A Girl and a Gun: Photoshop Fakes Sarah Palin
Patrick Kinsman / IUPUI
On September 3, I received an email from a friend in Alaska, titled “My Governor.” Attached was a JPEG image of newly-minted Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, apparently wearing a stars-and-stripes bikini and holding a rifle. The message of the email read, “Hmm…wonder if this is Photoshopped or just another example of my governor’s qualifications.” Unknown to me, this image had already traveled from Facebook to mainstream television by September 2, and the drive to confirm or deny its truth value—my friend’s own question—was a major element in its viral spread.
The next day, a followup email from another friend confirmed that this was a Photoshopped production, based on an image from Flickr, and linked to both Elizabeth, the original and the Photoshop. The user comments on these images provide a clear chronology of the Photoshop’s movement from Facebook to Snopes, Huffington Post, TV, the tabloids and even Ebay.
- A brief timeline:
- August 29: Sarah Palin is announced as John McCain’s running mate.
- August 30: Flickr member Innocuous_Fun creates the Photoshop and puts it on her (private) Facebook page.
- August 31: The image is uploaded to a Facebook group called, “I’d Bang Sarah Palin.” Sexualization of the candidate is a major element in the image’s movement. The Flickr comments state that the image was the main picture for the group. As of September 11, the photo is merely uploaded; it may have been the main picture and then been taken down. Also, there are three different groups with such names, as well as a group dedicated to those sexually attracted to Bristol Palin, the candidate’s pregnant daughter.
- September 2: The Huffington Post debunks the image. Snopes reveals the image as a fake. The Late Late Show picks up the image.
- September 3: The Examiner declares the image a fake. I see the image for the first time.
- September 4: A commenter on Flickr links to The Huffington Post page, prophetically asking, “You think you’ll make it to CNN?”
- September 5: Fox News debunks the image.
- September 7: CNN reporter Lola Ogunnaike refers to an image of Palin in a bikini with a gun, on the program “Reliable Sources.” (Transcript available here.) Ogunnaike’s statement receives massive blog attention, the case being that because she did not overtly state that the image was a fake, it is assumed that she (and CNN) thought the image was real.
The Photoshop was even debunked by Australian media and has motivated parodies that were sold for money on Ebay (See http://tinyurl.com/3qemqu and http://tinyurl.com/4xq7os).
The original photographer has asked a CafePress group, “Women Against Sarah Palin” not to use the image as a commodity. Tina Fey on “Saturday Night Live” famously mentioned the image—“Stop putting my head on sexy bikini pictures!”—and Globe Magazine advertised “Sex Scandal” and “Raunchy Photos” before, inside, debunking the image
How can we explain the furor to debunk this sexualized image?
The Photoshopped image shows Sarah Palin in an American flag bikini, holding a rifle (which is actually a BB gun). The quest to confirm or deny the image’s truth value in its rapid spread from Facebook to mainstream media outlets (which took all of four days) is intimately tied to the media representation of Palin. The media coverage of Sarah Palin has been largely about her qualifications or lack thereof, when it is not about the specifics of her family or potentially scandalous political and personal behavior in Alaska. Palin’s political self-image aims to be democratizing: hockey mom, hunter and fisher, small-town “exburban” mayor. Her conservative credentials have also been clearly laid out in media coverage: pro-life, NRA, abstinence-only education, pro-creationist-discourse-in-schools. Like McCain, she has adopted the label“maverick,” which could be described as the “brand name” for the Republicans in 2008. To this end, much has been made of her “distance from Washington.” To generalize, then, the media coverage of Palin has emphasized (for lionizing or for critique) her small-town mayorship, her “Maverick” brand and her role as mother, specifically mother of a Down’s syndrome child, an unmarried pregnant teen and a soldier going to Iraq.
