Christine O’Donnell may have been, for a brief shining moment, the poster candidate of youthful overexposure, what Slate’s Jessica Grose called the “first new media candidate” who presaged “a media universe in which old, dumb Facebook posts and unearthed tweets become a consistent source of fodder for journalists.” But we didn’t have to wait very long for that next phase. In case you’re not the sort of reader who clicks on links headlined “At Least One Candidate for Congress Has Fellated a Reindeer Nose“: Krystal Ball is a 28-year-old Virginia Democrat running for Congress in a very Republican district. She found herself suddenly in the national spotlight when a right-wing blog published six- or seven-year-old photos of Ball dressed as sexy Santa, performing the aforementioned act on a dildo affixed to her antler-wearing then-husband’s nose.
National sites like Gawker racked up hundreds of thousands of pageviews by republishing the photos. That, combined with her seriously? name quickly made Ball a punch line. But instead of backing away red-faced, Ball took umbrage: She fired back with a statement that was not only unapologetic but defiant. Soon it morphed into a manifesto of Facebook-generation feminism: “Society has to accept that women of my generation have sexual lives that are going to leak into the public sphere. Sooner or later, this is a reality that has to be faced, or many young women in my generation will not be able to run for office.” As for the photos, she finds them “tremendously embarrassing, but mostly because I’m shy, not because I think that what I did was wrong.” Millennial women writing on Jezebel, Broadsheet, Lemondrop, and the Frisky were indeed enthused. One 26-year-old I know went so far as to breathlessly compare the statement to Obama’s 2008 speech on race. But what’s most interesting about Ball is something that might not endear her to the left. She admires Sarah Palin—maybe not her policy views, but her nervy willingness to run as a mother of young children, and her unapologetic folksiness. And in a way, she has modeled herself after Palin. In her wholehearted embrace of femininity, her sense of entitlement, her bold jump to the front of the line, Ball may be the left’s answer to Sarah Palin.
For the left, the media coverage of the Ball photos set off a near-universal umbrage-taking. In particular, these women pointed at a double standard that lets someone like Scott Brown pose for cheesecake Cosmo spreads and suffer barely a dent, what Feministing’s Courtney E. Martin called the “stud/slut dichotomy.” Not everyone agreed that there was such a dichotomy: Hanna Rosin wrote on the XXFactor that “[i]t’s all well and good that women have sexual lives, but that doesn’t mean that voters want to see the details of them displayed in black, white, and red. We no more want to see our congresswoman sucking a red dildo than we want to read Mark Sanford write his mistress that he loves her ‘tan lines’ or hear Prince Charles talk about being Camilla’s tampon.” But just last week, photos were leaked of a middle-aged, male GOP candidate wearing duck pajamas in the company of scantily clad women on thecrushgirls.com, which he’d “liked” on Facebook. The story didn’t get much pick-up.
Despite the much-hyped feminist generational divide, older women swooned for Ball for slightly different reasons. Terry O’Neill, the 58-year-old president of the National Organization for Women (which endorsed the staunchly pro-choice Ball before the photo controversy) told me that she found the statement “brilliant” and “inspiring,” and that it broke one of the barriers her generation had faced. “In our early 30s, we always said ‘I’m not going to run, I’ve had a life’ … We believed that if we’d inhaled a bit, that made us ineligible to run for office. And so the United States missed out on some extraordinary talent, and we got a bunch of jerks instead.” Besides, she argued, the scandal had already put Ball through the sort of wringer that would make her a wiser, better leader.
In her statement, Ball echoes O’Neill’s version: “Women felt they had to choose between family and career, and they had to cover up almost any hint of sexuality in the workplace if they wanted to be taken as seriously as men,” she writes. Nowadays, women can wear their domesticity and femininity proudly. They are free, she writes, to advocate for nontoxic baby bottles, better insurance options for anorexics, etc. Ball did not take the advice consultants gave about tamping down her femininity, and O’Neill thinks that’s just fabulous.
That response taps into a broader generational affinity between boomers and millennials, who often can seem delighted by each other in a mutually congratulatory parent/child relationship. And Ball deftly tugs those strings, conjuring her own kind of Mama Grizzly: “They will not see their daughters called whores when they run for office just because of some college or post-college party. They will not watch the tide of everything they fought for washed away by the public exposure of female sexuality.” In the statement, Ball complains, maybe a little petulantly, that those older women had ignored her campaign, had wanted her to pay her dues. But she revised that slightly over the phone to me, generously ascribing motherly concern to them: “Part of their not supporting me initially was out of a sense that they were worried about what I was getting into.” That lack of support, Ball says, was partly so disappointing for her because Hillary Clinton’s grace under personal scrutiny in the ‘90s was a watershed moment. And she throws a little millennial Obama admiration into the explanation for why she ran, saying of the former sub-one-term senator, “When you look at who our president is, what’s more important than bullet points on résumé or years, is how you actually perform in the job.”
Ball’s other surprising inspiration was Palin, youngish and pretty and up on stage with her family and baby at the 2008 Republican National Convention. (O’Neill also told me an anecdote about her 17-year-old daughter watching that moment and telling her mom that while she’d say different things than Palin up on that stage, she’d be saying them in the same fresh, punchy way.) That’s what’s actually most striking about Ball’s lightning-rod candidacy and the feminist embrace of it: She’s the closest thing the left’s got right now to a Palin.
It’s not just that Ball’s young and attractive, plays up her traditional femininity (without styling herself as overtly sexy), and talks at every chance about how concern for her daughter’s future is motivating her campaign. Or that her husband, like Todd Palin before him, is an active and supportive but unofficial campaign adviser. It’s also her emphasis on fiscal responsibility. She’s a CPA but also implies it’s the housewifely role of balancing the family books that helps qualify her for reining in wasteful government spending. (Ball’s first TV ad is particularly Grizzly-esque, as she herself pointed out to me, though she says it isn’t so on purpose.) Or that, like so many of them, she’s brand-new to politics but had the jet-propulsive self-confidence to run without waiting her turn.
She might be quick to distance herself from O’Donnell, et al., on the issues, but spoke warmly of their “ordinary person” ethic. And she shares with those candidates a capacity to embrace what others what call embarrassing moments. Take, for instance, Palin’s recent comment that “‘Mr. Obama, you’re next, because now we can see 2012 from our house.’” Palin is not embarrassed by the famous “I can see Russia from my house” line, a Tina Fey joke about the former governor’s foreign policy expertise.; she’s made it a rallying cry. And while Ball probably won’t make dildo jokes any time soon, she’s not backing down. As Libby Copeland wrote in response to an informal e-mail poll I put to XXFactor contributors about Ball, “We are quite sensitive to any indication that women candidates are full of themselves. We’re still surprised and miffed when they demonstrate gumption unleavened by humility.” It’s that enviable, admirable chutzpah that has had lefty feminists twisted into pretzels over whether these Mama Grizzlies are feminists; someone like Ball lets them champion the attitude without the complicating factor of conservative beliefs on women’s issues.
There is the final question of whether women’s sexuality belongs anywhere in a campaign, and where those lessons start. As my colleague Dahlia Lithwick wrote in an e-mail, “Everything we do to tell young women that their sexuality (and the public display of their sexuality) makes them serious and powerful strikes me as a losing game.” But it seems to me that there’s more of a difference in the way you understand the world, and how to be taken seriously in it, between 22 and 28 than there might be at, say, 32 vs. 38. So even if Dahlia is right about the larger point—and I think she probably is—I can’t stop myself from cheering a little for Ball.