Sunday, September 7, 2008

Palin, the Object of Our Obsession

I know it's time to move on from Sarah Palin. Somehow, we have to shift everyone's focus off of her and back to Obama's promise of - well, not salvation, maybe not even transformation, but at least starting to remedy the fuck-ups of this country that I love.

So why am I having trouble shifting focus, myself? Yeah, I'm scared because she's a wingnut who could too easily become President. But I'm not normally this obsessed about any individual 'winger. Huckabee alarmed me, too, but you didn't see me blogging about him for ten days straight.

I think I've finally figured it out after reading this post by Jessica at Jezebel:
When Palin spoke on Wednesday night, my head almost exploded from the incandescent anger boiling in my skull. ...

And the question now is why? Why does this particular pitbull in lipstick infuriate — and scare us — so viscerally? Why does her very existence make us feel — and act — so ugly? New York Times columnist Judith Warner calls Palin's nomination a "thoroughgoing humiliation for America’s women," because "Palin’s not intimidating, and makes it clear that she’s subordinate to a great man." ...

I think what Ms. Warner is dancing around, but not saying outright, is that for a certain kind of feminist, Palin is a symbol for everything we hoped was not true in the world anymore. We hoped that we didn't have to hide our ambition or pretend that our goals were effortlessly achieved ("I never really set out to be in public affairs, much less to run for this office," the Governor has said.) We hoped that we could be mothers without having our motherhood be our defining characteristic, as it seems to be for Palin. We hoped that we did not have to be perfect beauty queens to get to where we wanted to be in life, that our looks, good or bad, wouldn't matter. ...

I think the correct high school stereotype is of the homecoming queen. For many of us looking back at high school, we can now feel a smug superiority towards the homecoming queen. Sure, she was pretty and popular in high school, catering to the whims of boys and cheering on their hockey games, but what happened to her after high school? Often, she popped out some kids and ended up toiling in some not particularly impressive job. We can look back and say, we might have been ambitious nerds in high school, but it ultimately paid off. What's infuriating, and perhaps rage-inducing, about Palin, is that she has always embodied that perfectly pleasing female archetype, playing by the boys' game with her big guns and moose-murdering, and that she keeps being rewarded for it. Our schadenfreude for the homecoming queen's mediocrity has turned into white hot anger at her continued dominance.

(I've excerpted a lot of it but the whole post is worth reading.)
You know, I don't have any real issues with Palin's beauty queen past. I'm not a great beauty, myself, but I'm also not hideous. I don't know what it's like to have men drool en masse over me, but I've always been attractive enough for nearly all of the men who interested me. So I don't have jealousy issues about beauty. Nor do I discount the intelligence of women who happen to be conventionally beautiful. In high school, I even got along just fine with the homecoming queen, who was the band's drum major.

(In fact, in an odd chapter of my past life - which I'd forgotten until very recently - my band friends nominated me for "basketball homecoming queen" my senior year of high school, a very obscure honor indeed. It was mostly of a joke, and I was sort of an anti-candidate. I so didn't fit the type and I was never "popular" but I did have plenty of friends. I vaguely recall coming in second.)

But the cheerleaders! A few of them had this slightly simpering, dumbed-down way of dealing with boys. They weren't dumb, they just played the part. They hung out with the girls who were "popular," which - as in most high schools - was not at all the same as being well-liked. They acted just slightly frosty to the rest of us, enough to register with the girls but pass under the boys' radar. (Just to be clear, I have a couple of friends who were cheerleaders in high school. I'm not casting aspersions on all cheerleaders, just a select few from my high school.)

To this day, I have a real allergy to that sort of woman. Sarah Palin strikes me as one of them - as a woman who will fake and flirt and cajole and act stupid to please the menz - and then turn around and stab women in the back, individually and collectively.

