In maintaining the goal of reaching out to their bases, Mitt went to Liberty and Barack went to Barnard. While I criticized Romney in the last post for not doing a better job with his speech to reach out to Christian conservative voters, Obama uses his speech, and his humor, to try to connect with female voters. Unfortunately, nearly all of Obama’s humor in the speech is about gender and some of it rather it rather ill advised. It’s not that he shouldn’t address these graduates as women, for this is a women’s college, but the choice of what to joke about at times seemed strange, marginalizing, and maybe even offensive. Let’s go to the jokes…
I will begin by telling a hard truth: I’m a Columbia college graduate. (Laughter and applause.) I know there can be a little bit of a sibling rivalry here.
Pretty good first joke. Obama went to Columbia College as an undergraduate completing his degree just before the College began admitting women in the fall of 1983. Barnard has a long and complicated relationship with Columbia and Obama’s joke recognizes that there can be tension between the two schools. It is reminiscent of a joke that President Kennedy made upon receiving an honorary degree from Yale: “Let me begin by expressing my appreciation for the very deep honor which you have conferred upon me. As General de Gaulle occasionally acknowledges America to be the daughter of Europe, so I am pleased to come to Yale, the daughter of Harvard. It might be said now that I have the best of both worlds, a Harvard education and a Yale degree.” Where Kennedy wanted to acknowledge the rivalry between the two schools and even take a dig at his hosts, Obama’s strategic needs were different. He chose to use humor to downplay that his degree came from the more widely known, and at the time exclusionary, Columbia by framing it as “a hard truth”. It is important for speaker to explain their connection to the audience and, if that connection is the source of any tension, humor can be an effective way to dispose of it.
But I will point out Hillary is doing an extraordinary job as one of the finest Secretaries of State America has ever had. We gave Meryl the Presidential Medal of Arts and Humanities. Sheryl is not just a good friend; she’s also one of our economic advisers. So it’s like the old saying goes — keep your friends close, and your Barnard commencement speakers even closer. There’s wisdom in that.
Obama is smart to recognize previous Barnard commencement speakers, all women, and to praise them. In the last line he uses an unexpected shift of the phrase “keep your friends close and your enemies closer” to recast the “enemies” as “Barnard commencement speakers” whom he keeps close for their accomplishments and counsel. Humor can be used strategically to ingratiate oneself to an audience by praising their previous good works, in this case the quality of their choices of commencement speakers including, presumably, their choice of Obama.
We had the Walkman, not iPods. Some of the streets around here were not quite so inviting.
In talking about what life was like when Obama was at Columbia, he references changes in technology and in the neighborhood. This seems a reasonable way to seek credibility to speak about the students’ college experience, but it does reinforce the idea that Morningside Heights used to be scary, now it’s better, and everyone thinks that’s good. Of course it’s a little more complicated.
So far, so good. But here’s where I think Obama tries to make his case for his concern about “women’s issues” but fails to use humor strategically to make his points.
And I believe that the women of this generation — that all of you will help lead the way. Now, I recognize that’s a cheap applause line when you’re giving a commencement at Barnard. It’s the easy thing to say.
If you are going to say something that may seem trite, but still needs to be said, it helps to acknowledge to your audience that you know and they know and that you know they know what you are trying to do. Obama continues:
But it’s true. It is — in part, it is simple math. Today, women are not just half this country; you’re half its workforce. More and more women are out-earning their husbands. You’re more than half of our college graduates, and master’s graduates, and PhDs. So you’ve got us outnumbered.
This joke seems both masculinist and heteronormative. “Women are out-earning their husbands” defines women based on their place in a heterosexual marriage, even if their economic position in that relationship is improved. It’s true that those numbers are up, but in households where both a husband and wife work, only 29% of wives earn more than their husbands. But where women do outnumber men is in the voting booth. And even though getting women to vote for him is Obama’s main purpose for this speech, he fails to address that directly. Still, Obama would have been better served by addressing the role that these women will play in society, not in their possible future role as heterosexual wives.
I think of a friend of mine who’s the daughter of immigrants. When she was in high school, her guidance counselor told her, you know what, you’re just not college material. You should think about becoming a secretary. Well, she was stubborn, so she went to college anyway. She got her master’s. She ran for local office, won. She ran for state office, she won. She ran for Congress, she won. And lo and behold, Hilda Solis did end up becoming a secretary — she is America’s Secretary of Labor.
So this joke, another based on gender, is a bit better in that it’s the story of a woman who defied expectations. Still, the humor is based on an incongruity that reinforces gender roles (that when the audience hears “secretary” and “she” they assume a clerical position, not a Cabinet one). The audience did cheer and laugh indicating that they got the joke when Obama said Hilda Solis’s name. So while this joke reinscribed gender roles even as it tried to argue that they have changed, parts of the immediate audience enjoyed it.
Until a girl can imagine herself, can picture herself as a computer programmer, or a combatant commander, she won’t become one. Until there are women who tell her, ignore our pop culture obsession over beauty and fashion — (applause) — and focus instead on studying and inventing and competing and leading, she’ll think those are the only things that girls are supposed to care about. Now, Michelle will say, nothing wrong with caring about it a little bit. (Laughter.) You can be stylish and powerful, too. (Applause.) That’s Michelle’s advice. (Applause.)
I have left in the parts of the transcript that indicated applause and laughter. Some members of the audience seemed to like this section, but from watching the video I would say that the response was tepid given the size of the crowd. This part of the speech just seems very strange to me. Would Obama, in a speech to a male or a predominantly male college make any reference to the physical appearance of the graduates? I doubt it. See for example Obama’s commencement address at West Point in 2010. He singles out the top cadet and the valedictorian for special recognition, both women, but makes no mention of how they looked while achieving those accomplishments. Does the second part about Michelle help him connect with some kinds of women? Maybe, but not all and likely not many in this audience. Are these jokes aimed at the parents? Does he invoke Michelle’s name to lessen the sexism of his remarks? He does mention Michelle, by inference, later in the speech.
And later on, I met a woman who was assigned to advise me on my first summer job at a law firm. And she gave me such good advice that I married her.
She was so good at what she did, she was marriageable? So Michelle Robinson’s accomplishments (in this case having graduated from law school before Barack did despite being three years younger and being in a superior position at the law firm) are not mentioned so that the graduates can use them as an example for professional ambition, but they are laudatory because they serve as an example of how professional success can lead to marriage?
Grade = C+
Much of Obama’s humor in the speech serves to reinforce gender paradigms. He could have done a better job tying his humor into larger arguments about the importance of women and his differences with the Republicans by demonstrating that he does not view women’s primary role as only in relation to men. And the heteronormativity following last week’s announcement didn’t help.
Transcript of President Obama’s Barnard College Commencement Remarks