the body politic

America’s ‘Daughters’ Grow Up To Be Women It Can’t Handle

Defiant young girls have become a political symbol in a country that fears grown women.

Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

In the days after the election was called, an image of the vice-president-elect, Kamala Harris, went viral on social media. It showed her striding, in heels and briefcase, alongside a building. On the wall next to her projected, as her shadow, was the instantly recognizable silhouette of Norman Rockwell’s Ruby Bridges, who as a first-grader had integrated her New Orleans public school in November of 1960. “The design symbolizes two powerful women in history who overcame the odds and stood with strength against everyone who didn’t want to see them succeed,” the artist behind the image, a white woman named Bria Goeller, has said of it.

As many on Twitter and elsewhere pointed out, the use of Bridges’s image next to Harris was complicated and ahistorical: Ruby Bridges is still very much alive; in fact, her mother passed away just this week. Bridges is a civil-rights activist, the author of a newly published book about her experiences; she also shared the Harris meme on her Instagram account, writing that she was “honored to be a part of this path and grateful to stand alongside” Harris.

The use of her image next to Harris’s may stir in millions, including in Bridges herself, a warm feeling about the possibility of progress. But it can be too easy for those who have not walked those paths to forget that in life, Bridges, the child, was not treated as a signal of feel-good advancement; she was met at her school by violent mobs who threatened and threw things at her, was taught by the only instructor who did not quit the school in protest of her enrollment.

Embrace of the image of a child in Harris’s shadow, in this case Bridges, works to make both history and present appear neater, sweeter, and less disruptive than they actually are, and distorts a more disquieting reality: Harris is only ten years younger than Bridges. The story that the California senator told in an early debate, when she herself was running for the top-ticket job and challenged Joe Biden on his past policy positions on school desegregation, included her famous line, “that little girl was me.” That perhaps makes the elision between her and Bridges more powerful, but also feels less good than I think it’s intended to. The lived reality of racism, the fight for gender equity, these are not ancient history, and one of the ways that we make it easier for ourselves to digest (or perhaps, to not think about quite so hard) is by using ideas conjured by images of children to stand in for the women we find it so challenging to talk honestly about.

There’s never been another woman, before Harris, elected to federal executive office in the United States; women make up just 26 percent of the Senate and 23 percent of the House of Representatives. That the first female vice-president will be a Black woman, of Indian descent, makes her even more of a historical anomaly; when she arrived in the senate in 2017, Harris came as only the second Black woman ever elected to that body; the United States has never, not once, even elected a Black woman governor.

While at least some of this has been lost in the din over this unusual election, Harris’s place in the West Wing is enormously disruptive to everything we’ve known so far about who can wield political power in this country, and who has been barred from it.

I’ve been thinking about this seismic shift — which happened after so long and then so quickly — and how it was presented, framed, and how it’s being sold to an American people who are about to get a new view of what vice-presidential power looks like, and what it means to get excited about it.

In late October, the Lincoln Project, the group of mostly male Never Trump Republicans, released an ad that focused on the toxic messages sent by the president and his administration to young girls. It showed images of young girls, elementary-aged through teens, most of them white, looking at themselves in mirrors and watching TV in search of role models, wondering about their own worth against a background of the 45th president telling CNN reporter Abby Phillip that she “ask[s] a lot of stupid questions,” describing blood “coming out of” Megyn Kelly’s “wherever,” calling Rosie O’Donnell’s face “fat [and] ugly,” and calling Harris herself a “monster.”

In voiceover, a female narrator told viewers, “Your daughters are listening and absorbing that message right in front of your eyes,” urging them to instead “imagine a different future for her. A future with a president who doesn’t just value a female voice, but chooses one to be his right-hand woman.” Here the ad showed Harris, whom the narrator described as “unafraid to take on a bully,” over a shot of the “Fearless Girl” statue installed on Wall Street in 2017, originally across from the “Charging Bull” statue.

“Imagine that little girl in the mirror,” the Lincoln Project ad continued, “because that little girl is yours,” a callback to that sharp critique Harris had leveled at the man who was now her now running mate in an early debate.

So it was an ad about Kamala Devi Harris, sort of. But it was really an ad about the nameless little girls cast as daughters of its imagined viewers, and ended with the exhortation “vote for her” over the image of one of them. This was a sideways approach to voters, calling on them to cast ballots for a woman, not by voting for the woman herself, but rather on behalf of the futures of millions of nonspecific little women — theoretical daughters.

