Palin faces a cultural crucible
As VP hopeful prepares to take center stage, Tribune cultural critic Julia Keller (she has a job critiquing culture?! How arrogant is that!) weighs the role of sexism in the national conversation
Julia Keller CULTURAL CRITIC September 3, 2008
She's hunted moose at midnight without batting an eyelash, but Sarah Palin now finds herself up against the biggest beast of all: cultural expectations for women. (Oh, build the drama – and the alliteration! How you and your kind have suffered! I feel a tirade of un-pc epithets coming on…) The Alaska governor and Republican vice presidential hopeful is expected to address her party's national convention Wednesday night. But that's not her toughest challenge. Unlike a previous generation of female politicians—such as Nancy Pelosi, 68, speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, or even Sen. Hillary Clinton, 60, runner-up to Sen. Barack Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination—the 44-year-old Palin is beset by questions, apprehensions, opinions, assumptions and accusations that her older countrywomen rarely faced.
Palin has won a beauty pageant and caught salmon (She was in Beaver Hunt and flashed her tuna). She runs and she hunts and she races snowmobiles. She's at home on a rifle range—and in front of a kitchen range (Oh, how Betty Crocker meets Davie Crockett. I could just shit myself). She and her husband, Todd Palin, are raising five children, including one with Down syndrome. She's part Annie Oakley, part Anita Bryant (and part shut the fuck up). And Palin is young and pretty, in what some commentators have referred to as a "sexy librarian" sort of way (or in the “I picture her on her knees servicing the commander in chief” sort of way). But does pointing that out constitute sexism? (and do we really give a rat’s shithole?)
"How do you talk about women candidates without mentioning that they're—well, women?" muses Nancy Pearl, Seattle-based librarian and author of "Book Lust" (2003) who writes often about images of professional women. (Ten dollars she’s a dried up old cunt, too). "And then," she adds, "how can you not talk about how sexy they are or aren't?" (She’s right! It’s just impossible! It was SOOOO that way with Janet Reno. I just could stop thinking about her vagina and her hysterectomy!)
Once Sen. John McCain's pick was confirmed Friday, blogs began to twitch and burble with descriptions such as "smokin' hot" and "easy on the eyes." (Isn't that just the way it was, fella? We're you just twitching and burbling on the blogs?) Then came the backlash: How dare Palin seek such a demanding office while being responsible for five children? When news broke this week that Bristol, Palin's unmarried 17-year-old daughter, is five months pregnant, the cyber-scythes began to swing higher and wider (give me a fucking break). Never mind that many male politicians have large families and are rarely challenged about their ability to balance work and family (waaaa!!! It’s just not fair!!! Eat it.). Or that many American families have dealt with the pregnancies of teenage daughters (while running for the second highest office in the world…did you forget that part?).
With the Palin pick, the nation is entering unknown territory—and not just because she hails from Alaska. Carol Felsenthal, Chicago-based author of this year's "Clinton in Exile," points out that Palin is turning traditional ideological stances upside down—another measure of the unprecedented nature of what the aspiring vice president represents (not that she’s bias or anything…).
"There's such a role reversal," Felsenthal says. "You have this conservative, pro-life Republican woman—but it's the liberal Democrats who are saying, 'But who's going to take care of the children?' " (Well, she nailed that one, boys. That’s EXACTLY what I was thinking). Felsenthal also notes that both Sen. Joe Biden, the Democratic vice presidential candidate, and Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, a Republican said to have been on McCain's short list for the VP spot, have mentioned their wives' physical attractiveness in public, along with chuckling references to their own homeliness. (Had they simply mentioned what butt-ugly gashes they had married, this would hardly have been an interesting article) How comfortable would we be with a female candidate who referred to a hunky husband and her own dowdiness? (More comfortable than I am with a “culture critic” who uses phrases like, “She's at home on a rifle range—and in front of a kitchen range “)
To be or not to be pretty
Physical beauty has been a significant issue in political campaigns since the advent of television. As many historians note, a skinny, unkempt, horse-faced fellow named Abraham Lincoln probably would not fare very well in electoral politics in this age of "Larry King Live" and the endless open faucet known as YouTube. In previous centuries, few people knew what a public figure actually looked like. Today, however, it's hard to escape the constant images of candidates. (Well, I see our culturally-sensitive critic has no problem referring to one of the most remarkable presidents as an ‘unkempt, horse-faced fellow’. How would she feel if we referred to a female president as being ‘a really nice piece of ass’?) And that cuts both ways for female politicians. Being attractive is generally better than being unattractive, but women often find their appearance listed ahead of their ambitions or accomplishments. (But that’s just me speaking in vague, unsubstantiated generalities)
"When a woman's looks are mentioned, some people say, 'Well, that's just life,' " says Leonard Kniffel, editor in chief of American Libraries, the magazine of the Chicago-based American Library Association. "But women, many times, are judged first on their looks." (Is this a good time to repeat the fact that she's a former beauty pageant contestant? Stupid, oozing axe wounds.)
Indeed, bloggers elbowed each other out of the way to be the first to note Palin's resemblance to actor and writer Tina Fey—another smart, accomplished woman who wears glasses (come to think of it, I have a lot in common with Tina Fey…she has a gash on her face, and I want one on mine…HooHa!). Kniffel said he wasn't bothered by those who cited Palin's "sexy librarian" look. "I was delighted and I laughed. (And then I rubbed out a quickly in the bathroom to picture of her picture in Newsweek)
"New and different roles for women can induce discomfort and anxiety in some people—just as does, sadly, the prospect of an African-American president (God, this dike gives absolutely no hope for human kind, does she?). But this is, by most accounts, an election year in which the hunger for change is a crucial factor. And with the Palin pick, both political parties are now offering a vigorous variation of the same old thing. What if Palin proves to be a great vice president—but a lousy mother? It sounds like a reasonable question — until you realize that it would rarely, if ever, be asked about a man. (Because, in case you weren’t paying attention, a man doesn’t have a womb, and no matter what good things he does, no matter how hard he works, loves his family and his fellow man, will always be somewhat ‘less’ than the poor, under-appreciated, but so-much-more-deserving mother)