Why Sarah Palin's Looks Matter

Illustration for article titled Why Sarah Palins Looks Matter

Though Sarah Palin's artfully constructed image is of the consummate Washington outsider, this week's issue of the New Yorker reports that from the moment she stepped foot in the Governor's mansion in Juneau, she actively courted the attention of several conservative Washington insiders, including New York Times op-ed columnist William Kristol, Michael Gerson of the Weekly Standard, and Fox News commentator Fred Barnes. They were her earliest cheerleaders, and I use that word because a friend of McCain's tells the New Yorker's Jane Mayer, "Kristol was out there shaking the pom-poms," for Palin as Vice Presidential nominee from early on.But that's not the only coded language these Conservative queen-makers use in relation to Palin. Kristol referred to her as "my heartthrob" on Fox News in July; Barnes noted that she is "exceptionally pretty"; Jay Nordlinger, a senior editor at the National Review , wrote in a column that Palin is "a former beauty-pageant contestant, and a real honey, too. Am I allowed to say that? Probably not, but too bad." As many of her most ardent fans have noticed, Palin is a very attractive woman. And noticing this wouldn't be bad — it would just be human — if it didn't seem that this is her main qualification in the eyes of even her most serious-minded supporters. Kristol, Barnes and Gerson, in discussing why they were so initially enamored with the Governor of Alaska, mentioned her star power, her hockey mom biography, her charisma, and almost as an afterthought, her record as a "reformer," which at this point has been pretty thoroughly debunked (see her troopergate abuse of power and her bridge to nowhere fibs). It is undeniable that conventional attractiveness, regardless of gender, is a large part of political success; to deny this would be naive. Do you think Barack Obama would have had his meteoric rise to power had he been fifty pounds overweight? Why do you think Mike Huckabee got his lap band, or Biden his hair plugs or Hillary Clinton or McCain their alleged Botox? However, while Obama's looks, oratorial skills and biography, while certainly part of his packaging, are not the sole basis of his rise to prominence. I spent the better part of yesterday thinking about Sarah Palin and what she means to women. After my initial rage over the choice of a severely anti-choice, anti-intellectual, theocratic woman subsided, I have tried to think about the ways the choice of Palin could be construed as a positive. She is a self-proclaimed feminist, and even though many people may think she doesn't qualify as one, the mere fact that she embraces a term that so many young women shun is important. I also decided that Palin's prominence could be a boon for little girls. Perhaps the next generation will be more inclined to join the political fray after seeing a woman so easily glide onto the Presidential ticket. Then, last night, I read that John McCain announced on Fox News that he picked Palin, in part, as a counter to the "liberal feminist agenda," and I found my first claim deflating. McCain is trying to take a place of common ground that women might have with Palin — that we all call ourselves feminists — and make the word into something even more divisive than it already is. I suppose in the Republican party there is only one proper way to be a feminist, and that's to be pretty and pro-life. This morning, I watched a few videos on Newsweek from the magazine's Women In Leadership conference, and was struck by the comments of former Clinton press secretary Dee Dee Myers. "As long as human beings are sexual, and as long as attraction remains one of the dynamics that define life, you're never going to totally eliminate that. What you can do, is, one, women have to be conscious of it, because if you don't take it off the table, it becomes a distraction." Myers went on to talk about how Hillary Clinton purposely looked almost exactly the same every day — the same hairdo and pantsuits — so that people would not comment on her looks, they'd talk about what she had to say. When Palin winks and flirts with the audience during a debate and wears black, high-heeled patent leather boots to political rallies, it's impossible not to notice these things, and it's also impossible to argue that these actions don't become part of the conversation. And this is what worries me about Palin's legacy to young girls. I don't think we should ever require female politicians to be asexual or unfeminine. The point of feminism is that you should be able to present yourself in whatever way you please along the spectrum. However, if a male politician were winking and mugging at the camera the way that Palin does, I would find it equally unprofessional. And I worry that when young women see Sarah Palin, they think, "I too can have a meteoric rise to power... as long as I'm also a beauty queen." "Women are judged more harshly if they're not pretty," Myers says in her Newsweek video. "That's something we've all had to live with since junior high." Which is not to say that Palin does not possess other gifts. I think she is incredibly ambitious and savvy, though these things are not part of her public persona. She has always masked her ambition, something often seen as unfeminine, behind folksy talk and faux humility, like when she said, "I never really set out to be in public affairs, much less to run for this office." But Myers also notes that people are given genetic gifts unequally, and while Palin's looks are an advantage for her, so were Bill Clinton's charisma and Barack Obama's intellect. Again, this would not be a problem if Palin had the political knowledge to back up her very carefully constructed and gilded image. Myers did say something heartening, though. "One woman can't change a culture, but if there are more women there can be a critical mass. If there's only one woman, the culture changes the woman." I think Palin alone will not be able to personally change a generation of women. But hopefully the combined impact of Clinton, Palin, Pelosi will inspire a critical mass. The Insiders [The New Yorker] Among Rock-Ribbed Fans of Palin, Dudes Rule [NYT] McCain: Palin Is A Counter To The "Liberal Feminist Agenda" [Feministing] "Palin's Looks Do Help Her" [Newsweek] Earlier: Palin Dudes: "Proud To Be Voting For The Hot Chick"

Share This Story

Get our newsletter


Erin Gloria Ryan

Whenever I hear the word "glide," I think of tampons, and hearing "glide" in reference to Sarah Palin made me think of her as a sort of Republican tampon inserted in an attempt to stop the bleeding, but it turns out that the bleeding isn't coming from where they put her and the body itself is allergic to the tampon material and now the GOP has TSS. Then I got grossed out.