By Jabari Asim
WASHINGTON—I remember my first time. I was 18.
There were a lot of other folks doing it in the same room, no doubt experiencing that same mixture of excitement and trepidation I felt. And, like any young, vulnerable person, I was consumed by troubling questions:
What if I made the wrong choice? What if it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be? Would I respect myself in the morning?
I’m talking about voting, of course.
You probably already knew this if you’ve seen those televised public service announcements featuring actresses such as Angie Harmon and Felicity Huffman. The “My First Time’’ spots, aimed at motivating single women voters, were produced by a nonpartisan group called “Women’s Voices. Women Vote.” In the segments, actresses talk about casting ballots with the kind of come-hither candor not usually associated with going to the polls.
“It’s kind of personal,’’ says Harmon during her spot. You get the impression she doesn’t really want to talk about it, but then you discover she’s just being coy. “I did a lot of research on positions that I liked,’’ she goes on to say, presumably so she wouldn’t just hop into bed, so to speak, with the first candidate who came along.
Huffman and the other performers confess to feeling “pretty,” “sexy” and “grown up” after voting. The announcements, visible on YouTube and at the organization’s website, www.wvwv.org, send what first appears to be an oddly confusing message. What are their intended viewers supposed to learn from watching them? That they can hook up at the polls?
Not quite, according to the website: “Saw the ad? Now take action!”
Visitors are informed that “in 2004, nearly 20 million unmarried women did not cast ballots on Election Day,” before being urged: “Don’t let it happen again!”
Ah, you gotta love those exclamation points.
But maybe the conflation of sex and voting is not so weird after all.
Voting is a form of exercising one’s power as a citizen of our fair republic. Sex is never far from our notions of power—nor from the corridors of power, as pols of various persuasions manage to demonstrate with some regularity. Still, suggestively blending the two remains a curious way of encouraging people to do their civic duty. A couple of years ago the hip-hop entrepreneur P. Diddy urged young people to “vote or die.” These “Women’s Voices. Women Vote.’’ ads seem to invite people to vote and get ... lucky.
Despite the civic boosterism of the spots, they seem close in spirit to those late-night commercials aimed at lonely men. You know, the ones with the fetching femme fatales: “Looking for a friend? Call me.”
The tawdry aura of those commercials reared its ugly head in a recent GOP ad aimed at Harold Ford Jr., a Tennessee Democrat whose principal claim to fame until recently was winning his House seat the old-fashioned way: He inherited it. But now the younger Ford is threatening to take a Senate seat that once was regarded as safely in the GOP column. He’s also an African-American in the South, a region that has declined to show much support for Senate candidates like him in the nearly 130 years since the end of Reconstruction. But Ford, an opponent of same-sex marriage, late-term abortions and other progressive priorities, cannot be tarred as a typical namby-pamby liberal.
All of this makes Republicans nervous, which probably explains the vicious television ad, which has been pulled from the airwaves but is still accessible on YouTube. It concludes with a white woman mentioning that she met Ford at a party hosted by Playboy magazine. She beams an insinuating glance at the camera while urging the candidate to get in touch. “Harold, call me,’’ she coos.
If manipulating the white South’s historical distaste for interracial couplings isn’t an example of extreme campaigning, then consider this ad running in two dozen congressional districts. The commercial, allegedly designed to turn African-Americans away from the Democrats, features two black men discussing that party’s support of a woman’s right to choose.
“If you make a little mistake with one of your ‘hos,’ you’ll want to dispose of that problem tout de suite, no questions asked,” one man advises.
But the other is unpersuaded. “That’s too cold. I don’t snuff my own seed,” he replies.
Ready with a comeback, the first man suggests, “Maybe you do have a reason to vote Republican.”
Sure, campaign strategists have stooped to ever-lower of depths of tastelessness and insult. But it’s not the first time.
Jabari Asim’s e-mail address is asimj(at symbol)washpost.com.