November 8, 2012
As if it weren't enough that Lena Dunham, the 26-year-old writing/directing/acting phenom who started a revolution this year with her HBO series "Girls," scored a $3.5-million book deal and has been granted the unofficial but unimpeachable title of "voice of her generation," she also appears to have won the presidential election — or at least to have been one of the driving forces behind the guy who did.
In a much-talked-about campaign video for the president, Dunham used her signature combination of cheeky irony and shocking forthrightness to compare first-time voting to first-time sex. "Your first time shouldn't be with just anybody," she says to her presumably young, presumably mostly female audience. "You want to do it with a great guy.... Someone who really cares about and understands women."
Though the video, which immediately went viral, sent some conservatives into convulsions, it also appears to have worked. As the exit polls showed, it was women, particularly single women, who were among the most instrumental in putting Obama over the top: 67% of them voted for the president, according to an NBC exit poll.
Not that they didn't have help. Latino voters, who made up 10% of the electorate Tuesday and who favored Obama over Mitt Romney by a crushing 52 points, were also a major factor. More than 90% of black voters, whose numbers are not increasing in the population but who turned out at the polls in record numbers in the last two election cycles, favored Obama.
Still, the big story of the night was single women. According to the Voter Participation Center, they make up 55 million of eligible voters, and they are now the nation's fastest-growing voting bloc. The Obama campaign fought hard for their affections, underscoring the president's commitment to women's health issues and painting Romney as loyal foot soldier in the Republican grass-roots war against, well, if not women per se, then at least those who'd rather not set the clock back to the "Mad Men" era when it comes to reproductive choices.
In other words, if "women hold up half the sky," single women now hold up more than two-thirds of the Obama administration.
That's good, right? Yes and no. If Republicans have allowed themselves to be stereotyped as increasingly disenfranchised white folks who love guns, hate gays and see climate change as a pet liberal cause, Democrats have shown their own proficiency at self-caricature. Now they can trade in the Prius-driving, gay-marriage-supporting, Shepard Fairey-poster-worshiper for a post-Dunham voter who may be narrower and even more reductive.
As interesting and creative (and terrifying to conservatives) as a post-racial, post-sexual millennial female cohort may be, they aren't all Dunhams.
Most young, single women don't have TV show and book deals any more than they are necessarily hip, urban professionals with roiling ambition, prodigious sex lives and closets full of designer or (in the case of Dunham's financially strapped character) arty vintage clothes.
A lot of young single women are also single mothers (more than half of all American women under 30 who give birth are unmarried). They are members of the working class as well as the middle and upper-middle class. They live in the South, the rural Midwest and the Rust Belt as well as coastal urban centers. They likely did not vote for Obama because of a romantic notion about a ballot box "first time" but because they stand to benefit from things like national healthcare and funding for pre-kindergarten programs.
Any single, urban woman who ever endured the question, "Is your life just like 'Sex and the City'?" knows that the only thing more depressing than being reduced to a stereotype is feeling wholly inadequate against that stereotype. Part of the genius of "Girls" is the way it simultaneously slaps down and sends up the cliche of the glamorous city girl by emphasizing the grittier and more awkward aspects of that lifestyle.
Just as Dunham — "voice of her generation" or not — does not speak for every young single woman, observers of Tuesday's election would do well to keep an open mind about what these voting blocs really mean about the demographic and cultural direction the country is taking. Art imitates life, but political reality doesn't live or die by HBO.
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