Regarding “Girls Say Yes to Boys Who Say Obama”

[We are proud (and more than a little astonished) that our quirky little blog has been finding an audience, and that so many of you seem to share our obsessive and idiosyncratic take on popular culture. It is particularly flattering … Continued

[We are proud (and more than a little astonished) that our quirky little blog has been finding an audience, and that so many of you seem to share our obsessive and idiosyncratic take on popular culture. It is particularly flattering that we have received a few requests to write on the blog. Today we welcome the first of what will eventually be several guest bloggers, some of whom may become regular bloggers. (Let us know what you think in the comments!) Enjoy this post by Diana Barnes-Brown, and if you’re interested in writing for the site, contact us at webmaster at overthinkingit dot com. –Ed.]

Some Brooklyn women who happen to support some guy named “Barack Obama” for President have created an advocacy poster that’s been getting a lot of recent media attention. Inspired by an anti-Vietnam poster that showed Joan Baez and her sisters making a similar promise to boys who protested the draft, the new poster proclaims that GIRLS SAY YES TO BOYS WHO SAY OBAMA.

In both versions, a row of women sits on a couch in their mini-skirted, mod-ish finest, looking into the eyes of potential candidates (so to speak), and apparently prepared to either spread ’em or cross ’em depending on voting choice.

What does this mean to fans of sex, feminism, applied linguistics, mod fashion, and, to a lesser extent, electoral politics?

Nerd step #1: Working definitions

Due to serious fish/barrel issues, I’m not even going to touch the girls versus women vocab choice here. For the purposes of this treatise, I will use the terms girls and women, as well as boys and men, interchangeably.

More definitions to get out of the way:

  • “saying yes” = “saying yes to sex”
  • “saying Obama = “voting for Obama”

And, since these two ideas are the sole bits of language juxtaposed in one piece of advocacy, it makes sense to assume a causal link between sexual consent and the Obama vote. Let’s run that through the Semantimatic 2008™ and see what we get:

Women consent to sex with men in exchange for their Barack Obama votes.

So we now have a barter arrangement involving the exchange of sex for a desired nonsexual behavior. A swinger for every swing vote — Huzzah!

What’s wrong with this picture?

There are two main problems with all of this. The first is the target audience. Would boys who aren’t currently “saying Obama” start “saying Obama” at the promise of sexual favors?

The second is what it says about the left-of-center women who made, and/or agree with, this poster. Is it hypocritical to engage in partisan, transactional sex when your politics are leftist, and thus at least kind of feminist?

Let’s start with the target audience stuff. As the Clinton/Obama supporter split and subsequent Palin nomination reminded us, people definitely do vote on the basis of their feelings about gender, and specifically about women. Some women who had supported Clinton did so so fervently that they even vowed to vote for McCain as comeuppance for what they saw as the gender-based unfairness of Obama’s nomination. And in the case of Palin, there’s been a maelstrom of chatter about her ability to appear as a MILF to conservative male voters and a pit bull to angry, or at least disenfranchised-feeling, conservative women.

Say it... say it!

Say it... say it!

More specifically, people who, to my knowledge, currently have no plans to “Say Obama” include:

  • Supporters of abstinence-only education
  • People who believe that women are the weaker sex and should obey their husbands and fathers at all costs
  • People who think women should be stripped of abortion rights, even in cases of rape or life-threatening illness, and take one for the team
  • People who do not believe in the fossil record and insist that dinosaurs walked the earth with man

(Okay, I’ll lop off that last group because it’s somewhat to the side of this discussion, but, with all due respect, I still think it’s hilarious. Though it’s unquestionably true that the world would be much cooler if dinosaurs had, in fact, walked the earth with man, and even better if they still did, because then we could fight velociraptors when we got bored.)

Contemplating the other three bullets, I can’t help but think that any of these people, given their other beliefs about women and what they should and shouldn’t be doing, would be at the very least mildly repulsed at the offer of sex for a swing vote.

Even assuming a denial- and contradiction-laden interior life, it’s a risky strategy. Getting a bunch of people they don’t like to offer them something they won’t admit to wanting and don’t think anyone else should have seems unlikely to change the way they vote.

Risky

Risky

Target acquired

If the poster alienates the people whose minds it’s interested in changing, then the remaining audience contains mostly people already sympathetic to its worldview, which runs far counter to the ideas and feelings about women shared by key blocs of McCain supporters.

