by Annemarie McDaniel
This election, I’m a first-time voter. My eighteenth birthday was one day too late, so I just missed the chance to vote in my state’s primary. Now it’s the general election, and President Obama has released an advertisement targeted to the generation of young women like me about their first time in the ballot box. Lena Dunham, the creator of Girls, is featured in this controversial commercial titled ‘Your First Time’, where she describes voting the way that someone would describe losing their virginity.
It’s no surprise that this would ignite debate. Article after article argues that Dunham has wit older generations can’t understand, or that she’s insulting and degrading her own gender, or that she perhaps represents a new era of “hipster sexism.” With voting just a few hours away, we need to critically think about the messages that both Romney and Obama are sending us about women in their advertisements, how they impact this election, and the general conversation of women in politics.
Here are the messages of the ‘Your First Time’ commercial uncovered:
1) “Your first time shouldn’t be with just anybody. You want to do it with a great guy.”
Dunham snags the viewers attention with an unexpected statement, ostensibly about losing virginity and girls’ sexuality. It might be a “joke,” but it’s a joke that works to remind girls that their virginity is a Big Deal. It eliminates space for girls to grapple with the personal decisions around sex, belittling those who do choose to have their first time with “just anybody.” Society tells women that they are filthy for “caving into” the media’s or their partner’s pressure to have sex, or even worse, their own desire for sex. Worse, the advertisement cruelly reminds girls’ whose “first times” came as sexual assault that they didn’t get a say—they weren’t able to choose between “great guy” or not. Finally, this line implies that all girls are attracted to guys, leaving girls who like girls to hope that a different Obama ad recognizes their existence.
2) “Also, it’s super uncool to be out and about and someone says, ‘Did you vote,’ and ‘No, I didn’t vote, I wasn’t ready.’”
This sentence, out of context, doesn’t seem very offensive. If you read it as talking about voting, instead of the underlying message about sex, it just seems misguided: Dunham encourages people to vote, but not because you care about our government, only because you don’t want to be seen as “super uncool”. She says that people don’t vote because they “aren’t ready,” when really voter turnout is much more complex—the ad misses an opportunity to address real barriers, such as busyness, red tape, or lack of political efficacy.
But when we remember the commercial’s double entendre, this statement goes beyond distasteful. It pokes fun at virgins, implying that those who are abstinent are boring, unpopular prudes. Dunham furrows her brows and widens her eyes at those who didn’t “vote.” Mere seconds ago, she implored women to not just give away their virginity to your average Joe, but now suggests the opposite: you shouldn’t wait too long to have sex, otherwise you are too uptight. This balance between staying innocent while acting desirable is nearly impossible, yet this advertisement and the media expect it of girls across the nation.
3) “It was this line in the sand. Before I was a girl. Now I was a woman… I voted for Barack Obama.”
According to Dunham, one can turn from an innocent little girl to a mature grown woman in less than five minutes. The media does this often, oversimplifying people’s stories in order to form an easy definition or image of them. But we cannot distill an entire world of conflict, personal struggle, and millions of moments of growth and change into a single “before and after” picture. This is especially toxic when we’re talking about virginity. When we tell girls that they “become a woman” after their first time, we’re teaching them that they gain power from being sexual, often not on their own terms. We should be telling girls that they grow into woman while learning about responsibility, compassion, perseverance, and their own importance in the world.
This advertisement, as much of Lena Dunham’s work does, pushes the envelope. She presents herself as informed, sexually proud, and witty. I love fresh creativity, especially when it is aimed at educating young people about politics and voting. However, Dunham’s ad inadvertently sexualizes the women she wants to see empowered, almost implicitly telling girls to lose their virginity to Obama. The campaign created this advertisement to target young female voters, but it misses the mark. Girls do not need a virginity metaphor to learn more about policies; we need to be respected and addressed beyond our sexualities.