Something About Sarah

I’ve been thinking a lot about Sarah Palin lately, in that way that I read reports about her and cringe, thinking that she is actually being advanced as a serious candidate for the position of Vice President of the United States. I can’t help but view her as a gimmick, a last-ditch effort, not a genuine candidate, and it seems that a lot of people feel the same way.

Which brings me to a topic I have been hesitant to approach, which is the treatment of Sarah Palin in the media, and in blogs, including sites that I normally think of as pretty progressive. Because, quite frankly, she is receiving some unbelievably sexist treatment, and it infuriates me. It also infuriates me to see the Republicans just discovering feminism, and calling people sexist when they question her qualifications or making legitimate comments about her fitness to serve, because it makes it that much harder to address sexism about Palin in the media.

If you want to attack Sarah Palin, fine, have at it. There’s plenty of ammunition, from her lack of qualifications to her obvious corruption. I’m also fine with involving her family, since families are very much a part of the political arena, and she’s used her family as a political tool, which means that it is fair game.

But I am sick and tired of seeing Sarah Palin attacked because of her gender.

Calling Sarah Palin “Caribou Barbie” is sexist. Referring to her looks is sexist. Making fun of her hairstyle, accent, and fashion is classist, but it also smacks of sexism (e.g. “women in politics should dress/act more fashionably”). Depicting her in a sexualized relationship with McCain is sexist. Even referring to her as a gimmick, as I did above, is kind of sexist, although I argue that if the Republicans had chosen an inexperienced and corrupt male governor from a state with a tiny population, I would call him a gimmick too.

Clearly the Republicans are terrified of letting Palin out of their control, not so much because she is a woman but because she is clearly not ready for this. Inevitably, the tight control of Palin’s appearances has led to comparisons with a delicate lily or a shrinking violet, and some commentators have suggested that the Republicans are being sexist by keeping her from us. I don’t think they’re being sexist, I think they’re just trying to exercise damage control before this whole thing blows up in their faces, and that would be true of any clearly inadequate candidate chosen in a petulant fit by a nominee who has no self control and is known for impulsiveness. But the situation feeds the sexism, and the accusations of sexism from the Republicans as the media chafes at not being given any access to her.

Sarah Palin is about a lot more than her gender, although the Republicans certainly made a sexist decision in picking her as a candidate solely because of her gender. Yes, she appeared in beauty pageants. Yes, she has a figure which is considered conventionally attractive. But these things have no bearing on her ability to serve the United States.

You know what does? Her experience, her beliefs, and her politics. So stop calling her Caribou Barbie, stop making fun of her because she was a beauty queen, and start focusing on the real issues, like the fact that Palin has totally distracted people from McCain, and his very real, very scary, and very alive political views. Focus on the fact that she is part of a crazed Christian sect that performs baptisms to protect people from witchcraft. Focus on the fact that she is obviously clueless, at sea in a world she doesn’t understand, and barely keeping her head above water. And, yes, focus on the fact that she is next in line for the Presidency, and that if something happens to McCain, she is clearly not prepared to take control of Washington, which means that she is going to turn into a puppet president at the mercy of the GOP, which may be, cynically, everything the GOP wants.

Palin is going to get creamed on Thursday not because she is a woman, but because she isn’t ready for this. And that, in a way, is a huge shame for women in the Republican party, because it will make it that much harder for another woman to climb that high in the party ranks. Choosing Sarah Palin actually put women a step backwards. Far from shattering the class ceiling, it added an extra layer by creating a figure of ridicule and uselessness who is going to be blamed if McCain loses because she was a woman, not because she was a crappy candidate.

