Why Can't We Look Away From Sarah Palin?

She's an incompetent has-been. Yet she keeps getting our attention. Is it that she embodies a set of contradictions that many women grapple with?

Sarah Palin is aliar who isunfit for public office. This is generally accepted. And yet, she’s getting more attention than people who are honest, sane and actually holding office, and also more than people, even celebrities, who are arguably insane and vapid. Media and audiences clearly can’t take their eyes and ears off her, much as they might want to.

I’m among them. Every day, I’m surprised and perplexed that she’s still in the news and on talk shows, then I watch more and read more about her. I am surely one of those liberal media elite haters she keeps referring to, and if this continues, she’s going to have to acknowledge we’re her main audience, if not her base. The question is why.

On the one hand, there’s clearly plenty to discuss about her politics, and about the politics of the organizations that tried to get her into one of the most powerful offices in the world. But there are plenty of Republican women in the news with similar politics, so that doesn’t entirely explain why she’s a current media darling.
And on the other hand, there are plenty of psychological theories about why she holds such current appeal despite being a has-been: everything from nostalgia for the soap opera of the election season given the “bleak ambiguity”  of the day-to-day problems in the White House, to the fact that people end up paying attention to what we try not to pay attention to, if you know what I mean. But again, many people could fill this role.

So love or hate her politics, there’s something that keeps making audiences look. It’s confusing. And I have to conclude that’s part of what makes her so compelling: partly that Palin says plenty of confusing and contradictory things (also called lies). but possibly as much because she actually embodies contradictory characteristics.

As I watch her on talk shows and read about her, I can’t help but feel that she’s a living, breathing embodiment of several of the contradictory messages about being a woman.

They’re questions like, should women be sexy or “pure”? Should family or work be our top priority? Should we seek fame and power, or private life? Should we be ambitious or supportive of others’ ambition? Should we go for a “traditional” definition of marriage or a non-traditional one? Should we prioritize ourselves first, or others?

Something that makes her compelling isn’t that she has chosen one or the other in each set of either-or questions women are constantly subject to, but that she sometimes chooses both. And watching her is therefore both familiar and very head-shakingly uncomfortable at the same time. She’s a paradox.

She’s a kind of sexy Puritan. And I think women should be able to be sexy in positions of power -- you can’t tell me Obama doesn’t work the winking, smiling, works-out-every day thing. And sure it’s great that she wears high heels and make up and hair: I’m all for those choices. But then she also embraces a set of puritanical, anti-sex values. It’s confusing, right?

She’s a female leader who likes to compare herself to a grizzly bear yet the poster-woman for anti-woman policies like anti-legislation to protect against sexual assault (highest rate of any state).

She’s much more powerful than her husband in public life, yet a proponent of traditional marriage values. She claims that being at home with her family is her top priority, yet talks about that as she’s far away from home. Before she embarked on a long, away-from-home book tour, the Oprah crew filmed her at home for several days. We see the footage of her in Alaska, while she’s in Chicago. And the campaign trail saw her on the road for months as well. She’s all about being at home, from far away.

And of course, there are little things like that she used to be a tomboy/ jock who didn’t like “primping”, then somehow became a beauty queen. (That one, of course, is almost a beauty queen cliché: just ask Carrie Prejean).

Interestingly, a few months ago, Naomi Wolf argued that Angelina Jolie’s contradictions are what have made her the most powerful celebrity in the world: that she is somehow both a sexy woman (often called “whore”) and a kind of Mother Teresa (because of her charity work). That she is a husband stealer (considered the worst crime a woman can commit – the “Scarlet Letter” offense), yet seen as virtuous because she created a family with that stolen man – a multiethnic collection of eight kids – which is something he didn’t have with his wife.

Jolie and Palin’s choices and politics are very different from each other, but the novelty value is similar in some ways. There’s something about women choosing “and” instead of “either” even when those choices are blatantly contradictory that is compelling.

Palin’s contradictory choices are often manipulative – like the sexy Puritan thing – but they still make for irresistible watching. Despite the fact that I don’t agree with her choices, I for one, am having a hard time ignoring them.

Tyee Contributing Editor Vanessa Richmond writes the Schlock and Awe column about popular culture and the media. She is also the former managing editor of the Tyee.
Sign Up!
Get AlterNet's Daily Newsletter in Your Inbox
+ sign up for additional lists
Select additional lists by selecting the checkboxes below before clicking Subscribe:
Election 2018