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June 27, 2011

Pimp My Politics: Front Groups Already Down and Dirty

As Campaign 2012 starts to gain some traction, particularly with Michele Bachmann joining the ranks of the (otherwise male) Republican candidates seeking to oust Obama, we can expect to see a resurgence of the visual techniques employed during the 2008 primary and general election campaigns—some of which traded on racist and sexist stereotypes. Such tactics are not confined to national elections, however, and last week the group Turn Right USA provided a preview of the ways in which front groups are prepared to get nasty.

The campaign in question is the special election for California’s 36th Congressional District, where Republican Craig Huey is running against Democrat Janice Hahn. According to its website, the self-described “SuperPAC” Turn Right USA was formed for the purpose of producing anti-Hahn “viral videos on a regular basis,” the first of which was eloquently titled “Give Us Your Cash, B—ch!” As noted by ABCNews.com, the ad “blasts” Hahn by “using a barrage of ‘gangsters,’ strippers and guns to try to portray her as soft on criminals and as someone who uses taxpayer dollars to put gang members back on the streets.”

As indicated by the preceding montage of stills taken from the video, the video plays like a typical hip-hop video (meaning that, yes, it is both racist and sexist, a fact acknowledged even by Huey). Hahn is positioned as a stripper performing for two black male gang bangers (tagged as “Hahn’s Homeboyz”). Politicos have been appealing to voters’ latent racism for decades, linking white politicians to images of criminalized black masculinity (think George H.W. Bush’s “Willie Horton” ad, circa 1988). The Hahn ad continues that tradition, combining it with a newer trend that attacks political women by reducing them to the status of “hoes.” For most of the video the stripper’s face is obscured by the positioning of her body. She pole dances, reclines back on one of the men while he pretends to slap her, and repeatedly bends over while the men ogle her, grasp at dollar bills placed strategically on her body, and even threaten her with guns (an especially provocative technique in the post-Giffords political environment). All of the positions invoke subservience. It’s no coincidence that both pimp culture and political culture are quick to discipline powerful women. A live shot of Hahn speaking is superimposed on the stripper’s body, conflating it with Hahn’s face and voice. The images degrade and dehumanize both women, generally, and Hahn, specifically.

Unfortunately, this is not the first instance in which political strategists turned to pimp culture for inspiration.  The most popular pro-Obama viral video from the 2008 presidential campaign was “Crush on Obama”—it launched the website www.barelypolitical.com and made Amber Lee Ettinger (a.k.a. “Obama Girl”) a political celebrity and a favorite guest of Chris Matthews and other cable news personalities. The video featured Ettinger pining over candidate Obama, inspired to demonstrate her political devotion by pole dancing on a public bus, jogging in a bikini, and writhing around in lingerie tagged with Obama’s name and face. The video was lauded by Newsweek as one of the top 10 memes of the decade.

If Obama was 2008’s “bro next door,” it’s perhaps no surprise that his Democratic primary opponent became just another political ‘ho, as indicated by this slogan which graced pro-Obama t-shirts and websites in 2007-08:

So, the staid senator best known for her reserved black pant suits and her impressive political resume is a ‘ho—like “Obama Girl” and, now, like Hahn. Pimp culture, like politics, does not have room for nuance when it comes to portrayal of women. Unfortunately, when women candidates become the “hoes” of political pimp culture, they’re not the only ones who get bitch-slapped.

– Karrin Anderson

Video here.

(image 1: Turn Right USA image 2: ObamaGirl.com  image 3: T-Shirt Hell)

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