Making ‘Em Squeal: Joni Ernst’s “Dangerous” Political Femininity

With November’s midterm congressional elections approaching, most states are currently in the midst of primary campaigns. While these local-level contests usually don’t attract much attention beyond state borders, the possibilities of viral video circulation occasionally introduce a particularly memorable candidate to the rest of the nation. While her five-way senatorial primary is still a close race, Iowa State Senator Joni Ernst recently caught the attention of the national media with a new video ad. The Republican candidate makes a lasting impression – one that could propel her to political meme fame akin to that of former Delaware senatorial candidate Christine O’Donnell – by opening the TV spot with a sensational statement: “I’m Joni Ernst. I grew up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm, so when I get to Washington, I’ll know how to cut pork.”

Given the backlash amongst Iowa voters to Democratic candidate Bruce Braley’s recent statement that current Senator Charles Grassley is just “a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school,” Ernst’s appeal to the state’s agricultural base could spell out success, at least in the short-term. The ad’s playful tone demonstrates that the campaign embraces Ernst’s experiences on a hog farm, projecting them as the quintessential characteristics of Iowan life that make the state’s voters and political climate unique. Indeed, it’s unlikely that candidates from other states would include their own blend of Pork Rub in their online campaign store.

Far from the Hawkeye state, however, national media outlets have picked up Ernst’s ad. Notably, it has received play on The Colbert Report and The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. Fallon reacts with visible disbelief and disgust, stammering that “I don’t know what she’s running for but let’s just give her the job” and parodying her with, “Hi I’m Joni Ernst, and I grew up throwing battery acid in people’s faces.” Colbert, never breaking character, gives Ernst the kind of treatment that his program spares no guest, topic, or controversy. Running with a theme of castration jokes, he imagines Ernst’s girlhood as uniquely shaped by her involvement with the family hog farm, suggesting that she never read Charlotte’s Web and only failed to operate on Ken dolls because of the toys’ pre-existing lack of genitalia. Further, he addresses male anxieties surrounding castration, noting that “Ernst already got Mitt Romney’s endorsement, and she can have mine too if she comes nowhere near me.”

While Fallon and Colbert are, of course, primarily concerned with landing a joke that will resonate with their audiences, I think that the responses of these male TV personalities offer a point of entry into an important discussion of gender and electoral politics. Ernst’s ad is undeniably quirky, and has successfully garnered attention for her campaign, but will likely be grouped alongside both ads and gaffes from other Republican women like O’Donnell, Sarah Palin, and Michele Bachmann. While these candidates cannot be called feminists, the prevailing expectation of their incompetency is indicative of masculinist views on political strength, capability, and subjectivity. What separates Ernst from some of her fellow Republican women is that she has not yet failed; in fact, a campaign that focuses its energy and resources on appealing to the agricultural base in Iowa could be successful. Thus, while the ad is undeniably sensationalist, it takes the work of male comedians to equate Ernst’s statements about castrating hogs with a sense that she threatens masculinity.

Fallon’s comparison of the common farm practice Ernst references to throwing acid at people not only signals the disconnect that has long existed between urban and rural or agricultural voters, but also betrays a sense that women who are willing to participate in such agricultural work do not fit within comfortable, safe gender boundaries. Likewise, the Des Moines Register reported that one political operative has joked that Ernst’s Secret Service codename would be “Lorena Bobbit,” further demonstrating the discomfort that Ernst has caused. And while it may be unlikely that a male candidate would make such a joke in campaign materials, Ernst’s womanhood and willingness to cross boundaries are proving threatening to some parts of established political authority.

While Colbert’s jokes hint at similar responses, they might also leave space for a critique of ‘proper’ girlhood activities even while parodying the ad’s shock-value. In satirically suggesting that Ernst’s childhood involvement in farm work was not a part of ‘normal’ girlhood, Colbert gestures to the need for a re-evaluation of traditional femininity in politics. For Ernst’s agricultural background to suggest that she is not fit for office exposes the thin line that female candidates must walk, maintaining a desirable feminine appearance and demeanor while demonstrating that she possesses the competence, rationality, and focus that are required to participate in what is still very much an old boys’ club.

Constraints on female politicians are frequently up for discussion in the contemporary United States, amongst voters, analysts, pundits, and policy makers alike. Many voters on both sides of the aisle can agree that female candidates as ideologically distinct as Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin have faced extra obstacles to elected office by virtue of their gender and expectations of femininity and skepticism of a woman’s qualifications, even before she has the chance to demonstrate them. Ernst’s platform is inconsistent with contemporary feminisms, but her ad offers an intervention into particular dominant, masculinist logics operating in Congress, providing a critique that might leave space for much more radical interpretation and citation than Ernst could have ever intended. While I won’t join Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin in giving my endorsement to Ernst, I do applaud her willingness to run this ad – she shows that women in politics don’t need to be ‘ballsy’ to be brave.

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