Sarah Palin: Castration as Plenitude
Nina Power / Roehampton University

Palin on the cover of Newsweek

Jacques-Alain Miller, arch-Lacanian and part-time moralist, recently published a piece entitled ‘Sarah Palin: Operation “Castration”‘. In it, he argues that Palin represents a certain kind of ‘post-feminist’ woman, one who knows that ‘the phallus is a semblance’ (more on this anon). Jessica Valenti, in the Guardian1 states that Palin is an ‘anti-feminist’ through and through, because, among other things, she would limit women’s right to choose and abolish sex education. Palin herself is a member of the advocacy organisation ‘Feminists for Life’, who take the apparently feminist commitment to ‘non-aggression’ to mean that any violence directed towards a foetus (even if the pregnancy is the result of rape) is incompatible with the supposedly natural non-belligerence of the female sex.

Here we have three different takes on the same word, in which a) for Miller, a pre-Palin feminist would be a woman (Ségolène Royal, for example) who ‘imitated man, respected the phallus, and performed as if they had one’ and thus would be easy to dismiss as lesser or sub-standard men b) for Valenti, a feminist is someone who supports a woman’s right to choose, who fights for equality in every walk of life and c) for Palin herself, who is both fiercely maternal and politically aggressive, a feminist would indeed be a ‘pitbull in lipstick’. A shallow conception of feminism, and a common response whenever individual women achieve power of any substantive kind, would be to say ‘look, there’s a woman Prime Minister! A woman CEO!’ Haven’t you gotten what you wanted?’ As Valenti puts it, this position merely believes ‘that all women want is … another woman.’ Beyond whatever she actually says or does, Palin is painted as a success story for women, simply because she is one.

Sarah Palin, Todd Palin, and Baby Trig

Sarah Palin, Todd Palin, and Baby Trig

The Republican abuse of the term feminism in the past decade or so is an astonishing lesson in the political opportunism of language. Where the Right would once have bundled ‘queers’, leftists, feminists, peaceniks and other sundry enemies together as internal enemies of the state, when it came to providing reasons for the invasion of Afghanistan, in particular, the language of feminism (and to a lesser extent all liberal rights) was suddenly plucked from the dustbin of history as a specifically ‘Western’ value: ‘Respect for women… can triumph in the Middle East and beyond!’ cried Bush in a speech to the UN, perhaps forgetting that on his first day in office he had cut off funding to any international family-planning organisations which offer abortion services or counselling2 .

It is clear, then, that we are not only dealing with ‘right’ and ‘left’ feminism, but with a fundamental crisis in the meaning of the word. If ‘feminism’ can mean anything from behaving like a man (Miller), being pro-choice (Valenti), being pro-life (Palin), and being pro-war (the Republican administration), then we may simply need to abandon the term, or at the very least, restrict its usage to those situations in which we make damn sure we explain what we mean by it. Valenti opts for a plaintive (if appealing) humanism, with the idea that it’s ultimately ‘good’ or ‘bad’ people who will win, and that this divide is indifferent to gender: ‘the last thing America needs is another corrupt and lying politician – man or woman’.

But the reception of Sarah Palin has not been played out on the grounds of her purported ‘feminism’ alone. In fact, she has managed to avoid many of the old female dichotomies – mother/politician, attractive/successful, passive/go-getting – by combining them all at once. In this sense, she is the literal embodiment of the 1980s imperative that women could (and should) ‘have it all’ – the babies, the job, the success, the sex: a gun-toting pro-lifer who beats the men on their own turf. She even beats many older Right-wing women at their own game, those who stand in front of crowds at political rallies, arguing that women should be at home with their families, staging the spectacle of their own performative contradiction.

Palin at East Carolina University

Palin at East Carolina University

As Miller quaintly puts it: ‘a Sarah Palin puts forward no lack’. Everything she has in her armoury (literally, rhetorically, visually) is in the open. All her potential weaknesses only serve to make her more (super)human, more aggressively populist, more everywoman: the dynamics of her family life, her lack of experience, her hobbies and poses (her love of guns, her ‘hockey mom’-ness). Women want to be her3 , many men (and perhaps even a few women) want to have sex with her (see the Facebook groups: ‘I would totally do Sarah Palin’, ‘Sarah Palin is HOT!’ and ‘I’d Bang Sarah Palin’). The more interesting of these pro-Palin groups make explicit the link between her attractiveness and the current political spectacle: ‘Sarah Palin is stirring things up–and I’m EXCITED’ (or, as Miller puts it, in a slightly more literary register: ‘she brings a new Eros to politics’). The Facebook group ‘Sarah Palin is twice the man Barack will ever be’ goes halfway to recognising her power, but remains trapped within the old idea that to be a woman in politics one must be more like a man.

Miller’s argument is not merely that Palin makes a ‘better man’ than Obama, for example, but that she alone realises that ‘the phallus is only a semblance’ – that is, pretending to have power when one does not is not nearly as effective as understanding the contingent nature of the field of power (or meaning) and exploiting it at every turn. Palin is not pretending to be a man – she is pretending to be all women at once, and yet perfectly mundane. The Facebook group ‘I Am Terrified of Sarah Palin’ perhaps captures some of Miller’s fear: ‘For the moment, a woman who plays the “castration” card is invincible.’ For Miller, Palin’s ability to castrate – to invoke the fear of emasculation by undermining the very symbolic register in which castration anxiety can be warded off – is literally petrifying: ‘they [her political opponents, her media enemies] have no idea how to attack a woman who uses her femininity to ridicule them’.