The people who share the poster’s worldview (that women ought to choose their own sexual partners, use contraception, keep responsibility for their bodies and have sex when and with whom they choose) will probably be voting for Obama anyway, which makes all those sexual favors, though possibly fun, basically wasteful from a functional perspective.

It’s like when those checking account sign-up people on the street give you free stress balls even though, unbeknownst to them, you already have an account with their bank.

(As a side note: Sure, girls say yes to all kinds of people, and so do boys, and those people, even the conservative ones, are pretty into it, which makes the statement on the poster, though possibly not untrue, incomplete.)

My country, right or wrong?

Then there’s the whole issue of whether it’s okay for women, or anyone, to use their bodies and sexuality for material or conceptual gain. To many, this is a form of objectification, and thus really, really not okay. In the case of the poster, there is the offer of actual transactional sex — sexuality-as-currency demarcated in votes rather than dollar bills.

Sex is exchanged for food, shelter, protection, or other gains all over the world. These arrangements disproportionately involve women and children and are often to their detriment.

Transactional sex, depending on whom you ask in the international human and reproductive rights circuit, may be characterized either as sex work, coercive sex, or both. The line often depends on whether the gain from the sexual interaction is a basic and immediate need — such as persuading a member of an invading tribe not to shoot your children — or a more distant and optional sort of gain — such as being given an especially fetching hat. (See illustration.)

It’s hard to make the argument that the Obama situation involves basic and immediate need, so this would almost certainly be characterized as by-choice sex work (more along the lines of the fetching hat scenario than the dead children scenario). A “desperate times, desperate measures” approach by four Caucasian, American women with enough money for photographic equipment, nice dresses and medium-quality digital and print imaging services rings comparatively hollow.

So, then, these relatively privileged, relatively safe women want to, but don’t have to, offer up their bodies in exchange for swing votes. BUST, a self-proclaimed online arbiter of all things “fierce, funny, and proud to be female,” commends the “cheeky ladies” for “encouraging youth participation in voting (and lookin’ good).” But, since we’ve covered the issue of functionality, it would seem that they’re just “lookin’ good.”

Lookin' Good

Lookin' Good.

Kate Harding of Salon.com’s Broadsheet manages to avoid any Palin-istic g-dropping and simultaneously tackles a far more disturbing aspect of the messaging, noting that the poster supports the whole notion of women as “merely gatekeepers for our own vaginas, not human beings with actual sex drives. We just say no as a matter of course until men do something wholly unrelated to sex (buy dinner, vote for Obama), which makes us decide they’re worthy of coming inside us. We certainly don’t want sex for its own sake!”

Conclusion

Obama supports, or at least professes to support, the idea of a world in which all humans are equal – so, that’d be one in which women and minorities are respected and given credibility equal to that of their male and/or majority counterparts. But the poster is depicting a world that’s anything but. It makes light of an international human rights issue, commodifies women’s bodies and implies that women can’t be trusted to have sex without a nonsexual motive. And it either alienates (or just rings false to) the very people whose minds it supposedly wants to change.

Women often have difficulty finding people who disagree with them sexually attractive, and there are quite a few theories floating around in the ether that suggest they are more prone to respond to non-physical ideas of attractiveness than men. For me, it would be a hard choice to have sex with a person with whom I disagreed profoundly for any reason. But that is not the same as offering up, to an unknown and undifferentiated mass of men, unconditional sexual consent in exchange for nonsexual gains.

Narcisism

Narcisism

I’d like to believe women have other powers of persuasion — for example, language — that are more effective. But the poster gets me worked up precisely because it does seem to please a lot people, suggesting that with just Photoshop, eyeliner, a derivative sensibility and a whole lot of narcissism, you too can — and should — get yourself plastered all over the media. No matter if you find yourself balls-deep in hypocrisy in the process.

Email Diana at dbarnesbrown at gmail dot com.

Overthinking It occasionally publishes guest articles from our partners in the OTI-verse. (Open pitches for guest articles are currently closed.)

19 Comments on “Regarding “Girls Say Yes to Boys Who Say Obama””

  1. meelar #

    I’m going to take issue with the first of your basic points (about the offer not being useful, similar to a free stress ball when you have an account) because you ignored another potential outcome. Sure, someone could support McCain or Obama; but they could also just not vote. In fact, I’d imagine that the type of people who share the premises of this poster would also be less likely to vote than the average person–they’re younger, more geographically mobile, and less linked to a stable community that could exert social pressure to vote. So this “offer” could do some good, if it encourages people who would have otherwise stayed home to get off their asses and vote.