Part of what made the ad so dismally sad (to me, anyway; lots of other people seemed to enjoy it) was its similarity to two ads that had been released during the 2016 presidential race by Hillary Clinton’s campaign. One, “Role Models,” showed images of young children listening to Trump’s remarks to Megyn Kelly, his assertion that Mexico is sending the United States rapists and drug dealers, his bragging about shooting someone on Fifth Avenue, noting in silent script, “Our children are watching.” The other, “Mirrors,” was more directly about Trump’s attitudes toward women and girls, pulling many of his degrading comments about women’s looks and intellect over text asking, “Is this the president we want for our daughters?” The echoing sameness of the Lincoln Project ad, four years later, is a grim reminder of how, despite the piles of evidence of his monstrosity that were being broadcast in ads like these, the call to vote not just “for her,” but “for Her,” had, in 2016, been too repellent to too many Americans to prevail.

Of course, that unpleasant reminder shimmers just behind Harris’s position as Biden’s right-hand woman, too. Because in this 2020 primary contest, it had in fact been easier for millions to vote for their daughters by voting for Joe Biden than it had been to vote for their daughters by voting for any of the six grown women, including Harris herself, who were actually competing to be the president against Biden. But part of selling him in the general, and selling her as his running mate, required asking voters (especially white voters, who were most in question) to go out with all the Fearless Girl enthusiasm they have never been able to muster for an actual woman — not Clinton, or Harris, or Elizabeth Warren — and direct it toward making him the president.

Children have long been useful when it comes to selling America on women in public life. The trick is as old as time, knotted with centuries-old concepts of Republican Motherhood and the notion that (white) women’s patriotic duty is to instill in the next generation a sense of civic responsibility, and a way for politically driven women to leverage one of the only acceptable roles for which they are broadly valued: as protectors and nurturers of the young. Harris, who doesn’t have biological children, has foregrounded her role as Momala (step-mother to husband Doug Emhoff’s two children) and Auntie to her niece Meena and Meena’s young children, who appeared onstage with her in white the night she and Biden acknowledged their victory.

But it’s a little different when the most appealing way to advertise the unprecedented ascension of women to new positions of power is to avert your eyes slightly away from them, and instead focus on children.

Children are easier to feel good about because, as children, they have less power than adult women. They are not currently competing for your job, or arguing that they can command your armed forces or pick a cabinet, or being smarter than you or rejecting your advances or talking to you like a teacher or bringing up your record on school busing (which — just to be clear — led Biden’s circle, before they congratulated themselves on having chosen her to run with him anyway, to describe Harris as disloyal, ungrateful, and “a slick and slippery person”).

This summer, on the night that Harris accepted the nomination to the vice-presidency during the Democratic National Convention, the party showed a montage of women’s progress in politics and activism. It included a brief clip from a viral video of Wynta-Amor Rogers, a 7-year-old Black girl from Long Island who had stared fiercely at the camera as she marched and chanted “No justice! No peace!” in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. The image of a Black child, let alone one raising her hands in challenge to systemic injustice, is not imbued with the same kind of imagined innocence in the American imagination as the pig-tailed white subject of, say, the Fearless Girl statue. Black children are read as more threatening than their white peers. But this child’s calls, in this context, were presented as adorable, righteous. It’s inconceivable that the party would have showcased an adult Black woman making demands with equivalent ferocity and projected it as inspiring; in fact, it is exactly such ferocity that factions of the Democratic party are now blaming for its down-ballot losses.

Little girls are more comfortable because they are a kind of woman over whom parents, and imagined parents — and party leaders — wield literal authority. When we blur our view of real, adult women, and replace them with nonspecific children, still unformed symbols of potential, our imaginations can fashion these little girls as unblemished and future-perfect, the political equivalent of cinema’s manic pixie dream girl: the fantasized woman who meets our every desire, as opposed to the present woman who somehow, weirdly and inevitably, lets us down.

When I see how young girls are used in political messaging, it sometimes makes me think not of how much other people care for little girls’ futures, but rather about how much they dislike grown women. It makes me think of the men, everywhere on the political spectrum, who speak of their (often shallow) commitment to feminism as stemming from their roles “as the fathers of daughters.” Because simply being a “peer of women” doesn’t clear the bar. It makes me think about how hard it is to admire grown women, and also to criticize them humanely and respectfully, to depict them as complex and aggressive and attractive and conflicted and disappointing and admirable and imperfect and fully human.

On Saturday, the artist Kara Walker, who had in some places been erroneously credited as the artist of the Harris-Bridges image, shared a sketch on her Instagram, which she described as “more ‘Karawalkerish’ than the Kamala piece that’s been floating around.” Soon it was finished and filled in with ink. It showed a female silhouette of indeterminate age, but muscular, and larger than Donald Trump, aggressively kicking him to the curb. It is gorgeous.

America’s ‘Daughters’ Grow Up To Be Women It Can’t Handle