Joni Ernst for Senate, “Squeal”

  • Title: “Squeal”
  • Sponsor: Joni Ernst for U.S. Senate
  • Issue of Focus: American economy, balanced budget, spending cuts, repeal Obamacare
  • Type of Advertisement: Self-Introductory Ad
  • Broadcast Location: Iowa
  • Release Date: March 24, 2014
  • Length: 30-second spot
  • Web Address: http://www.joniforiowa.com/landing/make-em-squeal/

“Squeal” Script

Joni:  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.

Voiceover:  Joni Ernst. Mother, soldier, conservative.

Joni:  My parents taught us to live within our means. It’s time to force Washington to do the same; to cut wasteful spending, repeal Obamacare, and balance the budget. I’m Joni Ernst and I approve this message because Washington’s full of big spenders. Let’s make ‘em squeal.

Analysis of “Let’s Make ‘Em Squeal”

Nma Winnie Obike, University of Maryland

Introduction and Context

Conservative, mother, soldier and castrating hog expert. Joni Ernst combined these credentials into an impressive thirty-second ad that captured the attention of Iowa voters and the nation. Her political resumé as a Republican member of the Iowa senate and current Lieutenant Colonel of the Iowa Army National Guard added to voters’ curiosity about her senatorial bid against Bruce Braley, a current U.S. Representative. The “Squeal” ad was Ernst’s first ad of the senatorial campaign. I argue that the ad functioned as a conservative woman’s account of the frontier myth that positions her as more Iowan than Washingtonian through the ad’s reference to a rural and agricultural practice of castrating hogs. In the process, Joni Ernst uses rural humor to position herself as an expert, a receptacle of civic ideals, and a carrier and challenger of masculine patriarchy.

The Frontier Myth and American Political Life

Ernst’s farm girl narrative appealed to Iowans’ appreciation for the practice of rearing hogs in the heart of the Midwest. She used the image-text of castrated, bloodied hogs to invoke the untamed state of nature. The frontier thesis, propounded by Frederick Jackson Turner, is a popular historical explanation of “the peculiarity of American institutions.”[1] As American settlers moved west, they encountered a wild terrain and conquered it but maintained the rugged quality of their travail—a ruggedness which is still evident in political and economic life today.

Ernst’s ad revealed a lot about her upbringing in the western frontier. Ernst began the ad with the words “I grew up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm, so when I get to Washington, I’ll know how to cut pork.” One can deduce an appeal to expertise from Ernst’s use of the phrase “castrating hogs.” Her use of the word hogs punctuated her expertise as a knowledgeable farm girl.[2] In using the term hogs, Ernst aimed her critique at the “mature” lawmakers in Washington whose inefficiencies have resulted in wasteful government spending. Thus, she implies that her expert ability to tame wild animals is synonymous with her expertise at taming the excesses of politics.

Ernst’s claims of expertise were supported by her stance and eye contact during the ad. The “Squeal” ad featured Ernst as the main subject without any references to her opponent.  As the main subject of the ad, Ernst began her address by standing tall and looking directly into the camera. She spoke through a smile as she introduced herself to the audience. By looking directly into the camera, Ernst’s words constituted a direct address to the audience.[3] Her appeal to expertise was persuasive as she stated, “It’s time to force Washington to do the same; to cut wasteful spending, repeal Obamacare, and balance the budget.” The Ernst campaign equivocated her expertise as a farm girl with her political expertise and invited the audience to trust her to perform these policy actions if elected to the U.S. Senate.

The Frontier Woman and American Civic Ideals

Ernst’s ability to blend the virtues of the farm land with national political-economic life invoked the ideal mythic image of the frontier woman. Leroy Dorsey’s analysis of President Theodore Roosevelt’s rhetoric revealed that he regarded the frontier woman as one who “embraced the rugged individualism needed on the wild frontier but upheld her civic responsibility to birth and rear a mighty nation.”[4] The ad demonstrated these qualities and much more. It also defined her as a “mother, soldier and conservative,” in that specific order.

