Deb Smith, Soc.:Palin is not a feminist, but she may be a dominatrix

By Hazel Schaeffer

This election cycle we have two very youthful and energetic candidates: Barack Obama and Sarah Palin. Critics say that Obama is all flair and no substance, as opposed to Palin, who is dismissed as unintelligent and is referred to at times as a VPILF. What do you think of these generalizations?

They are strategically deplored to change people’s minds, to change their perception of the candidates. Barack being all talk no substance, I haven’t heard that much except from the McCain group. But I have heard the description about Palin much more broadly. I think that both candidates have been squeezed into certain stereotypes. The all-talk, no-substance accusation of Obama-those who hurl that accusation [cite his lack] of experience in government. Interesting already, notice this: that we are talking about Obama and Palin as opposed to Obama and McCain. [Palin’s sexuality] is an accusation, but it is also a promotion. Take a look at how these don’t run parallel. In terms of Obama: his campaign is not claiming this, they’re saying, “no, look what he’s done….” Palin, on the other hand-the accusation is that she is vapid and that she is a walking, talking performance of hyper-femininity, that she has sex appeal. These are things I have seen written about her-attractive, sexy. The way these two tracks are not parallel-the McCain campaign is not trying to sidestep or avoid these accusations, and in fact is exploiting them, embracing them.

Do you think she was chosen to be McCain’s running mate because of her sex appeal? Do you think it factored in?

Yes, from what I read, I think that factored in. I have that suspicion, [though] I can’t know why they chose her. But look at the way they play her. She doesn’t walk in a public venue without having been coached. There are limits to what they’ll allow her to do, there are things that they encourage her to do. Winking, giggling, raising your voice, ending your sentence on an up note, are very hyper-feminine things to do. The way she’s dressed, that’s not an accident.

Her tight black or pink suits and red high-heels?

Yes, and the shiny lip-gloss. Tell me one time you saw Hilary Clinton with shiny lip-gloss on? So you have the “sexy librarian” look, kind of that powerful, slightly mean pit bull with lipstick way, which fits into that hyper-femininity in an odd way.

Almost dominatrix?

That was the word I was going to use. Which reminds me, she’s an ex-beauty queen. So what’s [her] persuasive power? She delivers words according to how the campaign decides, but the vehicle through which she delivers them is not the persuasion of logic, experience or intelligence. Like Joe Bidden, how does he persuade? Through the weight of experience. She persuades through seduction. The political message is wrapped up and tied like a present in erotic wrapping. It’s kind of chilling because this is a very distinct, regressive form of femininity. . It’s a very interesting and quick cultural change. Think back to Western women in positions of power (Geraldine Ferraro, Margret Thatcher), you can even come more to the present and look at Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi.

So how does Palin’s womanliness appeal to voters differently than Hillary Clinton’s?

For quite a long time following the second wave of feminism, there was this trend that made it such that women who wanted to be in positions of power had to downplay femininity and try to masculinize their womanhood-boxy suits and haircuts, the lowered, more serious voice, the absence of winks and giggles. So for a woman to be taken seriously in politics and economics she had to downplay [her womanliness], because what’s considered hyper-femininity is not taken seriously. That’s why the Palin phenomenon is so notable.

The women who downplayed her sexuality too far risked being called a lesbian. Hillary Clinton did not appear showing a lot of cleavage, shiny lip-gloss, winking to everybody, and those stiletto red patent heels. In a cultural nanosecond, you had this new figure on the national stage: Palin.

It’s a very interesting moment in our cultural constructions of femininity and power. In one fell swoop she resurrects constructions of traditional femininity: mother, fertility-she is sexy. People say she is not afraid to show her femininity, not afraid to be the appealing and attractive women. [It’s the opposite] of all the things that women have been doing in politics and elsewhere to avoid the risk of being seen as too feminine and therefore not serious, not credible, not strong. In that way [Palin] could not be more different than Hillary Clinton. Look at Hillary Clinton’s knowledge and her experience. I think she clearly trumps Palin that way, but Palin walks onto the stage and she pulls it off. She pulls of everything they have been trying to avoid.

Do you think a woman in politics must either downplay or show off her sexuality? Is it possible to walk the middle line?

