“I’m With Her” is a bold subversion of how gender and power relations are accepted in America, and a step forward for women in politics.
One of my favorite ways to demonstrate the importance of strong writing and deliberate word choice to students was to incorporate marketing activities into my lesson plans. We live in a capitalist culture that runs on the power of persuasion to sell the product, pitch the service, win the vote. As dual creators and consumers of persuasive messages, we must identify an audience’s needs and the appeals most effective in winning them over. A slogan like “A diamond is forever,” for instance, establishes the product as a symbol of longevity by appealing to the desire for a lasting marriage.
The function of campaign slogans is no different: Staff must establish the candidate’s personality, acknowledge the current political climate, and appeal to a broad range of voters in a succinct and memorable phrase. The tone of slogans varies with historical context, but definite patterns have emerged over the years. Republican slogans typically appeal to nationalism, authenticity, and nostalgia, e.g. McCain’s “Country First,” Bush’s “Real Plans for Real People,” and Trump’s “Make America Great Again.” Democratic candidates appeal to a sense of possibility (Bill Clinton’s “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow”) and inclusion (Obama’s use of “we” in his various slogans), while third party candidates establish themselves as alternate options that liberate from the norm (Nader’s “Government of, by, and for the people…not the monied interests” and Gary Johnson’s “Live Free”).
A few weeks ago, I visited an antique store and caught sight of presidential campaign buttons in a glass display case. Hillary Clinton’s “I’m With Her” stuck out not just because of its relative shine against the faded names of Mondale and Nixon, but as a revolutionary declaration: a woman running for President of the United States for the first time, against a flagrant misogynist, and in an age of ongoing, institutionally-sanctioned misogyny.
All campaign slogans are declarative by nature. But no major party nominee’s slogan has used the first person since Dwight Eisenhower’s “I Like Ike” over 60 years ago, and in that instance, the rhyming produced a more lively and carefree tone than what is generally associated with the Clinton campaign. Structurally, “I’m With Her” is unlike anything we’ve seen before. “I’m,” or “I am,” is a bold assertion of existence and identity: think of Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am,” or Plath’s “I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart: I am, I am, I am.” “With” connotes the inclusion and cooperation typical of Democratic slogans, while “Her,” the female pronoun, has never been used until now, because, of course, Hillary Clinton is the first woman to be nominated by a major U.S. party.
The criticisms aimed at this kind of gendered branding are everywhere: Hillary Clinton is “playing the gender card” and voters should not support a candidate “just because she is a woman,” because after all, that is the real sexism. (Barack Obama’s campaign came under similar scrutiny in 2008 and 2012—though his slogans never emphasized his race—when voters were accused of supporting him “just because he’s black.”) Personal feelings on Hillary Clinton aside, “I’m With Her” necessarily forges new territory. It unapologetically asserts that for the first time in history, a woman may become the leader of the free world.
We are accustomed to and therefore expect to see women gracing convention stages as supporting cast members rather than the main attraction. Though fiercely intelligent, articulate, and self-assured, Michelle Obama publicly embodies these virtues within the role of First Lady: She is bold but still “feminine and family-focused,” writes Anna Hundert, “because it comes with the territory.” Hillary Clinton, due to her prospective leadership position, is no longer relegated to cheering for her husband on the sidelines. As she speaks at the DNC, we see the role Bill occupies shift from former president to supportive husband and father. We see a new dynamic on a presidential ticket: Tim Kaine as sidekick, as understudy, to a woman.
Since there is no established standard for a female presidential candidate, Hillary is judged against a masculine framework. And as professional women in male-dominated environments know all too well, she is judged more severely against that framework. When Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump yell, for instance, we read them as commanding attention. When Hillary Clinton yells, we read her as “shrill” because she appears to fit the “nagging mother” archetype. “When women raise their voices, people tend to get their hackles up,” Time magazine’s Jay Newton-Small explains. “People I talk to at Clinton events [ask]: Why is she screaming at me? Am I in trouble?”
“I’m With Her” proclaims that in spite of these barriers, Hillary Clinton is slated to collect a substantial portion of the male vote. White male Democrats have notoriously trailed behind their female counterparts in their support for Clinton—turning out in larger numbers for Obama and Sanders since 2008—but according to a Pew Research survey conducted in late June 2016, nearly half of men eligible to vote prefer “Her.” This support may very well coincide with the increasing plasticity of gender roles, given Millennial enthusiasm for Clinton.
The Huffington Post spoke with “The Millennial Men Who Love Hillary Clinton” in August, and their findings were perhaps unsurprising. Interviewees reported receiving backlash from fellow Democrats who supported Bernie Sanders as well as private messages from “closeted” Clinton supporters who felt they couldn’t support their candidate openly. But these men also became more aware of the double standards that female politicians face. “As a woman in power, seeking to hold the nation’s highest office, she has to find this very fine balance,” noticed Mike, a man from Seattle.
Another supporter, 26-year-old Joshua, added that “having a woman become the most powerful person in the world would be hugely significant,” noting that he admires Clinton for “centralizing important issues, like equal pay and women’s health.” A legion of male voters is by no means needed to validate a female candidate’s pursuit. But as a member of the population half that frequently downplays personal successes so as not to appear threatening to romantic partners and goes along with “old boys club” work environments so as not to appear disagreeable, I am relieved, even hopeful, when men stand behind women in leadership roles.
A Pew Research poll revealed last month that most American men believe systemic, institutional sexism is “over.” This misunderstanding of sexism as a past event with a distinct endpoint rather than as a changing continuum of issues will not magically vanish, along with the issues themselves, if there is a woman in the White House. Whether or not this happens in 2016, “I’m With Her” is a bold subversion of how gender and power relations are accepted in America, and a step forward for women in politics.
Chelsea Cristene is a communications associate and English professor based in Washington, DC. She has been published by the Good Men Project, Salon, xoJane, and MamaMia, and runs a film review blog, Catch Up, with fellow Role Reboot contributor Telaina Eriksen. Find her on Twitter.