Reading Sarah Palin
Bernadette Barker-Plummer / University of San Francisco
There is an image of Sarah Palin, published in the New York Times, in which she appears sitting on a couch, presumably in the Governor’s office in Anchorage, Alaska. On the back of the couch is a bear, a dead bear of course, but with an intact head still attached to the skin. Seeing this bear-as-throw motif, I realized, again, as I do periodically, that I was in a different country.1
I have lived in the United States for more than 20 years. I moved here in my mid twenties, attending graduate school first in Austin, then in Philadelphia, and now I teach in San Francisco. But I still have these moments of complete disorientation – of nausea in the Sartre sense – when I simply cannot make sense of a phenomenon. And I am having some serious problems digesting the Sarah Palin phenomenon.
I am not confused by Palin the person – we also have anti-intellectual, do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do politicians in other countries too, though they are more typically male and almost always local. But, how did this one become the vice presidential candidate – potentially the President — of the United States? What did the McCain campaign see in Palin that resonated for them, and why has it also resonated for a significant number of other American voters? What is Sarah Palin all about and do you have to be American to get it?
When faced with US political phenomena that faze me, I did as I usually do, I turned to my colleagues. I teach media studies and I direct the gender/sexualities studies program at a liberal arts school, so I have access to a mail list of faculty who might be interested in talking more about this. Four of us made it to a short notice meeting. Others chimed in in less formal ways. The following is based loosely on those conversations.
What Does Palin Represent?
Much has already been written about Sarah Palin, of course. Her lack of foreign policy experience (seeing Russia from Alaska notwithstanding) is clear, her likely venality on congressional earmark issues, her (ir)responsibility in fiscal matters, depending on which citizen of Wasilla you speak to, her desire to censor library books, and her abuse of power in trying to have her brother-in-law fired, are all common narratives now. In addition, her virtuous framing of her own and her daughter’s “choice” to carry their pregnancies to term has been rightly criticized by feminist observers as a huge hypocrisy from a woman who would give no other woman the same choice. And most recently, following her interview with Katie Couric, her lack of serious political knowledge is also being noted even by members of her own party. Witness Kathleen Parker’s recent call for her resignation in The National Review.2 Though she recouped some credibility in the Vice Presidential debate, Palin is still generally seen as a (very) lightweight candidate.
While these do seem to be enough to be going on with, I also wanted to better understand the cultural phenomenon that is Palin, or at the least, to be able to answer the question: how does she get away with it? Why do none of the charges against Palin seem to stick? Why is she still so popular? What does she represent for so many Americans that they can “relate” to her so strongly? And, what is it about Palin that is so profoundly scary to us as professional women? Here are just some of the answers we came up with.
1. The Perfect Girlfriend (for Patriarchs)
By all accounts, Sarah Palin is hot. Or at least by the accounts of the mostly male, mostly white, editorial writers and bloggers who have made the call. Besides this apparent hotness, Sarah Palin, we are told, also likes sports, likes to hunt, and is a good mother. Despite having a powerful job, she also smiles and self deprecates a lot. In particular, she always self deprecates in regards to John McCain. In her interview with Katie Couric, for example, she may have said “John McCain” more often than she said “I.”3 Comparing Palin to Elle Woods of Legally Blonde in her column, Domestic Disturbances, Judith Warner described this kind of self-presentation as “ditsy, cutesy and kinda maybe stupid.”4
Palin represents the cute mom, but not the matriarch; the boss but not the bossy type; she is self-confident and in-charge, but not threatening. She likes to do the same things the boys like to do, to hunt, fish and play sports. She has a good job that brings benefits, but she is also all woman. As a colleague noted, Palin represents the (symbolic) possibility of the perfect girlfriend or wife. “She brings home the bacon, cooks it, and will wear the sexy apron while serving it to your friends, who all want to sleep with her.” To the problem of traditional patriarchal men’s fear of women in power, she added, “Yes, she’s a girl, but she’s their girl.” This Sarah Palin could be in a beer commercial. Or a beauty contest.
2. The Non-Black Candidate
Palin’s race is also a central factor. Her Whiteness is not only superficially visible in her body, but the articulation of Palin to hunting, shooting, team sports, beauty contests, tanning beds, snowmobiles, book censoring, pro-life, anti-gay politics, and evangelical religious rituals, ties her to a particular class fraction in the US that might be called rural white.
None of these activities or beliefs are only held or done by white people, of course, but together they present a message of cultural whiteness that is subtle but powerful. Combine this with Palin’s gender and you have what another colleague called “A get-out-of-jail-free” card for subtly racist voters who still want to see themselves as somewhat modern. For this group Palin represents the possibility of a candidate who is not the “same old” kind of candidate (like McCain). She is a woman, and a successful one — but she, phew, is so much easier to like than Barack (or Michelle) Obama. If this analysis sounds too farfetched, consider another possibility that McCain could have picked for his ticket and did not — Condoleeza Rice. Why not Rice? She is much more qualified and likely to have brought on board the ex-Clintonite “gender voters” — if such a group exists – but she would not have helped with the conservative white vote or the “base.”
