British actress Olivia Williams with sabre fish.
Mindy Meyer has come to be understood as the Snooki candidate. The 22-year-old Touro College law student is running for the New York state Senate against incumbent Democrat Kevin Parker, but while the state’s 21st District covers mid-Brooklyn neighborhoods like Flatbush and Kensington, her website — which layers leopard print on Claire’s Boutique pink — seems to better indicate an interest in representing the fictional Jersey Shore. In a political culture where most candidate websites are limited to a palette of power red, American blue and up to three shades of gray, this is a bold statement. Visiting the site is like time-traveling back into some Geocities monstrosity from the Web that time forgot: A banner shows Meyer proclaiming, “I’m Senator And I Know It” while the referred-to LMFAO song autoplays. (Autoplays! Like MySpace!) The general aesthetic could be best described as haute-Blingee.
Though apparently a sincere candidate, she has attracted a large amount of media interest based mainly on the humor value, prompting mentions on ABC News, CNN, the Daily News and pretty much every local TV station. There is no denying that, whatever her intentions, she is one of this season’s joke candidates. (At this point we should note both that Meyer is an Orthodox Jew and that the New York Post, with its trademark wit, has called her the “Magenta Yenta,” which really is one of their better ones.) But there is something more interesting, and more novel, going on with the erstwhile diva. Mindy Meyer is the first nationally noticed candidate to truly represent Web culture. Proudly cheap, unserious and centered on humor, she seems to be successfully trolling the national media, attracting attention by inviting mockery. It won’t get her the seat, of course, though it’s unlikely any Republican candidate would be able to win in that particular district. But as the Internet becomes an increasingly common tool for politics, Meyer’s candidacy raises the question of when the style of the Internet will truly become a part of American politics. And when it does, what will that mean? Meyer’s candidacy seems to indicate that it will be a horrid hellscape of blink tags and half-assed Photoshop. But there might be something there not just acceptable, but maybe even better.
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The Internet is, of course, already a major part of politics. Seemingly everyone involved with government has a Twitter account now, half the action in campaigns involves YouTube somehow or other, and blogs are a major generator of political news.
And a small bit of the style has seeped in, it’s true. As compared to campaigns’ early efforts, online communication in the last couple of cycles has managed to not be totally tone-deaf about different forums’ particular styles. The Obama campaign has gotten notably good at hiring interns or low-level staffers to convincingly portray an actual Tumblr user rather than just a bot. (“NBD, it’s just SPOCK WITH OUR IPHONE CASE.”) But candidates manifesting this style are largely absent from the national, or even local, landscape. Certain politicians have used the Internet to get elected, but few have really represented it. Howard Dean, for instance, made extensive use of MeetUp, but seemed to have only the most tenuous grasp of how the Web worked at the time; President Obama is an email junkie, and his team is good at hiring people, but it’s hard to picture him memeing up a storm. There have been occasional outcroppings of Web culture, like the “I believe Outkast will not break up” video Gen. Wesley Clark’s team produced in 2004, causing us to briefly consider him capable of beating George W. Bush in the general election. (It was a weird year.) But when will there be someone of the Internet in politics — someone for whom the references and modes of expression common to the Web will be a native language?
Politics is incredibly conservative aesthetically. It is one of the few domains of American professional life that still requires a full suit, and perhaps the only one in which swearing could be considered scandalous. This is due in no small part to the much higher turnout among the elderly; a few more young voters and we’d have ourselves a Poochie candidate in no time. When change comes, then, it tends to be generational. Rock music, and the mid-century youth counterculture in general, was hugely controversial when it emerged, not just disreputable but seen as an active threat. Historian James Gilbert has documented the years of congressional hearings and legislation attempting to regulate the emerging culture. Yet in 1992 a bunch of sex-crazed hopheads named Fleetwood Mac played Bill Clinton’s inaugural ball and basically no one cared, even though the wife of the vice president had instigated Senate hearings on the unacceptable profanity of Cyndi Lauper lyrics not seven years prior. A culture seems like political poison until all of a sudden it isn’t, usually because someone who grew up with it realizes a bunch of other people also grew up with it and figures out a way to make it seem wholesome and American. (Remember when Bill O’Reilly was mad at Pepsi for hiring Ludacris? Ludacris! Six years later Jay-Z and Beyoncé would be taking pictures under the presidential seal in the White House.)
Eventually this will happen for the Web, but Meyer seems an unlikely transformative figure. Still, this sort of thing doesn’t happen without a bunch of false starts. The Beatles’ “Come Together” was originally intended as a campaign song for Timothy Leary’s gubernatorial campaign, after all, and could have proudly soundtracked anti-Reagan ads had Leary not been sent to jail. When Clinton brought boomers into the White House, he emphasized some parts of the image Leary represented waaaaaaaay more than he did others.
That’ll happen with the Web too. But Meyer is a decent enough first test case. She’s got the Web’s aesthetics down. It’s brash, focused on pop culture, and referential, taking existing properties within a fan community and remixing it to apply the fictional world to her own life. Instead of trying to simulate the weathered dignity of meatspace, she embraces the Web’s cheap artificiality. She’s the Wonkette candidate, the new aesthetic made flesh. And, like everything that really works on the Web, she doesn’t take herself too seriously, using humor and self-deprecation to endear herself to first-time visitors and create a likable persona, in a way that entirely clashes with the self-serious dignities of mainstream politics. Sure, right now her opponent is right when he says that “no one’s ever won an election based on something on their website.” But it also used to be true that no one ever won an election based on how they looked on TV. How’d that work out for Nixon?
