Palin and the press: the love/hate affair we all hope is over
In a political move that surely set Jon Stewart a-jigging, Sarah Palin resigned from her governorship last week during a press conference that was even more panicky and incoherent than usual. While I hesitate to devote any additional attention to a celebrity politician who perhaps never belonged in the national spotlight at all, the flurry of media coverage following her resignation is a spectacle worth reflecting on.
The primary reason Palin gave for stepping down was her intention not to seek reelection and her conviction that a lame duck governor was “not best for Alaska”— a reason which next to no one believed, based on the amount of time media outlets subsequently spent speculating about her real reasons. Two prevailing theories have emerged. The first is that Palin resigned so that she could prepare herself as a viable candidate for the next presidential election, a prospect that seems distinctly less likely after the way her resignation speech went. The second, far more sympathetic theory is that she and her family could no longer take the criticism from national press. Palin herself confessed to feeling the strain of having every element of her political and personal life derided or mocked: “Let’s go back real quick to a comfortable analogy for me: sports. Basketball!” she chirped brightly between gasps of air, “And I use this because you are naïve if you don’t see a full court press from the national level picking away right now a good point guard.”
She also, in an unparalleled spasm of self-centered arrogance, referred to the wave of criticism she’s undergone since last August as “the real climate change.”
The apparent role of the media’s criticism of her and her family in her sudden decision to quit her job has started some interesting conversations –in those same media outlets—about the way public contempt for Palin were a reflection of her gender and class. Ross Douthat’s op-ed in the New York Times on Sunday argued that the criticism Palin endured “had everything to do with [her] gender and her social class.” Indeed, he speculates that any aspiring female politician who is not part of the social or political elite can expect the response Palin received:
Male commentators will attack you for parading your children. Female commentators will attack you for not staying home with them. You’ll be sneered at for how you talk and how many colleges you attended. You’ll endure gibes about your “slutty” looks and your “white trash concupiscence,” while a prominent female academic declares that your “greatest hypocrisy” is the “pretense” that you’re a woman.
While I appreciate Douthat’s attempt to defend women from sexism in the media –I wish more writers were committed to that cause!—I think he misses the point.
The assertion that Palin’s unpopularity can be explained by demographics and that any woman from a similar background will meet with similar opposition blames a kind of sexism that is not the problem here and overlooks the kind that is. Palin is not criticized and mocked in the press because she is a woman from Hometown, U.S.A. attempting to run for high office. Sarah Palin is the most frequently attacked politician of the last ten months because of her inability to speak in coherent sentences, her encouragement of America’s political polarization along lines of education and class, and –most of all—her arrogant belief that her own lack of preparation or qualification to be a heavy hitter in American politics is irrelevant so long as she continues to act cute and spew empty rhetoric. Palin is quite plainly one of the most offensive, least substantial political figures in recent memory; this is the reason the media loathes her. If a female politician came along who had Palin’s background as well as qualifications and intelligence, you can bet she’d fare better on the national stage.
The important question here is not whether Palin’s gender was the reason behind her evisceration by the press, but why her gender was regarded as such a handy tool in that process. There was plenty to go on without attacking her abilities as a mother or entertaining any discussion of her good looks. Why was she (and Hilary Clinton, for that matter) a target for the kinds of insults that male politicians never worry about? Why did Palin have to suffer through criticism for being “slutty” on one end and accusations that her identity as a woman is nothing but hypocritical pretense? When will public frustration at female leaders stop short of sexism?
Sarah Palin is an idiot, a lame excuse for a real political leader, and a pretty good indicator of what has gone wrong with the Republican party; when will that be insult enough?