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Sarah Palin and the Wrong Way to Battle Sexism

Palin's VP run reveals more dimensions to sexism in America. And merely weeding out a few bad apples like Chris Matthews won't solve the problem.
 
 
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Now that the "pit bull in lipstick" who got her start in the PTA has had her honor defended on the national stage, it's only fitting that we're all waiting for Obama's "female surrogates" to fight back. In case we were a bit anesthetized, with all that rocking and "change" chanting, we now have a reason to wake up: hot girl-on-girl action, Election 2008.

In the two weeks since Sarah Palin was introduced to America, first as the second-ever female candidate for vice president, and soon after as the baby-making, gun-toting, wolf-killing beauty queen of the Christian Right, the question of sexism -- or, more precisely, the media's use of sexist frames to introduce and belittle female candidates -- has returned with a vengeance.

The first burst of coverage concentrated nearly exclusively on Palin's family and appearance. In Lifetime-style soft focus, we learned that she's married to her high school sweetheart, her fifth child has Down's syndrome, and her eldest son is bound for Iraq. Then US, People and the Enquirer sharpened the view. Could the McCain camp truly have known that Palin's unmarried 17-year-old daughter, Bristol, was five months pregnant? Was Trig really Bristol's first baby? And what about those persistent rumors that Palin had an affair?

The National Review Online countered these salacious details by asserting that Palin's family represented "vitality and life -- the men are virile, the women are fecund." Robert Novak called her "attractive"; Rush Limbaugh crowed that the Right had the "babe"; bloggers named her McCain's "Trophy Vice"; and Maureen Dowd engaged in a fantasy about Palin in go-go boots. State-specific political buttons, produced by day four, proclaimed "Coldest State, Hottest Governor," and "Hoosiers for the Hot Chick." The New York Times added some gravity to the gossip mill when it reported that the vetting process for Palin had been cursory at best. Unnamed sources said that McCain had wanted the pro-choice Joe Lieberman to be his candidate, but he had caved under James Dobson's pressure. Palin was a craven choice; a pair of breasts; an ingenue; a joke.

What has passed for "issue specific" coverage of Palin has focused on her purported moral hypocrisy: She can't be pro-life if she shoots at wolves and moose; she can't be pro-abstinence if her daughter isn't a virgin; she can't be a serious candidate if she won a beauty contest; she can't be for family values if she refuses to stay at home. The Times' "Mommy Wars: Campaign Edition" queried mothers about Palin's prospective work-family balance and found that most were uneasy about Palin's taking on such a difficult job: "A mother of an infant with Down syndrome taking up full-time campaigning? Not my value set" was a typical response. (Not to be outdone, the Washington Post titled its story on the same theme "Gov. Mom.") Is it any surprise that Rick Davis, campaign manager for McCain, spoke of needing to revise the speech that had been written for the prospective vice presidential candidate because it was "very masculine"?

Meanwhile, the majority of Americans, myself included, remain clueless about the true intellectual and political positions of the person before us. How "nice" for her to get this kind of a free pass; to only have to parry comments about her body and her kids. If you're a female politician, the political is the personal. Your body is the source of your ideas, and the issues you support are "women's issues." And if you cross into male territory -- guns, money, security -- your best response, as Palin seems, intuitively, to get, is camp.

It's obvious that the caricature of Palin to which we're being exposed is the inverse of the caricature of Hillary Clinton. Even if you'd missed the first half of the campaign, all you'd have to do is flip the script. If Palin is "better suited to be a calendar model for a local auto body shop than a holder of the second-highest office in the land," then Clinton is a dumpy, frigid, post-menopausal, castrating bluestocking who only got women's votes because she was a victim of her husband's indiscriminate -- but hell, with that kind of wife? -- sexual transgressions. At least the Right gets the "sexy librarian"; those of us on the other side are stuck with the saccharine Sisterhood of the Traveling Pantsuits.

The surfeit of ridicule to which female candidates have been exposed throughout this campaign has sent feminist writers into a tailspin. Some, like Melody Rose, writing in the Oregonian, have taken to patiently explaining that women are just a teensy weensy bit constrained: "A woman has to choose between running as the candidate with the proper competence -- and thus, being manly -- or as the candidate who is properly feminine -- and thus, being unqualified," she writes. The Nation 's Katha Pollitt was more succinct. The McCain camp must think women have the "IQ of a Tampax," she snorted, to bet they would switch from Clinton to Palin purely because Palin is a woman.

Over at Salon, Rebecca Traister's deep disappointment in having to take Palin seriously was palpable: "What a failure by McCain to have this woman -- with her pregnancies and progeny and sex life and child-rearing prowess now being inspected instead of her policy and voting history -- stand in for, and someday, possibly emblemize, the political progress of American women ..." And at Feministing, cdnmama wrote that "Women all over the U.S. must come to terms with the somewhat disconcerting fact that the ticket in this race that offers a chance for the improvement of women's economic and political situations ... is, in fact, made up of two men."