Of course there are many other forces at play here, too, but Sarah Palin’s racial coding in this election deserves more attention. An opinion piece by anti-racist speaker Tim Wise titled “This is Your Nation on White Privilege,” originally published in ZSpace and currently circulating in email (I got it five times this week, it is clearly hitting a nerve) makes this point very incisively: Sarah Palin’s narrative and self-presentation only work because she is White.5 Imagine if you will that it was the Obamas’ teenage daughter who was pregnant and unwed, that it was their Black son-in-law who liked to “shoot shit for fun,” and that Michelle Obama had gone back to work within hours of the birth of her children, and you can see quite clearly how Palin’s family narrative could take on a very different cultural meaning. If she was Black, Palin would be way too scary for most white folks.
3. The Damsel in Distress: Gender, Incompetence and Male Chivalry
Why is it sexist, as her supporters have claimed, to point out Sarah Palin’s lack of experience, her ignorance even, when it comes to matters of state? Factually, we know that Palin went to several – five? – different schools before she completed her degree, and that although she has been called a quick study, she is no-one’s idea of an intellectual, or even of a competent analyst of matters of state beyond the state of Alaska. She said herself she has not really paid much attention to the war. The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart takes it to it parodic extreme when he asks, “Did she win a contest?” But he has a point.
The profound anti-intellectualism surrounding Palin is not all of her own making; it goes much deeper than that. But she has certainly contributed to it in her speeches. Her derisive dismissal of the need for a “big fat resume” – presumably referring to Biden’s considerable policy experience – is just part of her larger self-presentation as a “regular” (and therefore, relatable) gal, or “hockey mom.” Most recently, she even seems to be saying that policy ignorance is not only reasonable, but a good thing. What does Joe Six Pack need know about the details of foreign policy, anyway, she asks, all he – she? – needs is common sense.
Yet, despite her thin resume, and in the face of her own insistence that she is just an average mom (a position that jars awkwardly with her other persona as a God-chosen exception), Palin and her handlers seem surprised and shocked whenever she is criticized for this lack of experience. Indeed the Republican camp has consistently cried sexism when observers criticize Palin.
In fact, the cries of sexism around Sarah Palin are not really about sexism, they are about chivalry. While anti-sexism is about protecting people (often but not always women) against systematic discrimination on the basis of sex, chivalry is a system of male protection of women because they are weak and in need of protection. Superficially these two can look the same, as in the conservative defense of Palin. But really, using chivalry, a system of belief based in sexism, to combat sexism, is turning logic on its head.
To be clear, it is sexist to ask whether Palin can handle five kids and the Vice Presidency– unless we ask the same of all of our male and female politicians with children. But it is not sexist to ask whether she is up to the job based on her education and experience. Conflating the two is not combating sexism, it is exercising chivalry, and chivalry is an insult to all smart, accomplished women everywhere.
To a large extent we can understand Palin as a marketing creation, and a good one at that. She combines elements of the perfect patriarchal girlfriend, the safe bastion of whiteness, and even the (fake) victim of sexism, providing enough room for identification for many conservative sectors of the electorate, though it is difficult to see this construction resonating beyond that group. Like any popular marketing construction, though, what is most interesting about Palin, is less whether she is “really” any of these things, but what the popularity of her construction says about the larger culture. To this non-American, the America that Palin’s construction presents is the America of the good old boy, of anti-intellectualism, in both its real and cynical version, an America of subtle but persistent racism, and an America in which the cynical manipulation of progressive politics — like anti-sexism in the service of actual sexism and feminism in the service of antifeminism — turns logic on its head. It is an America I recognize from the last eight years. But it is not the whole of America. I hope it is not the version that remains publicly dominant for the next eight years.
Author Bio: Bernadette Barker-Plummer (Ph.D., 1997, the Annenberg School, University of Pennsylvania) is an Associate Professor of Media Studies at the University of San Francisco where she also directs the interdisciplinary Gender and Sexualities Studies Minor.6
Please feel free to comment.NOTES
- Yardley, William, “Sarah Heath Palin, an Outsider with Charms,” The New York Times, August 29, 2008. Available here. The Times calls this a “decidedly Alaskan touch to the décor,” making me think that “Alaskan” may be code for something much more than a place. [↩]
- Kathleen Parker, “Palin Problem. She’s Out of Her League,”
National Review Online, September 26, 2008. [↩]
- Couric interview with Palin, September 24, 2008, CBS. [↩]
- Judith Warner, “Poor Sarah,” September 25th, 2008, The New York Times Online. [↩]
- Tim Wise, “This is Your Nation on White Privilege,” ZSpace, September 13, 2008. [↩]
- My thanks to my colleagues Kathy Nasstrom, Stephanie Sears, Teresa Moore, Karen Bouwer, Heather Hoag, and Paula Birnbaum whose insights helped produce this article. [↩]