I feel bad for Sarah Palin. Whether she’s in New York sporting a Magen David necklace the size of a Mercedes hood ornament, rewriting Paul Revere’s ride or making yet another garbled, incoherent speech (described on Huffington Post as “like watching a drunk seal land a plane”) about the “blood libel” or our “North Korean allies” or other content that will be forever undecipherable, I’m trying really hard not to laugh at her. I tell myself it’s because some of these are the kinds of missteps I might make– after all, I’m a working mother trying to get through the day and a terrible student of history and it’s arguable that I am so exhausted at any given moment it’s a miracle I can locate my car in the supermarket parking lot let alone stay up on current events. That said, I’m also not deliberately putting myself in the public eye by running for Vice-President of the United States, either. But, again, I am trying not to laugh at her, or dismiss her with a shudder, because for all the lunacy afoot, I see her as a disturbingly instructive spectacle. I remember watching the last presidential election, a months-long saga of media misery culminating in arguably the most important moment in US history since the Emancipation Proclamation, and wondering about how the creature we were seeing came to be. I thought of Stockholm syndrome, of Patty Hearst and the SLA, “Tania” in her black beret with an Uzi, not the Patty we know. Was there another Sarah, in that little town in Alaska, unrecognizable from what she had become?
We could say Palin exists at the intersection of white working class habitus and a form of femininity that Connell and Messerschmidt call “emphasized femininity” (p. 849). This form is very much part of patriarchy and hegemonic masculinity as,
‘The concept of hegemonic masculinity was originally formulated in tandem with a concept of hegemonic femininity—soon renamed “emphasized femininity” to acknowledge the asymmetrical position of masculinities and femininities in a patriarchal gender order . . . . The concept of emphasized femininity focused on compliance to patriarchy, and this is still highly relevant in contemporary mass culture’ (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005, p. 849).
While Connell and Messerschmidt and others affirm that no form of femininity can occupy a hegemonic space, there is also a sense that not all femininities are equal. As Griffiths writes, “part of what keeps hegemonic masculinity unified is that it relies on valorizing forms of femininity that disempower women” (p. 403). I think back to my personal heroes contemporary and historical—Shadi Sadr, Angela Davis, Alice Paul and Hillary Clinton and wonder about the varied and negative responses they each garnered in their time from the media, popular culture and the like. I seem to recall that it went beyond their politics—many men in many contexts have embraced left wing and even radical ideas without this kind of personal backlash—it was, to borrow a phrase from Victor Lewis, the indigestible nature of their femininities that made the Man so angry. For the most part, when women take up a little space, grab at some power, refuse to comply with patriarchy and enact identities (read: femininities) that even marginally empower rather than actively disempower women, the global kings of patriarchy get their collective knickers in a twist. After all, a woman who won’t comply, who won’t be “nice” and enforce hegemony sticks in his craw and is a “bitch.” As Tina Fey wryly observed,
‘Then there is the physical scrutiny of her physical appearance. Rush Limbaugh, the Jeff Conaway of right wing radio, said that he doesn’t think America is ready to watch their president, quote, “turn into an old lady in front of them.” Really? They didn’t seem to mind when Ronald Reagan did that. Maybe what bothers me the most is that people say that Hillary is a bitch. Let me say something about that: Yeah, she is. And so am I. Know what? Bitches get stuff done’.
But back to Sarah Palin, and why I feel bad for her. The mess she’s in, the caricature she’s become, is largely a function of the right wing-as-Henry Higgins effect. Prior to the 2008 election, she was apparently not a bad governor. As Joshua Green writes, ‘From the moment Sarah Palin’s acceptance speech electrified the Republican convention, she was seen as an unbending, hard-charging, red-meat ideologue,
To which soon was added ‘thin-skinned’ and ‘vindictive.’ But a look at what Palin did while in office in Alaska—the only record she has—shows a very different politician: one who worked with Democrats to tame Big Oil and solve the great problem at the heart of the state’s politics. That Sarah Palin might have set the nation on a different course. What went wrong?’ (p. 56).
Green writes that her situation is nothing short of tragedy. I say it’s business in usual: men in power using up and exploiting women and subaltern men for their own gains or pleasure or both. That’s what went wrong. The best way that she could serve the GOP was that she become exaggerated, but still digestible, complicit but not an insider, riding tandem with power. She needed to appear as unthreatening to patriarchy as possible, as a pretty, stylish but uneducated (in a typical American anti-intellectual “don’t need no book-learnin’” folksy “Mama Grizzly” way) helpmeet to John McCain, but far from a toothless Ma Clampitt. Most importantly, her performance of power was a “hard-charging,” “red-meat” one, affirming power must always be framed in the discourse of the hegemonic. This is all probably a far cry from the woman she might have been/was/is.
I have this fantasy where I find her at one of the stops on her bus tour and take her aside for a serious chat. “Sarah,” I say, “what happened to you?” I’d shake her out of her Stockholm syndrome with hot coffee and readings from my old college copy of Backlash. I’d remind her of the space between us. “I’m a working mother, ” I’d say, “I have a bassinet and a case of formula in my office and take my sleeping babies to meetings and despite being a pretty smart cookie myself I’m quite certain I’d come across looking like an idiot on national television too.” In my fantasy she says she’s learned the hard way about patriarchy. In my fantasy she takes off the fancy suits, wipes the McCain-campaign makeup from her face and takes down her hair and joins the rest of us in the working mothers’ picket line. I remind her of one particular photo I remember from 2008– it was of her buying diapers on the campaign trail; I think she even had her infant son slung over her shoulder, tottering in her suit and heels while she reached to the high shelf for the same plastic-wrapped yellow diapers my son used, in some small town Wal-Mart. Of course someone on the McCain campaign probably contrived that photo. But it certainly worked on me; our babies the same age, our work demanding, our hours long, our demands endless, I saw at least a bit of my daily drama in her perilous reach upward, on those skinny heels, her discomfort and imbalance.
I don’t remember seeing that picture again. I’ve seen lots of pictures since–of her caricature; of designer clothes; of scandal; of shirtless would-be son-in-laws; of humiliations and inaccuracies and posturing. But that one moment, even if it was just a PR moment, late at night in the diaper aisle with a sleeping baby, was resonant. As someone who sees part of the Feminist project in the visibility of mothers and children and the connection between workplace and homeplace, I’m sad to see that image disappear. At the end of the day I don’t intend to construct her as a consummate and innocent victim as she has profound responsibility and deep complicity in the dangerous and demeaning outcomes of her political activity. Her political message—if it was indeed all hers—was and continues to be anathema, but perhaps we should reframe our reaction to what is happening to her now. Instead, what remains for us as teachers, parents and community members is to find a way to help girls see the contradictions inherent in how power and emphasized femininity are constructed. Feeling bad about Sarah Palin also means remembering what kind of bedfellows the Right wing makes for women—even those it endorses as its own. Feeling bad about Sarah Palin makes me want to give my daughters permission to go ahead and be “bitches,” That’s better than being someone’s “Tania” any day.
GEA member, Sally Galman (University of Massachusetts at Amherst)