    Reply

  2. Stokes #

    Someone should make a remix poster that says “Girls say yes/ to boys they find sexually appealing”

    Also – and this has nothing whatsoever to do with your post, really – the symbolism inherent in that wedding cake is kind of nightmarish.

    Reply

  3. Diana #

    Meelar, it’s true, but the question I was trying to get at is what would be gained for what would be lost: back to the whole fetching hat vs. dead children scenario. To Obama supporters, it’s an exaggeration to think of a McCain election as a dead children scenario, while the fetching hat scenario makes light of something that will have serious implications, so the line is probably somewhere in the middle. I don’t know that it’s possible to quantify the net value of votes for Obama minus negative thinking about sexuality, but I thought it was a good question to highlight — especially because there are some pretty strong arguments on both sides of the issue. Also, for the group you describe, wouldn’t it work just as well to say “your favorite band will respect your record collection if you vote for Obama” or something else with specific subcultural impact that lacks the potentially icky gender implications?

    Reply

  4. lee OTI Staff #

    Fetching Hat vs. Dead Children: we hereby have a new political dichotomy for the 21st Century.

    Diana, where on earth did you find that cake picture?

    Reply

  5. Siwi #

    “Cake-vectored nightmares” is an amazing phrase.

    On another note, this page currently displays (for me? For everyone?) ads demanding my vote for California’s Prop 8, the one to abolish gay marriage. I don’t even know how to address this juxtaposition.

    Reply

  6. Gab #

    There are some feminist groups that insist on how, if completely by choice, it is empowering for a woman to “sell” sex for anything. The argument rests on the idea of defying the previous notions that women only submit and act as vessels for men to climax in (or on) at the whims of the latter, for in this case, she is sexually liberated: she *chooses* how and with whom she has sex, and she acquires material gains for it in the process (which also defies patriarchal notions that women shouldn’t have wage-earning jobs, or at least don’t deserve to make as much for the same labor as men). Of course, this liberation excludes situations where the woman is forced into it by someone else or doing it (in more ways than one) because she is desperate and has no alternative to ensure her survival, so it doesn’t occur very often in society today; but this platform sometimes is used to make arguments for the legalization and regulation of prostitution in countries that haven’t already done so. After all, sex sells on every level, and the “sex” trade has always existed and probably always will. So if the currencey the woman demands is assurance of a vote in favor of a candidate she supports, these feminist groups would say, “More power to her,” if faced with the question of whether politicking with sex is legit or not. I think they’d be perfectly fine with the ad, even wave it around with pride. Personally, I am less than thrilled with this poster, but I realize the point these feminists have. While I don’t think society is ready for an ad like this without it being a mockery, I do think steps need to be taken to allow women the freedom to be as active in their own sex lives as men. I mean, there are *still* insurance companies that don’t cover the Pill unless there is a doctor’s note explaining it is prescribed for medicinal purposes, but drugs like Viagra and even Enzyte are covered by those same companies; and a woman that wants Yaz but *doesn’t* have irregularities with her cycle will have no luck (unless she has a doctor that’s willing to fake it for her). So while a woman has to degrade herself because she NEEDS the hormones in the Pill to function day-to-day by explaining this each time she gets a new prescription (if that’s the case, otherwise no dice at all), a man can get an erection or increase his package with no explanation apart from the prescription itself, even though E.D. and having a small penis don’t impact how a man functions in his daily life the way cramps etc. do a woman. If women can’t even control their own reproductive systems without elaborate requests for permission, there is no way they’d be able to have sex freely without repercussions from society. Maybe in decades to come, an ad like that could go out and be completely deadpan serious; but right now, even if it’s meant to be a joke, it’s rather offensive to feminists like me.

    But I have to point out that there are parallels between why this ad is terrible and why so many feminists and women absolutely hate Sarah Palin. They’re pretty obvious, so I won’t bother listing them (especially since I’ve rambled again, as per usual).

    Reply

  7. cushman #

    Gab, China wants its wall back.

    And I would much prefer that people vote with their naughty bits than with their wallets.

    Reply

  8. Gab #

    Cushman, if you’re trying to imply that I’m Communist, you’re so very wrong for more than one reason. First off, China has never been, is not, and never WILL be a Communist state. In fact, “Communist state” is an oxymoron in itself, for if one were to actually read Marx and Engels closely, one would realize that the society envisioned by them is utopian- think “Star Trek,” if that helps. Communism as Marx and Engels intended means no political parties, no corporations running things, no class disparity at all, everyone helping everyone else, people doing what they want instead of what they have to, etc; and China is the exact opposite of all of those things. Not only is China not Communist, but none of the countries labeled as such now or that were in the past are/were Communist, either. So using the Great Wall and China as a way to imply I’m Communist just doesn’t work there, sorry.

