s most
promising Senate votes, and then been cornered with questions about
their favorite of his physical features.

By choosing to implicitly
label female Obama fans as only interested in the candidate’s "aura,"
the ad also insults those supporters — and it’s not a stretch to say
that it denigrates to the primary issues of substance that many young
women are concerned about.

Unfortunately, McCain’s stance
on reproductive rights was already dismissive of young women. McCain’s
ads assume that he’s already lost the young women vote — and that
it wasn’t worth having to begin with. The New Republic recently published a fantastic expose of the candidate’s stance on abortion,
which reveals a real callousness towards women’s needs and

Let’s hope women make like
Paris Hilton, and fight back.

Like this story? Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

For more information or to schedule an interview with contact

Follow Sarah Seltzer on twitter: @sarahmseltzer

  • invalid-0

    Thanks for your artilce. It pointed out why I have grown to truly dislike a candidate to which I have contributed money to–John McCain. As an Independent, I respected him and saw an important difference between he and George Bush–a sense of decency, a man of honor whose word meant something,and compassion for other humans.

    His campaign approach, totally opposite of what he preached and actually promised before he won the primaries, is deplorable,racist,sexist and riddled with lies about his opponent. It is clear that he has no respect for women, especially young women, or for ethnic people.

    Having worked with young women in the mental health field, what he did to a recovering Britney Spears is equally deplorable. She clearly has struggled with emotional issues, and to have the man who wants to be leader of the free world mock her is beyond sick. He says he is bringing “humor” to his campaign. It is certainly sick humor, and I hope it will not continue to be at Ms. Spears’ expense or those with emotional problems who would seek help but do not want to risk public humiliation at the hands of politicians. I wonder if McCain would think it “humorous” if his daughter was mocked, or if his wife’s history with drugs was the subject of such mockery for political gain.

    McCain has proven that he is willing to play by the old rules, ignore the issues important to the voters and slam your opponent with racist sexist comments and dare them to respond.

    I’ve had enough that is why I am an independent. I hope that voters are tired of the same old politics that put Bush into office and will soundly reject it, and not be fooled or frightened again. If that happens we will really have something to be afraid of.

  • invalid-0

    We are at an evolutionary crossroads where the neanderthal manliness of tribalism and nationalism has got to go. Appeals to these kinds of instincts makes matters worse. Globalism or planetization requires us to look wholistically at our planet, all life on it, and the environment it supports. Basically if we don’t learn how to use our minds without the ancient instinctive, competitive, warlike mental instincts and fixations and be more compassionate, empathetic, flexible, communicative, diplomatic, sensitive to others, then we as a species may well end up on the trash heap of evolution. We may take the rest of the planet with us too.
    We should realize war for what it is, a form of rape, and not the glorious patriotic effort that makes our breast swell. It might be necessary at times, but hardly glorious, and always a point of failure and first step toward the next war even if we have a just cause. War inflicts harm, collateral damage, destruction, leaves us subject to the possible abuse of power as victors, creates severe mental scars, drives people to suicide, in one way or another one country rapes another. This is nothing to be proud of. Sacrificing for ones country is something to be proud of but having to do it in this way should be a last resort.
    Any appeal to that kind of manliness should see the atavistic element in it for what it is.