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."