OK, it’s time for the presidential campaigns to stop talking about women. Seriously: It isn’t helping. Last month, it was Mitt Romney’s fuzzy-math suggestion that women lost more jobs than men in the recession. Now comes the latest bid from the Obama camp, the “Life of Julia” infographic that hit the web late last week.
The graphic shows a theoretical woman at various stages of her life, and compares her lot under Obama’s policies and Romney’s, with predictable results. At 3, Julia is eligible for Head Start funds, unless those theoretical Romney budget cuts take hold! At 27, her health care plan pays for her birth control, unless Romney moves forward with that Obamacare repeal! At 42, she qualifies for a Small Business Administration loan, unless that “Romney/Ryan” budget shrinks the pot!
Conservatives, naturally, have railed against Julia’s “cradle-to-grave government dependence.” The Heritage Foundation released an alternative graphic, in which Julia takes advantage of school choice, offsets her small-business expenditures with a flatter tax, and works at a Catholic school, content in the knowledge that her employer doesn’t have to pay for contraception.
But the recoil against Julia isn’t a matter of ideology: You don’t have to be hiding under the bedcovers, quivering in fear of European-style socialism, to know that life can’t be reduced to a series of events loosely bound to government policy. On MSNBC, advertising impresario Donny Deutsch, a self-described progressive, said the graphic made him feel “weak.” On the gaming website IGN, someone posted a faux infographic, filled with absurd predictions of Obama v. Romney futures. In college, this Julia gets gender reassignment surgery under Obama’s “College Is A Confusing Time” health plan. And under Romney, fundamentalist preachers ban dancing in her town.
That is, perhaps, the biggest problem with Julia: She’s far too easy to mock. The choices the campaign has made for Julia’s life are meant to be universal, but amount to a milquetoast quasi-urban East Coast fantasy existence. Her career choice is “web designer.’’ (Creative but technical! Best of both worlds!) She has a child at the demographically correct age of 31. When she retires, she ties her hair in a gray bun, puts on pearls, and works in a community garden. Where’s the sense of adventure, Julia? Can’t you get a hip injury while riding your motorcycle through the Badlands?
It’s natural for campaigns to seek out everyman stand-ins, “real” people to illustrate the effects of a candidate’s policy platform. That’s why there’s always some uncomfortable-looking regular citizen waiting to get name-checked during the State of the Union Address, and why, in 2008, the McCain campaign rallied around Joe the Plumber, who complained to candidate Obama about a small-business tax hike that, in actuality, wasn’t going to affect him. (Now, Joe, whose real name is Samuel, is using the fumes from his modest celebrity to run for Congress from Ohio.)
And it’s easy to see why “Julia” seemed like a better idea than “Joe”: She can’t talk back, go rogue, or switch sides and write a tell-all book. But her faux story doesn’t offer anything especially instructive, save for the sad realization that our politics have been reduced to arguments about the lives of avatars.
Indeed, if trotting out an actual woman on the stump can feel condescending (see: the notion that Hillary Clinton supporters would somehow flock to Sarah Palin), then trying to rally women around an infographic is even worse. Women are perfectly capable of projecting policy implications onto their own lives. The GOP’s abortion battles and birth control policies spoke volumes this winter, well before Democrats hurled overzealous accusations about a “war on women.”
Trying too hard, by contrast, can be risky. A Democratic operative’s attack on Ann Romney’s stay-at-home status backfired last month, for good reason. Most women understand that real lives are too complex, too filled with choices and changes and challenges, to be reduced to snap judgments and blanket statements about where we ought to stand. We vote our own priorities, and our own pocketbooks. In that way, we’re just like men.