The last thing I will ever write about Sarah Palin

December 28, 2008

Filed in: Alaska, The Way We Live Now

I know, the world is going to hell in a handbasket, and as we put the final blows to 2008 and drag a shaking and shivering 09 onto the stage, you’re as fried and dried as the leftover Panettone bread pudding from Christmas morning.

But! Hasn’t it been nice, these past six weeks, to not have any part of your brain commandeered by thoughts about the sitting governor of Alaska?

I realize she spoke here and there post-election and made other in-the-running-like gestures, and apparently there are some lunatic fringe media types who insist she’ll come back better, stronger, etc. in [fill in the date—how about never?].

I’m here to boldly predict 3.5 years out that it’s never going to happen. Those crazy-ass screamers who were energized by Sarah P. are going to look back and wonder whut they were thinking. Also, she’ll be a Grammy a few times over by then, so the sexy thing is going to diminish, trust me.

Anyhow, below is a thing I wrote to try and summarize, in a neutral way that was painful to achieve at the time, the questions S.P. raised in thinking women. A shorter, edited (and therefore better) version is available print-only in the brand-new Winter 09 issue of Brain,Child.

That alone should be reason enough for you to run out and subscribe. But if you need more convincing, know that the issue is chock full of shockingly good writing. You betcha.

Here’s the piece in all its unedited glory for you super-loyal fans (Hi Mom!):


A little more than a year ago, Brain,Child took a look at the phenomenon of the “Soccer Mom” and the other cliched, demographically driven caricatures that pop up like clockwork in the national discourse every election cycle (yeah, we’re looking at you, Nascar Dad).

Then we sat back to watch the fun. Except, there was no fun. For sure, Hillary Clinton, a mother, was running for president, but still, there were no “Security Moms” or “Office-park Dads” in sight. Could it be that times were so serious that we’d have to endure an entire election season without any reductive and demeaning stereotypes?

Never fear—American frivolity always endures. Sometime in late August, John McCain took pity on the nation he loves and threw us a great big juicy bone in the form of Sarah Palin, Caribou Barbie herself, the Killa from Wasilla (or was that Blunda from the Tundra?), who wasted no time in introducing us to pit bulls in lipstick, Hockey Moms, Joe Six-Pack, “real” America, winking, and Joe the Plumber, now a rising Country star. 

Love her or loathe her, there’s no denying the first-term governor of Alaska ripped the lid off what had perhaps become a deceptively measured dialogue about the state of women, and mothers, in the United States.

The words “Sarah” and “Palin” were not fully out of McCain’s mouth before the furor began, and, weeks after her return to Alaska, nary an issue she raised is anywhere near resolved. Here are just a few of the burning mom-centric questions Palin’s candidacy brought to the forefront of American social discourse:

* Can women with young children have it all now, or is it more prudent to raise children and then pursue a high-profile position?
* Should a woman’s fitness for a job be determined in any part by the number of children she has, their ages, and their developmental circumstances? Should that stance be altered by extreme circumstances (special needs, teen pregnancy, second-highest office in the land) or should maternal status never be a consideration?
* Should women grab the opportunity offered them—break the glass ceiling—even if it’s a position they weren’t pursuing or aren’t qualified for? Is it feminist or patriarchal to accept an ambitious appointment without question?
* Are high-profile women held to a higher standard of parenting and scrutiny over their parenting than men are?
* Is pregnancy among teenagers who were taught abstinence-only sex education a failure of policy or a case of “life happens”?
* Should women in their mid-40s continue having children? 
* During pregnancy, whose wishes triumph—the mother’s or the medical community’s? Does this change during the third trimester, or change depending upon circumstance (e.g., flying after the amniotic sac as broken)?
* Are men and women running for public office held to different standards of grooming and dress, and/or held to differing levels of scrutiny? 
* Winking during presidential debates—si o no? 
* Do women with special needs children need to adjust their employment situations to accommodate their children’s need for advocacy?
* Is there more to being pro-life than being anti-abortion?
* Must a female candidate for high office release her medical records? Should those records include her reproductive history and/or current reproductive status (i.e., pregnant, post-partum, using birth control, etc.)?
* What does it mean to be a feminist? Can a woman be against reproductive rights and still be a feminist?

Overlaying all these questions was the dreaded specter of sexism. It was no mistake that Saturday Night Live chose sexism as the topic to launch what turned out to be a runaway, recurring blockbuster, Tina Fey doing Sarah Palin better than Sarah Palin did Sarah Palin. “Stop photoshopping my head onto sexy bikini pictures,” Fey-as-Palin smirked at the camera. “Stop callin’ me a MILF.”

Indeed, Palin’s candidacy turned the idea of what is sexist inside out and upside down. Was it sexist to comment on her “sexy librarian” look, as David Letterman (and many others) labeled it? Was it sexist to comment on her wardrobe, either before or after it came to light how much Republican National Committee donors had been hit up for the high-end purchases? Was it sexist, as newscaster Campbell Scott suggested in her much-forwarded “Free Sarah Palin” on-air tirade, to keep the vice presidential candidate on such a tight media leash when no other male candidates were similarly sheltered? Was it sexist that the mothers’ and women’s issues Palin did bring up in her campaign addresses—Title IX, family leave, equal pay, and IDEA—received scant coverage in the media? 

How about when conservative talk show host Bill Bennett suggested to McCain campaign manager Rick Davis that liberal women didn’t support Palin because it “drives them crazy … that’s she’s very attractive, that she’s very competent, or that she’s very happy.”

There’s little room the deny the overt sexism of Palin paraphernalia, pro ("I’m pullin’ for Palin” t-shirts with a naked silhouette of the veep nominee) and con ("Sarah Palin is a c*nt"). Or the pink Republican elephant with the too-cute “It’s a girl” tag line. Then there was what has to be a new low for female politicians everywhere, the world’s first vice-presidential nominee porn film, “Nailin’ Paylin,” which was given even more publicity than it deserved when two otherwise-respected Brit actors, Ricky Gervais and Thandie Newton, read scenes from the movie on the BBC’s Graham Norton show. 

Perhaps the biggest question of all is this—was it sexist to nominate Palin in the first place? If she were chosen for her gender only, as many pundits suggested—either to appeal to disaffected Hillary supporters or to add youth and glamour to an aging ticket—wouldn’t that be the most sexist move of all?

With the campaign behind us, which of the issues Palin raised, unwittingly or otherwise, deserve fuller consideration and which should slide away like a pair of overpriced silk boxers?

The issues are still with us, but the campaign, blessedly, is not. For the record, as reported in the New York Times, here is how the women of America voted: 56% of women voted for Barack Obama, while 43% voted for John McCain. Broken down by race, 96% of black women voted for Obama, with 3% voting for McCain. And among Mrs. Palin’s own demographic, white women, broke in her party’s favor: 53% of them voted Republican, while 46% voted Democratic.

Comments on The last thing I will ever write about Sarah Palin
  • I loved this.

    Hey, have you seen this?

    Jennifer Niesslein on Jan 08, 2009

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