A pile of Palin sexism

When is it sexism and when is it an attack on the GOP's sexist cynicism?

Published September 11, 2008 9:00PM (EDT)

Yesterday, Jezebel's Megan Carpentier called out, and counted, "the sexist and/or just plain offensive smears" in Cintra Wilson's Salon article about Sarah Palin. She counted 19 such smears. A sampling:

1. "fuckable"
2. "Christian Stepford wife"
3. "she is their hardcore pornographic centerfold spread"
4. "Sarah Palin is a bit comical, like one of those cutthroat Texas cheerleader stage moms"
5. The part where she compares electing Sarah Palin to allowing child-rapist Warren Jeffs to babysit her kids
6. The part where electing Palin "is akin to ideological brain rape"
7. "this Republican blowup doll"

In the context of the article, I don't react to most of those words or phrases -- or the remaining 12 -- as sexist. In describing Palin, Wilson does call to mind some of the more disturbing mommy archetypes: the Stepford wife, "cutthroat Texas cheerleader stage moms," and the enabling Carmela Soprano. This domesticized imagery seems fair game to me, considering the domesticized image Palin presented during her speech at the GOP convention. She painted herself as a worshipful wife and "average hockey mom" who got involved in the PTA and then somehow ended up running for vice president -- and it's not because she's actually a shrewd power-seeking woman who just might intimidate the general public, she swears! As Judith Warner wrote in a brilliant New York Times piece, "[T]hey find her acceptably 'real,' because Palin's not intimidating, and makes it clear that she's subordinate to a great man."

Wilson also describes Palin using highly sexualized imagery that's straight out of the Hustler Hollywood sex shop: blowup dolls, centerfolds, lap dances and Playmates. I can't speak for Wilson, of course, but what I think she was trying to argue is that Palin is being used as a blowup doll, that for the GOP she activates a reptilian excitement -- the same kind of excitement offered by a centerfold. She has been pushed onstage to perform an "ideological lap dance" -- in other words, to skillfully pander to baser desires (the least of which are sexual).

These are visuals meant to convey exploitation and, to my mind, are not aimed at Palin so much as the Republican Party. After all, one could argue that these images do not demean Palin any more than McCain's reasons for choosing her as a running mate demeaned her as a politician. That's the thing: It's McCain's cynical, pandering choice that feels like the sexist insult. (Ann Friedman has more on that here.) Warner put it this way: "[H]aving Sarah Palin put forth as the Republicans' first female vice presidential candidate is just about as respectful a gesture toward women as was John McCain's suggestion, last month, that his wife participate in a topless beauty contest."

That's not to say that Palin hasn't faced real sexism from the media -- she has. Consider, for instance, the ongoing debate over whether she can adequately balance caring for her children and serving as V.P., when it's doubtful the same question would be asked about a man in her position. We should decry sexism whenever we see it, regardless of whether it's directed at liberals or conservatives, of course, but I don't find it sexist to lampoon the GOP's sexist cynicism.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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