Even though I detest her politics, as I watched Alaska Governor Sarah Palin’s much-anticipated interview with ABC News’s Charles Gibson, God help me, I had to admire her steeliness.
Since the Republican vice presidential candidate’s approval rating appears to be immune to facts–notably, that she is entirely unprepared to hold the second-highest office in the land–let’s admit that ballsiness is an essential part of Sarah Palin’s “relatability.”
Last week, Nation columnist Patricia J. Williams examined the “frontierswoman” aspect of Palin’s profile, and astutely took apart the reasons why that can-do, gun-toting Annie Oakley image so quickly and firmly grabbed hold of GOP convention delegates and the press. In record time, the number of references to Palin as a g-droppin’, huntin’, fishin’, Wal-Mart Mom, has transported us back to the era of Manifest Destiny, when America’s Western expansion (and a hankerin’ for gold) required women to man up or die.
This does have some appeal, and maybe it is time we stop fretting about Palin’s hypocrisy and contradictions and acknowledge the positive part of her persona. It does exist, and recognizing it does not require you to dismiss her obvious shortcomings.
As Williams points out, there are probably more than a few of us who drift off, from time to time, on the delicious fantasy of what it would feel like to draw down with shotgun on the misbehaving men in our lives. We don’t know if Palin has ever done such a thing, but it appears she sure as hell could. I have to own up to the part of me that admires that. After watching her with Gibson, it’s safe to say that it took a spine of titanium to stay upright in that chair as “Charlie” scowled at her over the top of his reading glasses: I, too, am a graduate of a state university, and instantly recognized Palin’s ginned-up bravado and cramming-before-finals anxiety. Watching her struggle to stay on-message–she never did answer the question of whether its OK for US forces to launch raids in Pakistan without that government’s knowledge or approval–a small part of me was rooting for her to pull it off. Does that qualify as situational ethics on my part? I don’t know. But I do know that by over-intellectualizing this steeliness factor, and by underestimating its power to sway voters, we are not being true to our cultural history.
It is no accident that in the last century, the women authors who changed the literary game, and the heroines they created, are all of the ballsy variety–Zora Neal Hurston, Eudora Welty, Margaret Mitchell, Maya Angelou. Fiction writers and journalists are mere scribblers of history, while politicians are the high-stakes actors in our national drama. But I think we risk throwing shade across a part of our political future by failing to acknowledge the value of Sarah Palin’s abundant moxie.
Is this critique sexist? Should I turn in my feminist card? I’m happy to entertain any charges of sexism that may result from my deconstruction of the catnip part of the Palin aesthetic. Yes, we’re entering the rabbit hole of the “why is it okay for blacks to call each other the N-word but not okay for-whites?” territory of feminist critique, but I’ve got thick skin, and I am also consistent: I’m black, I don’t call other blacks the N-word, and I don’t want other blacks to use that word, either. I’m a woman who doesn’t call other women the B-word, and I will call out anyone who is foolish enough to direct either of those words at me.
As for feminist street cred, eh: I’m more concerned with being scrupulous–and pragmatic–enough to recognize the whirl of ambiguities that make humans so interesting. Dick Cheney manages to love his lesbian daughter, which is good. And yes, the self-disciplined Condoleezza Rice is an appropriate role model for black girls. Plus, as we learned from the Hillary Clinton presidential candidacy, charges of sexism can be the red herring in a procedural crime drama worthy of P.D. James.
Progressives and feminists who sneer at women unwilling to separate that stimulus-response “I heart ballsy women!” from the business at hand–“Does she have the intellect and experience to be vice president?”–are spinning their wheels. They also conveniently overlook the possibility that Palin’s raw ambition is very close to the self-confidence we want to encourage in our daughters. Sarah Palin is a strong woman, and that is good. Her politics, and what they may lead her to create for our democracy… not so much.