Sarah Palin and the Rise of the Playboy Electorate?

What is the enduring legacy of Sarah Palin for men after the 2008 presidential elections? It seems like a reasonable question to ask, given how important men were to the success of Palin.


According to CNN, more men than women believed that the Alaska governor was qualified to be president, and more men than women felt like questions raised about the governor's experiences were unfair. In fact, contrary to the enormous media attention directed at Palin's likely impact on women voters -- what became commonly referred to as the "Palin Effect" -- we now know that it was the positive reaction among men within the electorate that drove the governor's initial popularity and propelled her to the superstar status that she enjoys today!

The truth is that Palin owes a lot to men. Men influenced her message, her method and certainly how she was marketed to the American public.

However, if you follow the media's continuing coverage of Palin -- which it is almost impossible not to, considering the legions of articles that are still being written about her -- you probably would not know anything about how men’s reactions to her signal important demographic and cultural changes occurring in men's lives.

More importantly, if you listen to the "conventional wisdom" about why men responded so favorably to the hockey mom, you would not have any idea why American men's reactions to the first female Republican vice presidential nominee may set a dangerous precedent for how men may evaluate other female presidential candidates in the future.

Why?

Because in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 presidential elections, commentators across the political spectrum have examined everything about Palin -- from her impact on the modern women's movement and feminism, to the realities of parenting a special-needs child -- but they have said virtually nothing about her impact on the male electorate.

Today, references to Joe the Plumber and Joe Six-Pack -- the ubiquitous metaphors for working-class men -- have become more of a joke, rather than an occasion for political pundits to explore questions like:

  1. Why were Palin and New York’s Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton -- despite all the substantive and stylistic differences between the two candidates -- more successful among blue-collar men than they were with white-collar men?
  2. How important will male reactions to the "gender card" be in determining future elections, considering that the nation has finally overcome the "race card" with the election of the first African American president?
  3. Was Palin's appeal among social conservatives driven by the hidden meanings of Todd Palin, and the tacit belief in the "man as head of household" rule that is so fundamental to religious conservatism?

Answers to questions like these may be important if we have witnessed a "tipping point" where female presidential candidates will be more of the norm rather than the exception in future elections.

There are two explanations for why there has been such a complete lack of interest in what Sarah Palin has meant to the "male vote" in this past presidential election. Both explanations have their roots in trends that emerged during the elections.

First, there was a tendency during the elections to attribute any positive reactions from men to Palin's physical attraction, what some commentators later referred to as the MILF phenomenon.

According to this point of view, Palin was nothing more than "political eye candy" to men. Men were considered "under the spell" of her physical beauty, and/or having such a political hard-on for this mother of five and former beauty contestant, that they lost any ability to be critical of her as a political candidate -- a sentiment captured by Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, whose comment, "Now I know why the whole of America is crazy about you," allegedly earned him a fatwa, in his native land.

Second, there was a propensity to view the men that were critical of Palin as objective -- similar to, or at least not different from, female critics of Palin -- or to view them as completely sexist.

It could be pointed out, for example, that some of the most trenchant criticisms of Palin came from men like David Brooks, who said that Palin represented a "cancer" within the Republican Party; Fareed Zakaria, who eviscerated Palin's intellectual abilities by suggesting that her problem was not that she could not provide coherent explanations to questions poised by Katie Couric and other journalists, but rather that the problem was that she did not appear to understand the question"; or John Ridley, who characterized the vice presidential nominee as being the "illegitimate love child of Dan Quayle and Geraldine Ferraro."

At a minimum, these criticisms seemed to suggest that men were as vocal and as ideologically varied in their criticism of Palin as were women such as Gloria Steinem, Peggy Noonan and Rebecca Walker.

What these explanations fail to take into account are the major demographic and cultural changes occurring in men's live that are likely to influence the way men view female political candidates.

These demographic changes evidenced by their changing levels of education, workforce participation, family formation and participation in community life. Men today are less educated compared to just 20 years ago. A majority of students in colleges and universities now are women, including some professional schools, causing some men to fear the "feminization" of professional categories in the workplace.

Men are more atomized and less a part of community life. Today, many churches and union halls are bereft of men. As a result, more men are "bowling alone," with very thin and transient relationships with other men, often having more of a buddyship than a real friendship with other males. In addition, men are increasingly polarized in a U.S. workforce characterized by a growing class of highly educated white-collar professionals and a stagnant and declining, uneducated blue-collar professional class.

But, arguably the biggest demographic and cultural change that has occurred in men's lives over the past several decades, has been in their personal and public relationships with women.

Different from just a generation ago, men have higher rates of separation, divorce or never having been married than at any point in American history. The New York Times reported in 2007 that for the first time in U.S. history, two-parent families were no longer in the majority.