The ad bolstered Ernst’s image as a frontier woman, by highlighting her status as a mother. In this mythic construct, Ernst as the mother-figure is regarded as the receptacle of civic virtue whose task is to pass on the ideals of civic life to her children, especially her sons.  Following her assertion of “mother” is that of “soldier.” The “Squeal” ad not only portrayed Ernst as a frontier woman but as a militant frontier woman. The myth of the frontier woman valorizes the role of the mother in molding her children into responsible citizens – her daughters to become faithful mothers and her sons to become fearless in sacrificing their own self-interests to protect the nation. The appeal of the ad rests on the illustration of Ernst as the consummate frontier woman who embodies both militant masculine and docile feminine virtues of the homeland.[5]

The Rhetorical Appropriations of Feminism

The final persuasive element of the “Squeal” ad is Ernst’s appropriation of feminist rhetoric. As a conservative woman candidate, Ernst relied on the power of her feminine presence in the campaign for the senate to garner attention. Her message to make the “big spenders” in Washington squeal is a metaphorical subversion of masculinity. Ernst equated Washington lawmakers to pigs, a dirty word and a dirty animal. Thus, she created a metaphor to aid voters in understanding her “opponent.” Historically, feminists were discredited with stereotypical imagery that they were intent on emasculating men by metaphorically “castrating” them. Ernst’s rhetoric, while not overtly feministic, drew on a stereotype of feminism to undermine the “oppressive patriarchy” of democratic policies.

There is precedence for conservative women running for office who employ feminist rhetoric to further their campaign goals. Scholars of Governor Sarah Palin’s rhetoric have argued that in her book chapter, “The Rise of the Mama Grizzlies,” Palin appropriated “the history of the women’s rights movement and the symbols and language of feminism to position her audience of contemporary conservative women as the rightful heirs of a distinctly American frontier feminism.”[6] Similarly, Ernst positioned herself as the rightful heir to the senate seat by appropriating feminism in her narrative of the conservative woman candidate. She also displayed her familiarity and mastery of wild life as a frontier woman and connected that experience with political leadership.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Joni Ernst’s campaign relied on the mythic image of the frontier woman to persuade her audience of her credentials as a political expert. She garnered cultural currency with her Iowa constituency, by relying on the theoretical framework of republican motherhood and her persona as a militant frontier woman. According to a recent survey, Ernst is leading Braley by 6 points, 50–44 percent among likely voters. This is a change from the past few months where Braley had been in the lead or tied with Ernst.[7] The prominence of the “Squeal” ad cannot be overstated. Ernst’s campaign website displays the ad on its landing page and has commercialized it by selling “squeal gear.” Ernst’s frontier woman appeal and her appropriation of feminism have made her a household name among conservatives in Iowa and around the nation.

Notes

[1] Frederick Jackson Turner, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” ed. Jack Lynch in The Frontier in American History (New York: Henry Holt, 1921). http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~jlynch/Texts/frontier.html.

[2] According to the Encyclopedia Britannica Online, “Pig Mammal Group,” in The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica: “Pig (mammal Group), accessed on October 6, 2014. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/1378988/pig;  in Britain, the term pigs refers to all domesticated swine while in the U.S. only younger swine which are not yet ready for market and are weighing less than 180 pounds are called pigs; other being called hogs. Hogs are mature pigs and Ernst’s use of the term revealed her American sensibilities since most of the rest of the English speaking world refers to pigs as pigs regardless of maturity or weight.

[3] Michael Argyle, Bodily Communication (New York: International Universities Press, 1975), 161. Argyle notes in his seminal work that gaze can signify persuasive intent.

[4] Leroy G. Dorsey, “Managing Women’s Equality: Theodore Roosevelt, the Frontier Myth, and the Modern Woman,” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 16, no. 3 (2013): 423-456, 427. http://muse.jhu.edu/ (accessed October 7, 2014). Dorsey argues that Roosevelt used the mythic memory of the frontier woman to encourage modern women to emulate the ideal as an example of cultural stability.

[5] The frontier woman myth draws potency from the concept of the Republican Mother. Vanessa Beasley, You, The People: American National Identity In Presidential Rhetoric (College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 2004). Beasley has suggested that Republican motherhood ideology implies a “disinterestedness” or “unselfish public-mindedness” with regards to commerce and politics.

[6] Katie L. Gibson and Amy L. Heyse, “Depolitizing Feminism: Frontier Mythology and Sarah Palin’s “The Rise of the Mama Grizzlies,” Western Journal of Communication 78, no. 1 (2014), 98. See also: Ronnee Schreiber, “Understanding the Future of Feminism Requires Understanding Conservative Women,” Politics and Gender 10 no. 2 (2014): 276-280.

[7] Nick Kalman, “Republican Joni Ernst Pulls Ahead of Dem in Iowa Senate Poll,” Fox News, 17 Sept. 2014. Web. Accessed on October 8, 2014. <http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2014/09/17/republican-joni-ernst-pulls-ahead-dem-in-iowa-senate-poll/&gt;.