    Second, I do believe in some forms of capitalism, so long as it is regulated enough to prevent crises like the current economic one this country is in right now. The privatization of the school system, the hands-off-but-only-when-it’s-convenient-for-us attitude, no, I don’t like that. But I do believe in a sort of economic Darwinism, I guess you could say.

    Third, it sounds like you’re one of those “Obama is a Commie Elitist”-types, going from all of what you said. You know, just because someone may be for a little more government regulation or higher taxes doesn’t mean they’re a Communist; and using that same train of thought is what leads to people STILL thinking Obama is a Muslim and that he’s going to increase the tax burden on working-class families and that his health care program is mandatory. Ahem. And hell yes I’m going to vote with my wallet, since it’s pretty much empty and McCain’s policies will make it even emptier. And even if I were to vote with my, uh, “naughty bits,” as you put it, I’d still vote Obama because he isn’t a walking corpse (or, to allude to some recent and awesome posts, a zombie). Call me crazy, but I’m not into necrophilia.

    Thanks, I enjoyed that.

    Reply

  9. cushman #

    Gab,

    Politics had so very little to do with what I wrote.

    I was merely implying that the large block of text was very wall-like, perhaps approaching the magnitude of the Great Wall.

    Perhaps a poorly executed joke on my part, but it did spawn some extremely off-target flying off of the handle.

    Thanks, I enjoyed that.

    Reply

  10. Matt #

    Diana –

    Very interesting stuff! But I wanted to hear more about the original Vietnam poster. You touch upon the fact that this poster is an homage, but then you treat it like it’s a completely original idea in a vacuum. At the very least, the implicit equation of McCain and the draft is striking. And the idea of “free love” is a little different now than it was back then. Not to mention the original used a celebrity, and the new one doesn’t – is that important? Was the original poster meant to be ironic? Is the new one? And what about the line below: “Sarah Palin is not a woman’s choice.” What does that mean?

    – Matt

    Reply

  11. Diana #

    Matt – I like these questions. Maybe I should do a companion piece on the original poster, or advocacy from that time period that was made by women and uses similar approaches. I think in the case of the war poster, there are two particularly interesting things to think about: first, it creates a really nontraditional reversal of the relationship between the bellicose and the virile in that time’s mainstream culture — peace is hot, war is not. Second, one can make the argument that in the cultural context of that time, “saying yes” could have implied a general state of approval/support/commitment, and not sex outright, while these days, that’s almost certainly not the inference that would be made. I didn’t make as much of the “Sarah Palin is not a woman’s choice” bit, because I thought it was a direct response to the “Sarah Palin: the women’s choice” advertising that popped up after her nomination. But I could write pages on what a perfect example Palin is of the current-day conflation of the feminINE and the feminIST: “I love outfits! (lipstick)Thus I am fighting the good fight for my oppressed sisters! (pit bull)”. And you could argue that this adds an additional layer of contradiction to the Obama poster, which also conflates the feminine/feminist. Also, I should note that I made an error in the original post by saying that the two bits of text at the top were the “sole” bits of language juxtaposed in the piece, since obviously the Palin bit is also there, though deemphasized by its placement and distance from the main text.

    Reply

  12. Gab #

    Cushman: And that’s why I read this site. Overthinking things is so much fun, eh?

    Reply

  13. gm #

    I like the girl with the banjo!

    Reply

  14. Rachel #

    I wonder if the operational definition laid out in the beginning of this is even the most accurate way to interpret the poster.
    Couldn’t the nice girls just being saying yes to a date with a nice boy who shares similar political tendencies? A date that may or may not having anything to do with actually having sex with said boy. Relationships are known to strive between people who have similar interests and opinions on important issues. Why is it assumed that the question to which these girls are saying yes to is “Wanna have sex with me?” and not “Wanna go grab some coffee sometime?”

    Reply

  15. Gab #

    Rachel: Because even if the people making the ad don’t intend to go there, someone seeing it will. And the people making the ad KNOW this, so it’s a moot point.

    Reply

  16. Rachel #

    Gab: Alright. I’ll take it. I think I was mostly just trying to be difficult.

    Reply

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