Stop Treating Young Women Like Dumbbells

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Republican presidential candidate Ohio governor John Kasich gestures as he speaks during the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce session at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. Photo: Jose Luis Magana/Corbis

Free advice to everyone in presidential politics: If you want young women to vote for you, stop treating them like dumbbells.

It is, in fact, embarrassing how often this very basic piece of wisdom has to be doled out. Today’s example comes from Virginia, where, on Wednesday, 18-year-old University of Richmond sophomore Kayla Solsbak raised her hand high in the air from her back-row seat in an auditorium to ask a question of Republican contender John Kasich.

When the Ohio governor met her eye, he laughed and told her, “I’m sorry, I don’t have any Taylor Swift tickets.” The obvious implication of Kasich’s joke: that hysteria for the “Shake It Off” singer is the only thing that would motivate a female student at a campus political gathering to raise her hand with conviction during a town hall forum with a presidential candidate. John Kasich has a rich sense of humor.

But Solsbak didn’t find it funny, and she wrote a really good column about it for the Collegian, in which she reported that Kasich took questions from admiring older fans in the audience while dismissing a question about Planned Parenthood posed by another young woman, making it obvious that, in Solsbak’s works, the candidate believed he could “gain points by belittling me and my peers.”

The particular hypocrisy on display, Solsbak continued, was that in telling his own life story, Kasich had “touted his ambitious energy as an 18-year-old man, but as soon as I, an 18-year-old woman, exhibited ambition, I became the target of his joke.”

This is, of course, a larger representational problem that extends far beyond John Kasich or this year’s presidential election. Though women have had the franchise for just under a century, politicians still seem not to have warmed to them — especially young women — as rigorous political thinkers or participants.

It was just last year that the College Republican National Committee released six ads featuring a character named Brittany who was trying to choose between gubernatorial candidates who, apparently, were wedding dresses. “Rick Scott is becoming a trusted brand; he has new ideas that don’t break your budget,” kvelled Brittany. Four years earlier, the College Republicans had released an anti-Obama midterm ad campaign called “The Breakup,” in which young women recounted of their disenchantment with their former swain/current president, “It’s definitely not me. It’s you!” and “Hashtag: Over!” The joke that the College Republican National Committee seems intent on making, again and again, is that young women could only conceive of politicians, or become interested in voting, by looking at politics through the prism of romance, which is a whole other kettle of fish. Also, that they are very silly and shallow. Ha-ha!

But the problem is that young women — particularly unmarried women — are key to anyone who actually wants to win a national election.

In 2012, unmarried women made up a third of all young voters, and comprised almost a quarter of the total electorate; they voted for Barack Obama over Mitt Romney by 67 to 31 percent. In 2016, the majority of women voters are predicted to be unmarried, according to Page Gardner, founder of the Voter Participation Center. Among that demographic are the students and recent graduates that Republicans seem driven to diminish as dimwits.

No amount of research pointing out that this is a very big strategic mistake seems to register. After all, Kasich’s remark this week isn’t very far off from Jesse Watters’s 2014 reference to young women as “Beyoncé voters.” Or his Fox colleague Kimberly Guilfoyle’s remark, the same year, that young women voters should forget politics and “go back on Tinder or Match.com.”

But it’s not just conservatives and conservative media that treat young women like fools, or cast them as such. Back in 2003, CNN made news by suggesting that Brown undergraduate Alexandra Trustman pose a dumb question about whether Democratic candidates preferred Macs to PCs. Trustman balked and suggested a broader question about the use of technology, but the network overrode her and handed her a card with the dumbed-down query on it. A CNN spokesperson admitted at the time that the network had gone “too far” in putting words in the young woman’s mouth.

But just four years later, the very same network did the very same thing to University of Nevada student Maria Luisa Parra-Sandoval, who submitted questions for Hillary Clinton about health care, radioactive-waste disposal, and Iraq before being nudged by CNN producers to ask instead, “Do you prefer diamonds or pearls?” Parra-Sandoval was an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who, the year before the debate, had been a Harry S. Truman Scholarship finalist, completed a public policy and international affairs fellowship at Princeton, and would go on to graduate in 2009 summa cum laude with a degree in political science. And on CNN, she was asked to ask the first plausible female candidate for president about her jewelry preferences.

This is exactly the kind of garbage representation of women that allows John Kasich and his compatriots to address adult women as Taylor Swift groupies. In the short term, the treatment of women as upspeak-y right-swipers is likely to redound poorly for Republicans in November. More broadly, I look forward to the day when Solsbak, Trustman, Parra-Sandoval, and all the other young women so easily assumed to have only a couple of brain cells to rub together are the ones running the networks, producing the debates, filling the debate stages, and answering the actual policy questions themselves.