Men are also more dependent on women's contribution to the family's economic security than at any time before. Todd Palin -- Alaska's "First Dude" -- is emblematic of a demographic shift happening among white males that has been occurring in African American life for more than a decade: blue-collar men who are in relationships with professional women.

Researchers at Rutgers, Columbia and Princeton universities continue to document a growing class of men who do not have the same "historical" attachments to women and families. Taken as a whole, men are having experiences and interactions with women in the workforce, in social institutions such as colleges and universities, and certainly within their personal relationships that are likely to shape how they respond to women in both their private and public lives.

Therefore, one of the problems with reducing men's reaction to Palin to sheer physical attraction is that it ignores the possibility that men may not only want to have sex with her, but also that men actually prefer her to other types of women.

There are at least two ideal types of women that loom large in men's imagination. The first type represents the mythical figures whose "beauty" and "virtue" inspire love and devotion from men. These are the women that are placed on a pedestal to be admired and protected. The Helen of Troy-type women.

The second type of woman is one who can pull back her hair, role up her sleeves and are not afraid to get her hands, or in this case nails, dirty. Women like this are not afraid to sweat, are comfortable in a pair of jeans and a T-shirt, can have a beer and perhaps even fire a rifle.

In many ways, Palin, or the marketing of Palin, was in perfect harmony with this second type of woman. Palin was representative of Karen Allen in the Indiana Jones movies, the "earthy" and "free-spirited" women who was daring and adventurous; Sanaa Lathan in "Love and Basketball," the fiercely competitive woman who loved sports; Minnie Driver in "Good Will Hunting," the woman that could drink beer, tell dirty jokes while hanging out with the guys, and above all, Cameron Diaz, in "There’s Something About Mary," the quirky, funny, interested-in-things-men enjoy, physically attractive, down-to-earth and most importantly, accessible woman that all men fell madly in love with.

In short, Palin was "attractive" to men because of the type of woman she represented -- not simply because of her looks! Yes, some men did not mind the idea of having a physical relationship with the vice presidential nominee. On the other hand, one can also easily imagine that some women did not mind the idea of having a physical relationship with Barack Obama. However, who would argue that women's undeniable attraction to President Obama was based solely on his looks and not the "type" of man he represented?

This is why it is equally important to consider whether male criticism of Palin represented an objective evaluation of her as a political candidate. One of the fundamental differences between women critics of Palin and male critics of Palin was that women would often criticize her as a woman.

In fact, it would be unusual not to hear a woman preface her comments about the Alaska governor by saying,  "As a woman, I ... " Or, more importantly, women commentators would often put their comments about Palin into a broader context by highlighting what Palin meant to other women in terms of the advancement of women's rights.

In comparison, rarely, if ever, did you hear a man preface his comments about Palin with, "As a man, I ... "  And, never did you hear a male commentator put his comments about Palin into the context of other men in terms of "men's issues" or what this phenomenon might mean for a changing male demographic.

Another significant difference between male and female critics of Palin is that the men that criticized her for her lack of intelligence and her lack of competency during the general elections were in no way endeared to Clinton during the Democratic primaries. It is often touted that Clinton put 18 million cracks in the "glass ceiling" by receiving 18 million votes during the primaries. However, it is rarely noted how little support Clinton received among Democratic male voters.

A Gallup Poll conducted with more than 12,000 Democratic voters found that only 37 percent of men supported the senator from New York during the primaries. Astonishingly, she received the least amount of support from college-educated males, the intellectual class of men most inclined to lambaste Palin about her lack of intelligence and intellectual capabilities.

According to another Gallup Poll, men with postgraduate degrees were twice as likely to support Obama compared to Clinton (62 percent to 31 percent). With the exception of prominent men within the Democratic Party, like James Carville and Paul Begala, the vast majority of men within the Democratic Party did not support Clinton during the Democratic primaries.

Moreover, if you consider that virtually no black men or other men of color supported Clinton, the depth and degree of many men's disinterest or disinclination to support a woman with undeniable credentials and capabilities is stunning.

Of course, some will argue that the historic nature of Obama's bid to be the first African American to become president galvanized the imagination of men within the Democratic Party -- especially men of color, but imagine for a moment that a scandal-free John Edwards was running against Clinton alone, do we believe that many men would have enthusiastically supported Clinton? Could we imagine animated Clinton supporters like PUMAS consisting mainly of men?

The point is that women voters supported Clinton precisely because of her intellectual abilities and political acumen. However, men were overwhelmingly disinterested or reluctant to support a female presidential candidate even when she was highly competent.

The different reactions among men to Palin and Clinton raises serious questions for Democrats, Republicans and independents about how men will respond to female candidates in future elections.

