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Palin Stuck Between Rock and Tube of Lipstick

The case of Sarah Palin is extraordinary in the history of American politics, even as it seems entirely ordinary in the history of American women.

The case of Sarah Palin is extraordinary in the history of American politics, even as it seems entirely ordinary in the history of American women.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
Her stardom is all around us.
 
According to the <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, Palin was tied with running mate John McCain as the top newsmaker from Aug. 29-Sept. 28. Not surprisingly, she drew more attention and coverage than McCain in the first two weeks after her nomination.
 
When “CBS Evening News” aired portions of anchor Katie Couric’s interview with Palin on Sept. 24 and 25, viewership increased about 10 percent from the previous week, according to the New York Times (though the numbers still represented a decrease from the same week a year earlier).
 
Couric’s interview with Palin remains available on CBSNews.com, as well as on YouTube, where the foreign policy portion of the interview nabbed more than 1.3 million views on CBS’ YouTube channel. Those numbers begin increasing almost exponentially when you consider other, non-CBS postings of the interview—like that by the YouTuber known as “1001BG,” whose posting of the interview has gotten more than 2.3 million streams.
 
A “Saturday Night Live” spoof of the interview, by Amy Poehler as Couric and Tina Fey as Sarah Palin, has played nearly 4 million times at NBC.com. Poehler and Fey first appeared on “SNL” as Hillary Rodham Clinton and Palin on Sept. 13; that segment has been viewed more than 6.3 million times at NBC.com. The most recent spoof, of the vice-presidential debate between Palin and Sen. Joe Biden, has racked up almost 1.8 million views. As for the traditional broadcast of “SNL,” its average numbers have shot up almost 50 percent from its first few broadcasts last year.
 
While the first debate between Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama garnered more than 52 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research, the first and only debate between vice-presidential nominees Biden and Palin Oct. 2 racked up more than 70 million viewers.
 
These kinds of numbers are especially compelling given Palin and company’s refusal to hold more press conferences and speak more with reporters on the campaign trail. So far, one can count her major media appearances on one hand. Less is apparently more when it comes to covering Palin.
 
American media are clearly gobbling up the Alaska governor’s story arc, but how they’re processing it is just as interesting. Coverage of Palin comes in all stripes, as you would expect: funny, serious, mean, liberal, conservative.
 
Syndicated conservative columnist Kathleen Parker wrote in late September that Palin should “bow out” because of her ineptitude.
 
“When Palin first emerged as John McCain’s running mate, I confess I was delighted,” wrote Parker. “She was the antithesis and nemesis of the hirsute, Birkenstock-wearing sisterhood—a refreshing feminist of a different order who personified the modern successful working mother.”
 
Parker changed her mind after seeing Palin in interviews. Parker’s suggestion regarding the bow-out angered the base, engendering her next column about how she was now viewed as a traitor to the Republican Party for the suggestion.
The female hosts on ABC’s “The View” have of course debated Palin, with host Elisabeth Hasselbeck being Palin’s lone defender.
 
And then there’s the aforementioned Tina Fey, who joins, and outdoes, her political comedy colleagues like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert over at Comedy Central. Fey, the creative genius behind the hit show “30 Rock,” is a “Saturday Night Live” alum who has briefly returned to “SNL” to impersonate the vice-presidential nominee. Her appearances will continue throughout the rest of the campaign and will no doubt expand on the notions of Palin as a beauty queen and/or flibberdegibbit.
 
No doubt Palin is a media boon, as a CNN segment, “Profiting Off Palin,” points out.
 
But Palin has a problem, and at least part of it is not of her own making. She faces the proverbial double-standard, having her parenthood questioned when the parenthood of male candidates seems a non-issue. She faces the double-bind that many women face in needing to appear confident but not overbearing. Hillary Clinton was blasted for appearing too much the latter.
 
Palin’s campaign, though, seems perfectly willing to play up the very things that research shows may get in the way of her credibility. Communication expert Audrey Nelson, for example, has pointed out that appearing too matronly or too sexy in the workplace hinders women in establishing authority.
 
The McCain-Palin campaign is apparently happy to forge both of those elements into Palin’s public image. But pins that say “Coldest State, Hottest Governor” ultimately don’t help Palin. Shirts that have “Palin” embedded in a lipstick smear don’t help. Her supporters repeatedly referring to her as a “hot mama” don’t help. Neither do the hockey-mom posters.
 
That strategy may help rally parts of the base, but it also strains her credibility, fairly or not, for a large segment of the voting public. And Palin’s credibility is the last thing that needs to be strained given its priority as a media talking point. Why claim to be a media target and then hand over the ammunition?
 
When her own party and base are complicit in casting her as a sex object and average hockey mom in pursuit of the White House, it’s as disingenuous to “blame the media” for what will inevitably follow as it is tragic for a public unable to process women in power.
 
Cliff Vaughn is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.