The GOP’s ‘Obama Girl’ tweets and the perils of political overreach

November 20, 2013

Too bad the National Republican Senatorial Committee and U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) political director didn’t think twice before tweeting a blog post that tagged Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes as the new “Obama Girl.”

You remember the Obama Girl. She was the model who felt compelled to share with the world her “crush” on presidential candidate Barack Obama. The blog post – “Grimes Is The New ‘Obama Girl?’ ” —  thought it would be satirical to attach Grimes’ face to the T-shirted, midriff-skimming image of Obama Girl.

Grimes is the Democratic front-runner who seeks to unseat McConnell, and the blogger wrote that the photo-shopped Obama Girl was “intended to be a humorous punctuation mark to ALG being an intended beneficiary of Michele Obama’s fundraising at a Washington DSCC event.” Translation: Grimes attended a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee  fundraiser for female Senate candidates. The event featured first lady Michelle Obama.

The NRSC eventually blamed the tweet on a junior staffer and apologized. According to the Huffington Post, the link also was retweeted by Iris Wilbur, McConnell’s political director, on her own account.

Senate Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is followed by reporters after agreeing to the framework of a deal to avoid default and reopen the government on Capitol Hill on Oct. 16. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)
Senate Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is followed by reporters after agreeing to the framework of a deal to avoid default and reopen the government on Capitol Hill on Oct. 16. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Instead of being a satirical hit for McConnell, the creepy Obama Girl posted by the blogger may lampoon McConnell more than Grimes. Overreaching politically has a way of doing that. That’s why it’s both sexist and short-sighted to dig up Obama Girl when the myriad of troubles related to the Affordable Care Act roll-out should satisfy the appetites of any red-blooded Republican. Tweeting the “Obama Girl” blog post, and thus angering women on both sides of the aisle, is a costly misstep.  The NRSC already received criticism earlier this fall when a spokesman called Grimes an “empty dress.”  With Tuesday’s ill-fated tweet, the GOP chose sexist politics again.

But perhaps to prove its pro-woman stance, the McConnell team also on Tuesday tweeted a photo of a Team Mitch staff meeting, featuring six women and one man.

Nice. Females rule. But will a photo ease the damage of linking Obama Girl with Grimes, an adult woman, a lawyer and a statewide office-holder? How was the Obama Girl image remotely humorous, or was someone secretly auditioning for a skit on the not-so-funny “Saturday Night Live?”

The incident may extend the reach of Grimes’ campaign and elevate its prominence beyond Kentucky. Certainly, that’s not what the blogger, the NRSC or the McConnell team wanted. If everyone had stuck to the script the Obama administration has gifted McConnell with — an opportunity to frame President Obama as a liability for Democrats like Grimes — the McConnell campaign would have sidestepped the anti-woman gutter. Instead, the McConnell team fumbled an opportunity and created a fresh problem.

Of course, the larger story that’s most disturbing is that demeaning women remains fair game in far too many places. For example, Politico reports that an internal e-mail from a specialist in the U.S. Army states that looks play a role when bringing women into combat positions that once were off-limits. The e-mail reads: “In general, ugly women are perceived as competent while pretty women are perceived as having used their looks to get ahead.”

What?

The email goes on: “There is a general tendency to select nice looking women when we select a photo to go with an article (where the article does not reference a specific person). It might behoove us to select more average looking women for our comms strategy.”

Does the Army take cues from a beauty pageant to outline its communications goals?

Sexist thinking like those in Kentucky’s U.S. Senate race and in the Army happen when people reach for stereotypes to express themselves. Forceful push-back to sexist thinking is bound to happen, too. After all, women who know who they are, and who know what they bring to life, are far from “empty dresses.”

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Ruth Tam | November 19, 2013