Patriarchal systems have always required women like these. Every era has had its Anita Bryants and Phyllis Schaflys. Madame Bitch at Open Salon suggests that far from being the target of sexism, Palin is the very apogee of playing by the patriarchal rules:
What are the ways in which Palin embodies these sexist rules?
  • She's number 2, not the top of the ticket.
  • Her very appointment is a testament to the paucity of women leaders in the GOP -- had there been more choices, perhaps McCain would have chosen someone with fewer drawbacks.
  • She's a mother of 5 children, so her "woman" credentials cannot be challenged.
  • She constantly downplays her ambition and her accomplishments, even though the ambition is oozing out of her ears.
  • She dumbs herself down.
  • She embraces the frantic mommy role, both literally, and figuratively for her leadership roles.

To me, Palin seems not like a trailblazing, hard-charging battering ram, but a gray fascimile of that ideal, and one that is neatly confined into the small allowed space for her to exist, completely controlled for the comfort of the men who created those rules.

(Read the rest here.)

Palin is quite literally being controlled by the men, at least for now. She's being groomed and prepped and the press is not being allowed access to her - although word came out today that she'll grant an interview to Charlie Gibson later in the week. It reminds me a little of Old Testament descriptions of girls being prepared for entrance to the king's harem. The Book of Esther recounts how they spent a full year being beautified with oils and perfumes and makeup before they ever had a private audience with the king.

Palin has her beauty routine down pat, but the patriarchal grooming is no less intense for being focused on the names of foreign leaders and the pros and cons of privatizing Social Security. (I'm not suggesting that these are in any way "patriarchal" subjects. It's only the GOP take on them that's steeped in patriarchal assumptions.) My hunch is she's a quick study, judging from her convention performance. She seems to be smart and very, very tough. If Palin were transported back to the Old Testament, she wouldn't be a girl in the harem. She would be the woman who runs it. (For those of you who've read The Handmaid's Tale: Palin would be Aunt Lydia.)

Palin's experience in beauty pageants is not irrelevant; pageants teach and reward poise, self-possession, and smooth performances. So does cheerleading. I say this sincerely, not snarkily. These are good life skills for anyone. They're invaluable if you're a politician.

I'd like to think we're all beyond knee-jerk high-school emotions, despite the results of the past two elections. But I can't help thinking of another memory, this one from the back of the school bus, where my friend Kate and I were using our halting French skills to disparage the cheerleaders in what we assumed was our secret language. Eventually, one of them - a platinum-blonde named Mary - turned around and glared at us. We'd forgotten that Mary was in third-year French. Oops.

We underestimate the cheerleaders at our peril.


Laura said...

Well put. Interesting arguments, alhtough I don't think the Madame Bitch critique holds together when you consider that she single-handedly dismantled the outgoing republican establishment. The defiance and ambition were overt, and countered the norm and the patriarchy.

I think she also taps into class politics. Also, she can level the "elitist" criticism in a way that, say, McCain or Romney, can't (because of their wealth), and that's a very polarizing accusation. (Let's not elect the guy/gal we want most to have a beer with - we all saw how that turned out last time.)

Sungold said...

I think there are two different levels here: Palin is *definitely* a formidable tactician, at least in the Alaskan environment. She definitely did buck the system there. Now, however, she's being placed in a different position where she's much more stage-managed. She's not in control anymore. And that's where I think Madame Bitch's points hold water. But yeah, we need to keep her two roles analytically separate if we want to understand what's happening.

Very good point on the class issue. She's emphasizing union connections - when did we last hear a Republican do that?

Laura said...

ahhh but who IS in control?

funny satire, if you missed it:

Smirking Cat said...

Palin's introduction has burst open the most sexist commentary and debate in so many domains, from the automatic assumption that women will blindly vote for her because "hey, she's got a vagina like me!" to discussion revolving exclusively around her appearance, as if that is of utmost importance in a VP. I am simply more dismayed by the standards and priorities of this nation than I was before, and that was already pretty damn bad.

Sungold said...

Thanks, Laura - and no, I hadn't seen it. I love how the actress in that clip captures Palin's vowels. (I've been wondering if that's a distinctive Alaskan accent? I had a couple of friends from Alaska in college and they didn't talk like her, though.)

Smirking Cat - I too could *really* live without the photoshopped pictures of Palin's head on someone else's bikini-clad body. But this is so complicated, because the Republicans are denouncing *any* criticism of her as sexism. And that renders the term meaningless.