In the coverage of the RNC, much was made of Palin’s “ferocity”: she was a “barracuda” or an “attack dog”; famously she described a hockey mom as a pit bull with lipstick. This counters, perhaps, a stereotype of motherhood as strictly nurturing and non-violent. Sarah Palin has acquired and motivated an image of having sharp and tenacious rhetorical teeth (particularly as a “barracuda”). Tenacity, however, has no specific political valence, and neither (beyond “family values” rhetoric) does motherhood. It is essential to note that by emphasizing Palin’s “character” (tenacious, maverick, working mom) perhaps at the expense of her actual stance on issues, her campaign seeks (whether it knows it or not) to associate an aggressive, sharp-toothed, “powerful” working-woman motherhood with Conservatism, and it seeks to do this despite the candidate’s opposition to feminist stock-in-trade issues like sex education and reproductive choice. Palin can seem “thematically” feminist while being politically reactionary.
The Photoshop image plays on multiple aspects of Palin’s media personae. One imagines the photo under a paparazzi headline reading, “Former beauty queen is lifetime NRA member!” The image takes up—and ironizes—Palin’s own democratizing rhetoric. The flag bikini points to a nationalism which is more spectacle than reality, and the rifle emphasizes Palin’s support of gun rights while the photo de-emphasizes all other aspects of Palin as a political player. The most parodic aspect of the photo is the absence of the candidate’s gravity. The Photoshop-Palin is a sexualized cheesecake spectacle. However, the photo does reflect a type of “powerful woman”: I am thinking specifically of a “girls with guns” aesthetic, as seen in the “Triple B” (“Bullets, Bombs and Babes”) films of Andy Sedaris, and in videos such as those for www.gunvideo.com, where we see a http://tinyurl.com/4nw5s5centerfold-style model shooting an automatic weapon.
Women in these roles are intended to be eye-candy spectacles for viewers; they would no more pass a stringent test as feminist role models than would Sarah Palin’s platform on issues.
Such an aesthetic is certainly a low-cultural one, approaching softcore pornography, but importantly, also actively sexual and violent—the armed women of Sedaris, et. al., both want sex and get it, and they also deploy heavy weaponry to defeat the bad guys! Like the “bikini nationalism” of the Palin Photoshop, this sexualized, militarized “girl power” becomes an amusing parody of Palin’s abstinence-only stance and her support of the Iraq war. The Photoshop image’s power (to amuse, parody and annoy) relies on its proximity to Palin’s very own stances on political issues, and it reveals Palin’s “empowerment” of women as, in part, granted by patriarchy, not by feminism. This is not to say that the image is a feminist critique; it participates in the “girls with guns” aesthetic at the same time that it uses this for parody. Also, the image’s cheesecake pose is not read equally across the board. One blogger, regarding the image’s irony, wrote, “I don’t really get it, because I think waving the flag is virtuous, as is showing the proper respect to a firearm or facsimile thereof,” and concluded that, “horndogs [sic]like me are looking forward to the genuine articles [i.e., real cheesecake photos], should they ever be found, ready to become more enthused about voting for the McCain/Palin ticket should they ever arise.” From this, we can deduce that being “hot” is not a liability for electability!
Whose (political) body is this, and is it “true”? The Photoshopped Palin image is not about feminism or equality, but sex objects with weapons—whether it is critique or not. It was essential—for Snopes, the Examiner, the Huffington Post and others—to ascertain the “truth” behind this image, in a quest to know Sarah Palin. Is this Palin’s body and Palin’s politics? “It is wildfire if it’s true,” reads a caption on the Snopes image. I have argued that the image is bound to Palin’s politics even though it is not Palin’s body. The original image of Elizabeth was taken in Georgia in 2004 and posted in 2006, to make a parody of “certain stereotypes about Southerners,” as a comment from Flickr states. It is ironic that Elizabeth had played in Eve Ensler’s feminist play, The Vagina Monologues, and perhaps more ironic that Innocuous_Fun claims to have done the Photoshopping out of boredom rather than out of “some crazy liberal agenda.” (See an interview here.) The image is not of any singular, unified political body, nor is it always seen as ironic. This (fake) cheesecake photo uses exploitation aesthetics to parody Palin’s democratizing appeal; even as it demonstrates the candidate’s patriarchal empowerment, it also demonstrates her quite literal appeal as a “girl with a gun.”
Patrick Kinsman (PhD, Indiana University-Bloomington) will be Visiting Faculty at the Herron School of Art and Design in Indianapolis, in January 2009. He has written on Chantal Akerman and Gregg Araki and is currently researching the New French Extremism.
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