Wednesday, September 03, 2008
5901: VP=Very Pretty…?
From The Chicago Tribune…
Palin faces a cultural crucible
As VP hopeful prepares to take center stage, Tribune cultural critic Julia Keller weighs the role of sexism in the national conversation
By Julia Keller, Cultural Critic
She’s hunted moose at midnight without batting an eyelash, but Sarah Palin now finds herself up against the biggest beast of all: cultural expectations for women.
The Alaska governor and Republican vice presidential hopeful is expected to address her party’s national convention Wednesday night. But that’s not her toughest challenge.
Unlike a previous generation of female politicians—such as Nancy Pelosi, 68, speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, or even Sen. Hillary Clinton, 60, runner-up to Sen. Barack Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination—the 44-year-old Palin is beset by questions, apprehensions, opinions, assumptions and accusations that her older countrywomen rarely faced.
Palin has won a beauty pageant and caught salmon. She runs and she hunts and she races snowmobiles. She’s at home on a rifle range—and in front of a kitchen range. She and her husband, Todd Palin, are raising five children, including one with Down syndrome. She’s part Annie Oakley, part Anita Bryant.
And Palin is young and pretty, in what some commentators have referred to as a “sexy librarian” sort of way. But does pointing that out constitute sexism?
“How do you talk about women candidates without mentioning that they’re—well, women?” muses Nancy Pearl, Seattle-based librarian and author of “Book Lust” (2003) who writes often about images of professional women.
“And then,” she adds, “how can you not talk about how sexy they are or aren’t?”
Once Sen. John McCain’s pick was confirmed Friday, blogs began to twitch and burble with descriptions such as “smokin’ hot” and “easy on the eyes.” Then came the backlash: How dare Palin seek such a demanding office while being responsible for five children? When news broke this week that Bristol, Palin’s unmarried 17-year-old daughter, is five months pregnant, the cyber-scythes began to swing higher and wider.
Never mind that many male politicians have large families and are rarely challenged about their ability to balance work and family. Or that many American families have dealt with the pregnancies of teenage daughters.
With the Palin pick, the nation is entering unknown territory—and not just because she hails from Alaska.
Carol Felsenthal, Chicago-based author of this year’s “Clinton in Exile,” points out that Palin is turning traditional ideological stances upside down—another measure of the unprecedented nature of what the aspiring vice president represents.
“There’s such a role reversa” Felsenthal says. “You have this conservative, pro-life Republican woman—but it’s the liberal Democrats who are saying, ‘But who’s going to take care of the children?’”
Felsenthal also notes that both Sen. Joe Biden, the Democratic vice presidential candidate, and Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, a Republican said to have been on McCain’s short list for the VP spot, have mentioned their wives’ physical attractiveness in public, along with chuckling references to their own homeliness.
How comfortable would we be with a female candidate who referred to a hunky husband and her own dowdiness?
To be or not to be pretty
Physical beauty has been a significant issue in political campaigns since the advent of television. As many historians note, a skinny, unkempt, horse-faced fellow named Abraham Lincoln probably would not fare very well in electoral politics in this age of “Larry King Live” and the endless open faucet known as YouTube. In previous centuries, few people knew what a public figure actually looked like. Today, however, it’s hard to escape the constant images of candidates.
And that cuts both ways for female politicians. Being attractive is generally better than being unattractive, but women often find their appearance listed ahead of their ambitions or accomplishments.
“When a woman’s looks are mentioned, some people say, ‘Well, that’s just life,’” says Leonard Kniffel, editor in chief of American Libraries, the magazine of the Chicago-based American Library Association. “But women, many times, are judged first on their looks.” Indeed, bloggers elbowed each other out of the way to be the first to note Palin’s resemblance to actor and writer Tina Fey—another smart, accomplished woman who wears glasses.
Kniffel said he wasn’t bothered by those who cited Palin’s “sexy librarian” look. “I was delighted and I laughed.”
New and different roles for women can induce discomfort and anxiety in some people—just as does, sadly, the prospect of an African-American president. But this is, by most accounts, an election year in which the hunger for change is a crucial factor. And with the Palin pick, both political parties are now offering a vigorous variation of the same old thing.
What if Palin proves to be a great vice president—but a lousy mother? It sounds like a reasonable question — until you realize that it would rarely, if ever, be asked about a man.