"The woman's not stupid"

In the days after the election, McCain staffers and Republican pundits have been quick to scapegoat Sarah Palin. But are their attacks misogynist?

By Judy Berman

Published November 7, 2008 10:30PM (EST)

Since John McCain chose Sarah Palin to be his running mate in late August, we've struggled with questions of misogyny. Was it sexist to worry about Palin parenting a special-needs infant in the White House? Or to say that the Alaska governor was unqualified to be V.P.? Or to get riled up about her $150,000 campaign trail shopping spree?

Now that the campaign is over and we can all rest assured we won't have to endure four to eight years of vice-presidential "you betchas" (for now, at least), angry McCain staffers and shell-shocked Republican pundits are rushing to pin the blame for their candidate's loss on Palin. To that end, the media has released a boatload of embargoed information: Palin apparently couldn't name all the nations in North America, thought Africa was a country and refused preparation for her interview with Katie Couric.

And now we find ourselves left with the same question as ever: Is there a misogynist element to all this finger-pointing? According to Shakesville's Melissa McEwan, the answer is "yes." She takes the conservative media to task for trashing Palin with "vicious sexist attacks" and calls Bill O'Reilly's election postmortem (posted below) "disgusting." Specifically, she calls out gendered language in references to the governor's "tantrums" and "shopaholism" made by Carl Cameron, Fox News' chief political correspondent.

Strangely, for the first time in my life, I may have to take Fox's side. For his part, O'Reilly is more charitable to Palin than I might have been, at one point interjecting, "The woman's not stupid." I have heard the word "tantrum" used to describe the behavior of men, women and children in fairly equal measure. And can't we admit, for a moment, that the word "shopaholic" is probably a fair descriptor of Palin's Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus purchases?

I maintain, as many others have already said, that the single most sexist moment in Palin's candidacy was her nomination, based on her gender rather than her qualifications. It may not be misogynist for the media to analyze her mistakes and plumb the depths of her ignorance, but, as for the McCain campaign, it has no one to blame for its deafeat but itself.

In any case, siding with Fox News over Shakesville has me worried that I'm delirious. So I tossed the eternal question -- sexist or not? -- to some of Salon's best and brightest. Here's what they had to say:

Vincent Rossmeier: This has much less to do with misogyny than it does with trying to shift blame after a failed campaign. Was the press's reaction to Dan Quayle's flubs misandry? No. The same applies here. As Carl Cameron points out, Palin clashed frequently with Nicolle Wallace, another woman, especially after the Couric interview. What this reports shows, though, is how the McCain campaign is completely unwilling to take responsibility for its bad decision. The McCain campaign now wants to paint Palin as an idiot, and the towel anecdote is just additional fodder for this assertion. But we have to remember, they picked her. If she really does lack the knowledge on NAFTA and Africa that this report claims, the McCain campaign should have known that and never selected her in the first place. They easily could have vetted her if they had wanted to (they certainly had enough time), and so regardless of her intellectual acuity, the campaign shouldn't get to lay all the blame for their loss on her now.

On a side note, the best part of the video is when O'Reilly says of Palin, "She didn't want to be bogged down with a lesson before Ms. Couric talked to her." That's right Bill, why should anyone ever prepare for anything? Africa, continent or country? Who cares? Influential Supreme Court decisions? Don't need to know that. If I can ever convince a woman to let me get close enough to her to be the father of her children, when I have kids, I'm going follow Bill's advice and tell them they don't need to study for any of their tests -- that it's best to just go by their gut.

Mary Elizabeth Williams: Far be it from me to stick up for Fox. You won't get a kind word about Sarah Palin out of me. And I hope I live long enough to see the day that a male candidate for political office is referred to as a "shopaholic."

But -- is it possible to be either fair or balanced, genderwise, on the subject of how the McCain campaign went down in flames? Sure, watching the Bill O'Reilly video, it's hard not to shake the feeling that the host and correspondent Carl Cameron are delighting in a long-awaited  post-Election Day freedom to rip Sarah Palin to shreds.

Nevertheless, can we really bristle at references to her "tantrums" when the word has been so liberally thrown around regarding McCain? Can we mind if she's accused of being ill prepared for interviews when she so obviously was? Is it sexist for the right to apparently enjoy loathing her when the left has been openly doing so for months now? If we're going to laugh at Tina Fey's wicked,  "increasingly adorable" depiction of the woman who came a heartbeat from being a heartbeat away, expecting anything gentler from Fox would be as conveniently  contradictory and hypocritical as, well, an episode of "The O'Reilly Factor."

Tracy Clark-Flory: I'm not sure that the decision of these McCain aides to humiliate Palin with tales of tantrums, bathrobes and ill-preparedness is any more sexist than the initial selection of her. That the McCain camp treated her as a GOP blowup doll is especially clear now: They filled her with air and, now that they've lost, are deflating her as quickly as possible. Who, pray tell, is the slightest bit surprised that folks like O'Reilly, who once rabidly defended Palin against "sexist" attacks, are suddenly interested in hearing about just how unqualified she was?

Sarah Hepola: I'm nothing less than gobsmacked that Palin didn't know that Africa is a continent. This unfolding narrative is almost as good as puppy cam. Listen, people: There will be books about this. There will be movies. There will be books made into mediocre movies starring Gina Gershon. It is hard to wait for all the product this will inspire. But goddamn if they aren't feeding Palin to the wolves, making her take the fall for this failure. I don't know if it's sexist so much as preservational and strategic, per se, but there's one person who bears the brunt of the collossal GOP failure, and that person is John Effing McCain. He never should have picked her, and he knows it.

Kate Harding: Well, I was going to participate in this round table, but then I saw the puppy cam, and now I'm afraid I'll be busy for the rest of the afternoon.

Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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