Palin at the Vice President Debates

Palin at the Vice President Debates

The anxiety that ‘a Sarah Palin’ induces is not the old one of noting with horror the lack (‘why don’t girls have what I have?’), but of the greater fear of a vast female plenitude: America has found its new hero, and she’s a woman who turns the insults that every successful woman has hurled at her (dog, bitch, flirt) into ammunition to shoot dead her accusers. She turns maternity into a war-weapon, inexperience into a populist virtue and Feminism into something that even the Christian Right could approve of. She is absolutely, limitlessly terrifying.

Image Credits:
1. Palin on the cover of Newsweek
2. Sarah Palin, Todd Palin, and Baby Trig
3. Palin at East Carolina University
4. Palin at the Vice President Debates

Author Bio:
Nina Power is a Lecturer in Philosophy at Roehampton University. She is the author of a forthcoming book on feminism entitled One-Dimensional Woman (Zero Books, 2009). She has written widely on contemporary European Philosophy and politics.

Please feel free to comment.

  1. []
  2. see Katharine Viner’s ‘Feminism as Imperialism’ []
  3. ‘Sarah Palin fever has prompted a surge in sales of the shoes, spectacles and even wigs needed for her ‘look” []


  • What a last line.

    Is she still terrifying, as we’ve seen her “neutralized,” to whatever extent, through her own lackluster performances and the very public criticism from the likes of Colin Powell?

    Or does her recent “I love going to Pro-American parts of this great nation” further emphasis the potential extent of her particular brand of terror?

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  • The real “terror” about Sarah Palin is not the person herself, but what comes after her.

    She’s a divisive figure not only in the mainstream, but within the Republican party itself, with the neocons jumping ship to Barack Obama, and the paleocons having her posed to take over the party.

    Meanwhile, Troopergate looms, as does the growth of her little boy, who is going to require much more care, as the years wear on.

    Since the so-called “base” is showing up to her rallies in the double digit thousands, she’s not going away.

    <It is clear, then, that we are not only dealing with ‘right’ and ‘left’ feminism, but with a fundamental crisis in the meaning of the word.

    I don’t think it’s a crisis at all. There has never been a static definition of “feminism”. That a rightwing extremist can appropirate the language of “feminism”, “equality” or even “progressive” only highlights the slippery nature of political rhetoric in general.

    More here at




  • What is terrifying is that all of these articles about Sarah Palin are so ugly. What’s terrifying is that people like you are the majority teaching our kids. What’s sad is that I have to go to grad school and put up with this kind of malice – and pay for it.

    I won’t waste any time here. Chew on some facts. Feminists for Life is a non-partisan group that works with pro-abortion groups like Planned Parenthood to support women so they don’t feel that they need an abortion. Maybe if you spent more than two seconds at their site you would know this. Perhaps you and others like you are completely ANTI-FEMINIST. How many women are joyful over abortions? Perhaps they seek them because they feel that they have NO CHOICE. Where are all the pregnant college students? Where is the daycare on campus for all the students who have little ones? Where is that dorm for unmarried students with children? Perhaps society is not supporting women. Perhaps abortion is violence against women? Have you ever thought of that? Wake up people.

    And, quit using the ‘rape card.’ It’s a really low blow. I’d bet my overpriced Master’s degree that you didn’t even realize that only 4% of abortions are due to rape. That’s a hard fact. Even Planned Parenthood will tell you that. Four percent!!!!

    Quit lying to women about this “you must be pro-choice to be a feminist.” Did you know that Susan B. Anthony and all the early feminists were staunchly pro-life? I’ll bet not. Maybe women feel like they have no choice!!! Think about it! Maybe you should spend a lot more time at the website before you start taking pot shots at them.

    Feminists for life Member from Penn State

  • Dawn, I feel compelled to reply to your rebuttal, in part because I am a member of the academia that you signal out as malice-filled.

    I wouldn’t characterize academia as filled with malice, or hate, so much as fear — as Powers makes clear in the conclusion to her article. As several of Palin’s recent comments and positions make clear, she fails to understand the breadth, application, or over-arching spirit of the First Amendment or the application of scientific research (see fruit flies in Paris). The fear, then, is that she will not only shut down discourse (such as is allowed, both for and against Palin, on this website), let alone work towards unravelling a woman’s rights over her own body.

    Which is another point of dispute — you can characterize Planned Parenthood as many things, but “pro-abortion” is certainly not one of them. Planned Parenthood wants nothing more than to NEVER perform another abortion, and they’ve dedicated themselves to working towards a point, using education, birth control, and family planning literature, where that might be a possibility. To characterize the organization as Pro Abortion is to significantly mis-represent the goals not only of Planned Parenthood, but of anyone who believes in choice.

    Again, this has little to near bearing on the article at hand, and I’d like to hear more of your thought on this specific article, which I found an incinsive, well-argued polemic.

    Finally, one of the benefits of an over-priced master’s degree is that you’re made aware of sites such as this, and also made aware of the potential to contribute — if you felt so vehemently about the issue and the lack of representation of your specific viewpoints, why didn’t you contribute a piece?

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