I guess the question might be: are there any implications to issues of gender equality, in larger social world? I don’t know that there are.my concern is the degree to which her existence as this character [of the McCain campaign] validates and ratifies a form of femininity that most learned people would agree is oppressive and regressive. So to that extent yes, but to whom does she confirm it? The audience that supports her already embraces that form of femininity. But it does validate it. The rest reject it, I don’t think they’ll be persuaded.

How do you see sex appeal play into this upcoming election?

Well if we didn’t have this monumental economic crisis that we’re having, I suppose it could play more influentially. But the economic crisis is bigger than sex or titillation . It’s pretty damn hard to sit there in front of the television when you can’t pay your mortgage and you can’t send your kids to school and say, now I know that Barack would be a better candidate for me economically, but Sarah Palin’s sexy so I’m voting for that ticket.

This was the first year that we had a woman get some major headway in a presidential election (Hillary Clinton), and now we have a women running for Vice President. Is this historic and are gender roles being remade or is this ordinary?

Gender roles are changing, but it’s a combined and uneven development. Certainly by definition it’s a historic moment. But in some ways the Palinesque performance of hyper-femininity, and the use of Palin for that purpose, rather detracts from any celebration we would have overseeing a woman on the ticket. We have an African-American man who is very likely to win the presidency. That is historic. We have women as a viable VP candidate. Either thing is historic.

Palin has been called a feminist, and you would disagree with that?

. That guts the term of any meaning, doesn’t it? She’s regressing; it’s a revision to a presentation of femininity, or what it means to be a woman in the world, that reverses a lot of gains that were made. like Hillary’s for example. I’m having a hard time celebrating unambiguously. I have mixed feelings.

Do you think Hilary’s success represented a remake in gender roles?

I wouldn’t say remake, [but yes,] change. Hilary could not have existed ten years ago, it wouldn’t have flown.

Moving to Obama, how does Obama’s exoticism help or hinder his chances?

Long before he jumped before the presidential bandwagon, he was already being sexualized as the exotic other. This I’m not sure about so I’m going to suggest it… I think that there were moments where casting Obama as the exoticized Other or the racists imagining of the oversexed black male. I think there were moments where it posed a risk to his success, but surprisingly, my impression is that it’s had a much less deleterious effect on him than I thought it would. I know that we have physiological racism. It’s heartening that he has overcome that. Look at what they’re saying. The rig
ht is saying through Sarah Palin, “I’m one of you, but we don’t know about him, he’s the outsider.” They have been trying to sow the seeds of that kind of racist fear, and I am sure there are certain communities and cultural pockets where that takes really good hold.

How would you define Obama’s sex appeal?

It’s a very different phenomenon than Sarah Palin, because in this case I think it’s largely our imposition of fantasy upon him. She makes the call to the audience, “yes here’s my sexuality come and join me on this kind of unarticulated fantasy.” Obama has sidestepped just about every chance to do that. Actually, he can’t afford to because of the strong racist tradition of exoticizing the Other. We are dressing him up in that suit of the sexualized masculine figure. The McCain campaign suffered from a dearth of sexual energy, and they knew it. Obama was able to announce that he was a sexual being through the displays of affection between himself and Michelle. They have married love being trumped here . What we have is the only safe place for him to be sexual in the public eye is through a married type of sexuality.

Can being perceived as sexually appealing by the public hurt a candidate’s reputation?

Yes, I think it’s less likely that it would hurt a male candidate than it would hurt a female candidate. Women being sexy risk being trivialized, they become an object. Not to mention look at all the sex scandals that male politicians have gotten away with. Imagine a sex scandal with a female politician.

Eliot Spitzer and John Edwards didn’t get over theirs.

They didn’t get over it, but there’s a level of cultural forgiveness, kind of like with Bill Clinton: boys will be boys. Woman are the moral guardian. Palin plays on that with her social conservative positions on abortion.

Do you think there’s a double standard? Is Palin being judged more on her sexuality than Obama is? Is it sexist?

Oh, there’s always sexism. But there’s something deeply cynical about the choice of Palin as VP and the performance of Palin as VP candidate. I think a lot of this is scripted and strategic, and I think its cynical using that. Is she a victim of her own sex appeal, is she trying to frump it up and hide it and she can’t help it because she is so sexy? Is the campaign just tolerating it and wishing she wasn’t? No, I don’t think so! I think that this is all choreographed, they love it.