First, it raises the question of how central physical looks will be to the success of female candidates. Because we essentially take for granted that women in the public eye will be attractive, one issue is whether this "beauty tax" will influence the career of someone like Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a former beauty contestant?

Will men that try to stay politically informed by watching CNN or MSNBC ever ask where are the female political commentators that look like Republican strategist Ed Rollins, Democratic consultant James Carville, or CNN's Wolf Blitzer. In other words, will they take for granted that most female commentators look like models, whereas most male commentators look like somebody's dad or granddad?

Second, it raises the question of what type of female candidate will men feel comfortable supporting? When faced with a choice between two types of female presidential candidates, will men choose a woman that they would feel comfortable having a beer with, the same way that men chose to elect a president with whom they could have a beer with for eight years?

It certainly could be argued that the main reason men responded so favorably to Palin, compared to how negatively they responded to Clinton, was in how men perceived them as women -- especially with regard to their femininity. The difference between the femininity of Clinton, compared with the femininity articulated by Palin, is that one is considered complimentary to men, while the other is considered challenging to men.

One never got the sense that Clinton was trying to be feminine or cute for men. In fact, during the Democratic primaries, the consensus was that the efforts made to convey her as "commander in chief" actually made her not authentic and less human.

When Clinton did show her "feminine side" with the now-infamous "tear in New Hampshire," it was not to inspire "excitement" or "devotion" for men, but from women. Palin, on the other hand, projected the type of femininity and sensuality communicated by any number of "strong women," especially female executives that have had to balance the skill of being assertive, and at times aggressive, but always in ways where their femininity and sensuality are still inviting to men.

Third, it raises the very important question of how will men respond to the "gender card" in future presidential elections.

Ironically, the lack of attention to how important gender issues will be to future elections can be traced back to the McCain campaign's unsuccessful attempt at "playing the gender card." The GOP strategy of characterizing any criticisms of Palin as "sexist" backfired precisely because it was applied so liberally.

Initially, men did feel uncomfortable commenting on Palin because surrogates of the McCain campaign were quick to jump on them and accuse them of being sexist. However, when women commentators, pundits and intellectuals were accused of being sexist toward the Alaska governor, it became apparent that the GOP was playing the gender card in an attempt to silence critics.

Wider recognition of this tactic gave men the confidence and the cover they needed to criticize Palin without fear that being called a sexist would stick. Will similar tactics be as obvious in future elections? Or will the explosive nature of gender politics cause men to feel baited, silenced and awkward when discussing issues that have to do with gender the way whites once felt when discussing issues having to do with race?

Finally, it raises the question of whether the impact of Palin on men will be in the rise of a new demographic of voters and pundits that view political candidates through the complex lens of men's desire -- a sort of Playboy electorate.

A demographic of men within the electorate that is not sexist in the traditional sense of the word. They are certainly not the men that drive around with a bumper sticker that reads, "Never trust something that bleeds for a week and doesn't die."

Instead, it is a generation of men socialized by the contradictions of being exposed to a growing demographic of powerful women on one hand, and "Girls Gone Wild" and Ashleymadison.com on the other. A generation of men that see themselves in competition with women in places as public as the boardroom and as private as the bedroom.

The 2008 presidential elections are over, but many questions remain with us. What commentators seem not to understand, or choose to ignore, is that while a majority of men are currently fixated on how Brett Favre fared in his first season in New York, or whether Boston will be repeat NBA champions, another major topic of conversation for men around water coolers and in traditional male spaces such as pool halls, basketball courts, bars and golf courses, is women! Admittedly, the conversations are often awkward, filled with a lot of bad jokes, adolescent humor and sexism, but they happen nonetheless.

To understand American men's reaction to Palin, Clinton and other female political candidates, one needs to pay greater attention to the changing social contexts of men's lives. We do both men and women a disservice when we use stereotypes as explanations for men's behavior.

Again, yes there were physical reasons for why men responded favorably to Palin, but there were also social and cultural reasons for why they considered her "attractive." Consequently, to reduce men's reaction to her to the physical attraction, not only promotes a simplistic view of sex -- like equating sex with procreation -- but it offers a woefully inadequate description of a changing and dynamic male electorate.

The question for men in the future is what types of female candidate will emerge to inspire and motivate them? Will women like Clinton, whose popularity is not based on masculine desire, ever be regarded highly by men? Will black men and other men of color ever rally behind a "Change We Can Believe In" presidential candidate that is a woman of color the way they did with Obama?

And perhaps the most intriguing question created by the sensation of Palin, is when men look at female political candidates in the future, will they see their mothers, daughters and current spouses. Or, will they see their ex-wives, a female colleague at the job, or Playboy’s Playmate of the Year?

We will have to wait at least until 2012 to answer some of these questions. I cannot wait!

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