In addition to the aesthetics, though, she seems to be employing a technique the Web specializes in: trolling. Rather than trying to avoid or cover up gaffes, as is traditional in politics, she is running full speed ahead into the negative coverage she’s received. It’s not like she’s unaware of it. Her “Mindy in the Media” page proudly displays mocking headlines like “Mindy Meyer’s ‘State Senate Campaign’ Website Explodes On Twitter, Is Truly Awful.” But why wouldn’t she keep doing what she’s doing? Capital NY writer Azi Paybarah says that when he started covering Meyer, she had 21 followers, while at the time of writing she now has over 1,100. (Because this is the Internet, a parody account‘s follower count now also outpaces Paybarah’s benchmark, though only by 3.) Her design choices likely weren’t meant as trolling, but at the moment she understands that they’re pretty much universally considered the wrong decision and decides to keep doing it anyway, it becomes trolling.
More specifically, it’s an example of what Maura Johnston calls “trollgaze,” a process by which up-and-comers intentionally act like awful people to leverage the Internet’s apparently insatiable need to make fun of things — and then successfully turn all that negative attention into greater visibility and (dot dot dot) profit. This is different from the well-worn path to political glory by which one becomes a figure of controversy for one side of the spectrum and thus a hero to the other. Meyer is aping a thing almost everyone in America believes is awful in and of itself, let alone as an aspect of politics. The Jersey Shore is such a well-worn object of scorn that Jay Leno makes fun of it. Rather than running away from such a live cultural hand grenade, though, Meyer’s making news by being the one person to fall on it. This is something the Web makes uniquely possible. Pre-Web, everyone in America might be making fun of the same thing, but to any individual observer it just looked like a fleeting joke repeated once to your friends and then forgotten. Now, with the advent of metrics, it becomes a trending topic on Twitter, which makes it something every news outlet in the country has to comment on, which makes it a news story. That’s the wave Meyer is riding now.
But is it really all bad? To accept that we should be making fun of Meyer for having a hot pink website (rather than, say, not knowing who Andrew Cuomo is) is to accept that such a thing really is worthy of mockery, and therefore really is outside the realm of politics. A funny thing about what most of America makes fun of, though, is that they tend to fall into a certain category. Social scientists would call it “experiences coded as deviant,” while the rest of us might go with “everything outside the experience of middle-class straight white dudes.” This would certainly include feminine things (Lindsay Lohan), or things that get coded as feminine (Justin Bieber), but also gay or transgender things (Chris Crocker), things that are ethnic (Jersey Shore) or racial (Eli Porter), working-class things (Britney Spears) and, OK, rich people things too (Paris Hilton). If we see that these things are considered abnormal, by monitoring late-night comedy and Twitter trends and water-cooler banter, then we understand that you can’t act that way and be accepted into politics. You will be ignored by the media because you will be not be considered a viable candidate — though, in fairness to the media, you won’t actually be a viable candidate, which is the terrible Catch-22 of it all.
What a trollgaze politics offers, then, is an alternate route into the mainstream. It’s a second-class one, to be sure, but compared with the virtual choke hold the dominant image of “American” holds over politics in all but the most non-straightwhitedude of districts, such a path could serve as a foot in the door. Recall that women make up under 17 percent of Congress, and there are no — zero — African-Americans in the Senate. If Meyer’s trick is a demeaning way of getting attention, it is at least a successful one. And it has more merit than we might like to grant it. As horrifying as it is that she cites Elle Woods and “Legally Blonde” as an inspiration for her entry into politics, it shouldn’t matter why a young women would get inspired to get involved in politics as long as she’s good at what she does — right? It certainly does not speak well for Meyer’s viability that she doesn’t know not to bring up Reese Witherspoon while running for the New York state Senate, but if she’s not going to win anyway, why not say it? Why not make visible the actual things that we find inspirational? On her issues page she appears in a clearly Instagrammed photo as Katniss from “The Hunger Games.” Sure! Why not! Do we really need more tiresomely uncultured Ayn Randy dorks clogging up our politics like a ball of cotton/poly blends and fast food wrappers soaked in off-brand Axe body spray? No, we do not! We need more fearless style punks willing to be weird, especially when what’s “weird” is really profoundly normal for a certain group of people.
Mindy Meyer isn’t that, not exactly. But she’s a gesture in the right direction. And the fact that she’s been able to get some attention points to a way all these negative aspects of the Internet — its knee-jerk mockery, its enabling of fame seekers, its trivialization of public life — might lead to something good for politics. If all that pink can attract a version of Mindy Meyer who actually knows what she’s talking about, then this whole strange campaign will have been a net positive.
Michael Barthel is a PhD candidate in the communication department at the University of Washington. He has written about pop music for the Awl, Idolator, and the Village Voice. More Michael Barthel.
British actress Olivia Williams with sabre fish.
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