The Palins may not have moved into the White House, but Sarah, Bristol and even jilted Levi Johnston continue to generate a seemingly endless supply of material for conversations on the American family. Now, self-proclaimed First Dude Todd Palin is taking a turn as political symbol, as the subject of features in two major men’s magazines -- Esquire and Men’s Journal -- that attempt to wrestle with what it means to be a working-class guy who can compete in badass feats of physical daring while still playing support staff and helpmate for his much more powerful political wife.
Say what you will about Palin’s politics (and we've said a hell of a lot), her marriage has always struck me as a pretty good thing: Both seem passionate and supportive of one another, and any couple who can combine five children, including an infant, with running for national office has got something pretty modern going on. As Rebecca Traister wrote in an e-mail conversation about this, "To pretend there isn't something progressive about the Palin marriage, no matter how repugnant we find her or her policies, is just as backward as Palin celebrators rejecting the tenets and signifiers of traditional feminism." And, she points out, "celebrating a man for taking on his share, or more, of the domestic work might just be the most progressive stance we could take right now."
So what do these stories teach us about the First Dude?
The Men's Journal piece leads off with those badass feats of physical daring and seems almost comically obsessed with endowing Todd Palin with the trappings of traditional masculinity. To them, Palin is "Iron Todd" -- so named after the Tesoro Iron Dog snow machine race he has competed in since 1993 -- no longer the husband standing "quietly, uncomfortably by his woman," but a "blue-collar outdoorsmen who competes in one of the toughest races on earth." The very first line of the piece is, "Todd Palin is trying to scare me" (after that, he comes hurtling toward the reporter on his snow machine), and we are told, "he doesn’t mind playing rough." Well sure, we know the dude loves his snow machines, and we would hardly fault an article showing any political spouse in his or her element, away from their more famous partner. But their writer, Daniel Duane, is trying so hard to let the reader know that this is a man with cajones, it's almost as if he suspects his image is in need of rehabilitation.
The Esquire piece, which seems to have been reported around the same time (one wonders if the two reporters passed each other en route to Wasilla), is part of their "How To Be a Man" issue and thus offers up Alaska's First Dude as a brave new model of masculinity. As their own headline declares: "Todd Palin is the man for America Now." Apparently, the New American Man is the kind of guy who can change the diapers on his baby and the tires on his snow machine; pick up the kids from school and navigate around a living room full of toys and "a molded polyurethane infant chair called a Bumbo." He does a lot of laundry, but leaves his screwdriver in his Carhartt jeans. Of course he wears Carhartt jeans, a sign of working-class authenticity for every Northwestern male (my brother and father included) whether or not they still actually do anything close to manual labor.
Alaska's First Dude has been known to eat Ritz and cheddar and bologna sandwiches standing up when his kids flake on buying the bread, and his kitchen specialty is Akutaq ice cream, lard and sugar beaten together with salmonberries. (Now, if this dude were a first lady, we'd get the recipes.) Yes, he puts in the hours on his snow machine, but only on weekends, after waking at 4 a.m. and driving 200 miles.When his wife calls, he says, "Gotta clean up before the boss comes home." (You know that author Luke Dittrich and his editor shared a high five over getting that quote on tape.)
The boss arrives on the very last page of the profile, and almost immediately, puts Levi -- back in December, he was still lurking around, "a good-looking kid, very Abercrombie and Fitch" -- to work marinating, then cooking the roast, a task he seems somewhat baffled by. (Perhaps his household hasn't offered as much training in New American manhood.) Finally it's Todd's turn to go out, but it's only to a corporate function for which he's subbing for his wife. On his way out, she instructs him that if they ask him to speak, say -- and she actually zips her lip. OK, trophy husband! Just stand there and look pretty!
In the final paragraph, we find out that Todd and Scott came in sixth in the Iron Dog race, which isn't quite as impressive, one supposes, as coming in second for vice-president. And Dittrich seems determined to make sure readers figure out just where he seems to think Todd stands, even if it takes a tortured metaphor to do so. It turns out that even when he races, Todd rides behind his partner. And this is the very last graph of the story:
For a lot of the race, Todd will ride half-blinded by the icy cloud that Scott's sled kicks up behind it. A lot of riders hate that, being stuck in someone's wake like that. But that's one of the things about Todd. He doesn't mind riding in the snow dust.
Got that? Not only is the guy just hanging out a step behind his partner, he's actually in a position where he must eat his dust. Icy dust. What the hell is that supposed to mean? That riding behind your partner will leave you blinded? That it’s somehow unnatural for a dude to be happy in someone else’s wake? That whichever partner has the shiniest public persona is by definition more important than the one who does not? Is that how Todd Palin sees himself? Sure, it’s admirable to devote a full feature article to a guy who seems as comfortable navigating family life as he is messing around under a snow machine. But it seems that some men are still taking the Todd Palin version of American manhood with a pretty hefty dose of ambivalence.