There are a few problems with this kind of point-counterpoint approach to the question of "sexism" in the press and on the political stage. The first is that rarely is the situation as neat and tidy as the recent brouhaha over Palin. It's true that the Women's Media Center produced a harrowing video of clips, most from FOX and MSNBC, demonstrating that not only Clinton, but also female commentators and other women politicians, are regularly sexualized and demeaned by members of the press. There's no shortage of video, radio, print and cartoon denigrations of women, particularly female candidates, as the National Organization for Women's "Media Hall of Shame" has amply proved.

In isolation, these clips are clearly offensive; the commentators are abhorrent, especially when they're laughing, or sneering, in the midst of their remarks. But most political commentary is more slippery than this. The caricature may look the same, but instead of being the central focus of the piece, it's the catchy hook; the thing we're not supposed to take seriously; the appetizer before the serious critique. A recent piece by Gail Collins in the New York Times is a case in point. She begins by referencing the "moose-gutting, polar bear-trashing, aerobics-class-networking vice presidential nominee" and then moves in to the real content of the piece. It's a rhetorical flourish, but repeated often enough, these epithets begin to stick.

And then there are the candidates themselves. In order to soften the incendiary potential of their candidacy, many female politicians will speak of their politics as stemming from their roles as wives and mothers, thus legitimizing the very approach for which they'll be skewered in the press. To ask female politicians to pretend they aren't women, or mothers, however, is equally absurd.

It's for these reasons, and many others, that I find it troubling that "feminism" has come to mean the work of pointing out, over and over -- sometimes politely, sometimes with rancor -- specific remarks or images that are demeaning to women. No longer a movement for social justice with a goal of freeing both men and women from pernicious and confining ideas about masculinity and femininity, power and privilege, feminism is seen today as a game of "gotcha," with women -- mainly wealthy white women -- playing the game against men to win.

In this caricature of the movement, feminists are just another "special interest group," showing up on some "Crossfire"-style split screen to point out Chris Matthews' latest gaffe. And sure, it's good that as a result of these kinds of critiques, the Times' ombudsman scoured its coverage of the Clinton campaign and expressed "regret" for writing about the "Clinton cackle." But does anyone think that nailing MSNBC -- which, in true cowardly fashion, just demoted both Matthews and Keith Olbermann in order to look "fair and balanced" -- is going to stop people like Donny Deutsch from calling Palin the "new feminist ideal" because "men want to mate with her and women want to be her"? Since when has being a successful sex object been a feminist cause celebre? And what has happened to the public understanding of what feminism really means, if the word can be appropriated in such a fashion?

There's a big difference between identifying sexist acts and undermining patriarchy, the system of power and privilege that reinforces and grounds particular stories about how men and women should behave, how sex and gender should be expressed, about who is rational and who is emotional, who's a "fighter" and who's a "babe." These narratives are refracted and reinforced by the media and by people speaking from podiums, most certainly, but they aren't the work of a few bad eggs.

To equate feminism with the fight against "sexism" is to imply that the work of feminism is that of changing or eliminating those individuals who perpetrate these sexist acts. If we could just stop the Chris Matthewses and the Norman Mailers, the Maureen Dowds and the Phyllis Schlaflys, the story goes; if we could just get people to stop watching FOX News, or write another letter to MSNBC, then somehow, someday, women will be treated with respect. And it's the idea that feminists focus on individuals, rather than systems of power, that grounds the conservative caricature of feminists as a cardigan-flapping bunch of prudes, censoring a couple of good fellows who were just making a joke.

If all it took to free women, or African-Americans, or immigrants, or the poor, from the stories that make them seem "different," menacing, irrational and emotional was "recognition," then feminists should be spending their money dropping educational pamphlets from the skies. But these ideas about masculinity and femininity, sexuality and race -- ideas that make the joke of the New Yorker cover instantly comprehensible, no matter what you think of the joke -- are entrenched and crucial to the ways we in America have made the world make sense. If it were easy to overturn the history of these stories about blacks and women, we could simply point out that Palin and Clinton aren't getting a fair shake and that Michelle Obama is walking a tightrope. We could expect that the pages of print devoted to scrutinizing the Clinton coverage would have influenced the coverage of Palin. But that's just not the case.

At first glance, it seems like a harmless waste of time to devote political analysis to the question of whether Barack Obama might be "too thin" to be president, implying he's a bit too faggy for the job, or to joke about Palin as a dominatrix, spanking McCain. It feels safe, and comfortable, to bring these candidates out of the stratosphere and onto the couch. But if we waste the next 60 days on questions of "personality," with the word standing in for gender and racial conformity, rather than intellectual heft, the conservatives could win. And if we keep on with the fiction that racial and gender stereotypes are held by a few remaining bad eggs, we will severely underestimate the challenge that this election poses to ourselves as individuals, and to our nation.

The excitement generated in the first months of the Obama campaign was at least in part a result of the legacy of movement politics, the language of which saturated most of Obama's early speeches. It was the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, the feminist movement, the gay rights movement, that spoke of making fundamental, liberating change. It's that kind of change that roused the people who had never voted and never cared about voting to think that this time might be different. It's why Sarah Palin saved her deepest scorn for movement organizers, to put us on notice that that kind of change is dead. But there's this thing about movements and change: They don't need heroes; they don't need magical leaders. All they need, all they ever need, is time.

Rebecca Hyman is a writer and professor living in Portland.