4 Replies to “Something About Sarah”

  1. while i’m not willing to question the fundamental premise here: that the media does engage in some sexist discourse about sarah palin, i do think that some of the things you bring up are not necessarily sexist – and in fact in some cases are very relevant.

    caribou barbie is the one that most gets me. because i think it’s a very valid complaint about her. the republicans picked her in many ways for her looks, so to immediately put looks in the realm of ‘onoes dont touch it or you are sexist!’ disallows us from discoursing fully on their decision (and the cynicism it demonstrated). looks do matter in political races, and they matter double (triply? quadruply?) when a candidate is female. that’s sexist. but commenting on the fact that that reality exists is not necessarily.

    they chose a barbie doll to run, and i want to be able to comment on that fact. because it shows some of the worst of politics. people made the same comparison between ken dolls and john edwards when kerry picked him as veep as well, because it demonstrates something rather sickening about modern politics: namely, that the plastic appearance of your candidate can swing not just one or two, but large blocs of voters over to you.

    to me, the sexism here is that palin was chosen for her sex and her appearance, not that the media brings those motivators up in its narrative. and yes, caribou barbie is a snide way of saying it, but that’s the media. would the media be less interested in it if it were a man? yes, although again, i do think men of that plastic nature (edwards and quayle both spring to mind) are also subject to some of the same. but largely i think the focus in narrative reflects political realities, and i am highly wary of cutting off our ability to talk about motives, simply because in talking about those motives we might be accused of reinforcing them.

  2. Ok, so, there is a huge difference between discussing the fact that Palin was chosen for her looks (and she was, I totally agree that was a major factor), and derisively calling someone a “Barbie.” If you can’t understand why that’s sexist, I don’t really know how I can explain it to you.

    Her gender should absolutely should be discussed, and we should also be talking about the fact that she was chosen on the basis of gender, and how that it totally sexist. But we do not need to use sexist language when we discuss sexism, if that makes sense.

    I actually disagree with your comment pretty strongly, because I think that you are totally missing something here, and I don’t know how to articulate it. The best way I can put it is as I did above: that I am in no way advocating that we not talk about Palin’s gender and looks, but rather that I am advocating that we not use sexist (and classist) language in discussing them.

  3. first of all, i want to make it very clear that i’m not arguing with you, here. i am genuinely interested in furthering my understanding of this issue. i have always had a hard time grasping the nuance of pc language, and i think i cross that line a lot. i am very open to understanding why people find these terms so offensive in all contexts, i just need a bit more education in it.

    to me the issue is not simply that sarah palin was chosen in part on the basis of her looks. what i find most offensive is that she has modeled herself in many ways after a stereotype of a woman that i don’t think is representative, but which i do think is in many ways articulated by the cultural icon of the barbie doll.

    it is her willful ignorance that i find so absolutely disturbing. it is the idea that there is some sort of pride to be had in not being educated; to instead fall back on vapid platitudes, and a folksy charm married with a calculated sexuality. it is not intentional sexism on my part (though i am willing to accept it was sexist), but watching her interview with katie couric, yes, one thing that sprang to mind was the infamous “math is hard” barbie doll line. it is because i think sarah palin has in many ways sculpted herself after some twisted stereotype of femininity in order to garner votes that the term barbie in the media made sense to me.

    if the word cannot be used, if it is absolutely taboo, so be it. but i don’t just want to say sarah palin was chosen by others in part because of her looks. my indictment is more than that. it is that i think she has deliberately sculpted her own image into a caricature of femininity to elicit sympathy, lust, and build an impervious defense of her gender. it is that subjugation of self to a superficial ideal i find so disturbing, and however it is articulated in the media, that’s a narrative i want to see.

    it is the same problem i had with george bush, and one i railed on with him as well. the gall to think a certain look can make up for political sophistication is beyond the pale for me. for george bush, i described him as a monkey. i will endeavor to find a term to describe palin that is not as sexist as barbie, but still conveys my meaning.

  4. Ok, see, in your second comment, you start to use the kind of language I would use to describe Sarah Palin. Saying that she is “like a Barbie” is really different from saying that she “is a Barbie.”

    Lying awake last night after a very weird and vivid zombie dream, I came up with the perfect way to explain this: calling Sarah Palin a Barbie is sexist the way calling Barack Obama Sambo would be racist. It’s not that her gender and his race shouldn’t or can’t be talked about, it’s that we need to be careful about the language that we use.

    You constructed a very valid critique of Sarah Palin there, talking about how she is presenting herself, and (although you don’t say this), I think that it’s bad for women. I talked about that in this very post; Palin’s nature is setting women in the Republican party back, suggesting that you need to be conventionally attractive and not very bright to succeed. She must, on some level, be aware that she is being used as a token, not chosen on her own merits. I certainly hope so.

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