Katha Pollitt’s new book of poems, The Mind-Body Problem, has just been published by Random House.
Going Rogue has been out only a day or two as I write, and I’ve already read so many blogs and columns and articles and reviews and participated in so many listserv discussions about it, I’m sick to death not only of Sarah Palin but of Palin-related snark, outrage, ruminations and fact checks. I don’t want to follow the timeline of Bristol’s pregnancy on Vanity Fair‘s website. I don’t want to delve into how many hockey games this self-described hockey mom actually attended or how many moose she really shot. I don’t want to find out the back story behind her digs at Levi Johnston or the McCain campaign. Fish in a barrel! You know something’s gone off the rails when the ferociously smart Linda Hirshman defends Palin’s charging her $150,000 campaign wardrobe to the McCain campaign (or possibly, depending on whom you believe, not) at the Daily Beast on the grounds that, unlike stylish Michelle Obama, she doesn’t have a rich husband to pay for her clothes–and when writers hammer away at this thesis for seventy posts on a listserv. All right, I admit I wrote several of those posts. And, yes, I am writing this column. What is it about this absurd woman that is so fascinating?
As just about every columnist in the world has noted by now, including me more than once, Palin is a bundle of contradictions: a Christian reactionary who has kind words for Title IX and thinks it’s fine to have a top government job, five kids and a lower-earning husband; a seriously underqualified politician chosen by the desperate John McCain at least partly because of her gender and looks who exploits those assets every chance she gets–but if called on it, accuses her critics of sexism. And you know what? Some of them deserve to be called out! Newsweek‘s cover, for instance, was doubly sexist. The headline How Do You Solve a Problem Like Sarah? (a cutesy reference to Maria, the madcap novice nun in The Sound of Music) would never have been used for a man. (How do you solve a problem like Bart Stupak? Glenn Beck? Hamid Karzai?) The accompanying photo, originally shot for Runner’s World, showed Palin in running shorts, with a come-hither smile, a beauty-queen curve-accentuating pose, leaning on the flag and holding not one but two BlackBerries: ooh, Patriot Barbie is busy! (The inside is worse: a shot-from-behind pic of her shapely calves and shiny black high-heeled shoes, a plastic Palin doll in schoolgirl pornwear. Oh, women of Newsweek, have you no influence at all with your frat-boy overlords?) But it also has to be said that Runner’s World did not tie Palin up and make her pose like that. Any more than the McCain campaign required her to go unprepared to her interview with Katie Couric, or Levi Johnston forces her to talk trash just because he does. For a person who says “common sense” is all we need to solve our most intractable problems, Palin seems to have very little.
It is indeed annoying to have Palin paradoxes thrown in one’s feminist face all day. You see, says conventional wisdom, you said women should just vote for women, and look what you got! (Note to CW: feminists never said women should vote for women just because of their gender. They said women should vote for feminists.) But parsing the feminist semiotics of Sarah Palin is getting as old as all those articles about why teenage girls love vampires. Someday there will be whole women’s studies conferences devoted to her, the way there used to be scholarly panels on Madonna. Maybe even endowed chairs of Palin studies. But does feminism really have all that much to do with her apotheosis?
The one thing Palin seems to know how to do is use the media’s infatuation with celebrity, hotness and women’s bodies to aggrandize herself. As Bill O’Reilly told her, “You are the biggest threat because you are a star…. There aren’t any other Republicans who are media stars but you.” Except for her politics, she’s the living embodiment of the constantly updated Huffington Post cover page, in which Washington reporting and Jon and Kate and assorted pushers of quackery and psychobabble jostle against a constant stream of semi-naked photos of semi-celebs, whose breasts and cosmetic surgeries you are invited to rate. For her fans she may be a goddess of vitality and truth, but for everyone else she’s the first political female train wreck, the Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan of the Republican Party. We can’t stop looking. Maybe she’ll confuse Iran and Iraq again! And tell about praying on the phone with Rick Warren while taking a shower! Or write another letter in God’s voice about her baby, Trig! Maybe Palin is cosmic payback for all those nasty jokes about Hillary’s pantsuits and thick ankles, and for the mighty cry of borrring! that goes up all over the media whenever a politician–Al Gore?–displays actual knowledge of a complex subject. You wanted hot and relatable? You got it.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Consider Angela Merkel. The press (the foreign press, mostly) went wild when she wore a low-cut gown to the opening of the Oslo opera house last year. If you Google her, “Angela Merkel cleavage” is the first suggested search term that comes up–but Merkel herself doesn’t engage with media-style hyped-up feminine self-presentation. She dresses in a nondescript way, doesn’t wear a lot of makeup–in fact, she looks like she doesn’t wear any makeup–and her hair is so ordinary, I can’t even remember how she wears it. Her husband is not part of her day-to-day story. She is a middle-age woman with a PhD in physics, a pleasant lined face and a low-key, straightforward manner. Even people who would never vote for her seem to respect her as a human being. So far as I know, there are no Angela Merkel nutcrackers or plastic dolls in slutty costumes for sale on the Internet.
It is so restful, you can’t believe it.