Sesame Street Palin

by CarlD

Sarah Palin is, as far as she’s showing, ordinary. She’s not dumb but she’s not especially bright. She doesn’t know much but she isn’t completely ignorant. She manages to get some things done but she’s not notably competent; and when she gets things done it’s not clear they were quite what she had in mind. When she talks I hear the muddled, impressionistic conservatism of a hundred satisfactory human beings I know, the perfect counterpoint to the muddled, impressionistic liberalism of another hundred sterling folks of my acquaintance. As I’ve just said in my last post, this disqualifies her for a philosophy degree but makes her pretty effective as a demagogic rhetoritician. Not great at that either, though, just, well, good enough.

What makes Palin special is therefore nothing about herself; it’s that the juxtaposition of her ordinariness and the historic role she’s been thrust into is confusing according to a couple of schemas that ought to have her nicely boxed up. She’s a monster because she’s a historically successful woman who isn’t a feminist; and a conservative proponent of women’s domestic calling who isn’t a housewife. She’s loved by who oughta revile her and reviled by who oughta love her. She’s the one of these things that doesn’t belong here.

As a category-buster, Palin changes the game just by existing, like hermaphrodites change the game of sex and gender. She embodies an attack on a central myth of pop feminism, in many cases a reality, that to be female is to experience oppression and carry at least a latent progressive consciousness. This is not her narrative. Shall we say that she suffers from false consciousness? But isn’t failure to take seriously what women tell us about their lives the characteristic power play of the patriarchy? She’s a woman who’s a feminist’s worst nightmare.

She is empowered, and not despite her femininity but because of it. This is a central myth, and in many cases a reality, of the normative traditional gendered division of labor, as Muck and Mystery reports:

That’s the single most common subject around here when the cowboys run into one another while riding fence and so chat for a bit. She’s our kind of babe. We each know a dozen women much like her and have no confusions about their power. We’ve lived with them all of our lives and know that to a significant degree they run things.

For example, there’s old Ordel who was known far and wide as the best farmer to ever mount a tractor, and the sharpest business man to ever operate a pencil. He rose from being a two-bit Okie fruit picker to owning enough land for a boutique sized European nation. But as he aged his mind faded and his wife, Rita, took to doing most of the talking. It soon became apparent that Ordel’s nose for business was on Rita’s face. Those who knew the family closely had always known this of course. These women have never needed liberation. They are content with domination.

Men are big showy figureheads for these distaff masterminds. Pay no attention to the woman behind the curtain. But Sarah disrupts the myth by emerging from behind the throne to sit in it herself; and unlike Rita, not as a regrettable necessity. By default Palin will be showing that women can have it all: marriage, children, global authority. She’s a conservative woman who’s a conservative’s worst nightmare.

Careful what you wish for. To empower women in the public sphere is to empower all women, not just the ones who agree with you. Palin is an icon of feminist accomplishment; she’s just what we worked for, better late than never, warts and all. That she also undermines the program with her conservative views and policies is a cost of doing business in a pluralistic democracy. The tyranny of feminism would require a different political system than we have. But the offset is ironically pleasing. For Palin to subvert the feminist agenda she must first accomplish it; as a powerful woman out of the home she’s a genie out of the bottle for social conservatives. What kind of example is she setting? She can talk family and tradition all she wants, yet there she is in the suit, with the microphone, all eyes on her, executive power and looking for more.

Without being anything much but a hockey mom she’s not what she should be, at all. Fantastic.

UPDATE: For a better explanation of conservative feminism and sharp assessment of some problems with the liberal variety, with great links, check out The Kibitzer.


11 Responses to “Sesame Street Palin”

  1. “Sarah disrupts the myth by emerging from behind the throne to sit in it herself . . . She’s a conservative woman who’s a conservative’s worst nightmare.”

    I’m not certain – since I’m not a conservative – but the myth you speak of seems to me to be the liberal myth about conservative myths. For those people that I know Palin is not a “conservative’s worst nightmare”, she’s what they have been talking about all of this time. She was instantly recognizable to them, an old friend rather than a bad dream.

    The categories she’s busting seem all to be liberal constructs, and as you note, even if she loses some damage has been done. There’s been a lot of bad scholarship about women so this could have its greatest affect in the academy where there is already a lot of doubt about the quality of scholarship in recent years. We would all benefit from that.

  2. You could be right about that. I have to admit that I’m much better in general at sussing liberal myths than conservative ones, so I might have gotten caught in a mirror trap here.

    As I understand (or stereotype) it, the ideal of family values social conservatism (Biblically inspired or otherwise) is that men and women have separate (but perhaps equal) responsibilities in a domestic division of labor. Men do the dirty work in public and wield the formal power; women maintain the integrity of the home and have unpolluted moral leverage there. In practice this may be a serene partnership, a delicate dance of influence, or an all-out power struggle. Does any of this seem familiar from your experience?

    On the theory, the only way women should be visibly powerful in a public frame (and risk losing their moral purity there) is if ‘their’ men have dropped the ball somehow, for example in Ordel’s case by declining into senility. In fact, a publicly powerful woman is immediately diagnostic of masculine failure to protect and provide for the home enclave. Insofar as conservatives accept Palin’s publicity, they have already moved significantly away from traditionalism and toward a practical accommodation with feminism. For my money that’s plenty; like you I think ‘liberation’ is a very thin definition of the good life, and a public discourse in which various ways of living well and various representatives for them are in play seems healthy to me.

    There is indeed a lot of very bad scholarship about women out there. There’s also a lot of very good scholarship calling bullshit on the myths we’ve lived by over the years. I agree we benefit from sorting that out and clearing some of the underbrush in academe would be a good start, but as you know ideologues are always a hard hack.

  3. “Does any of this seem familiar from your experience?”

    Not in my experience here in the west. Wasn’t it some western states that were the first to have women’s suffrage? In general, I don’t see much difference between people who define themselves as liberals or conservatives. There’s some temperament and belief differences, but their minds are stuffed with weird partisan stories about one another. I should maybe say that they all think that I’m an alien: harmless, even useful, but not regular. I don’t speak for them, or anyone really, and this isn’t scholarship backed securities so much as rootless bloviation.

    “Insofar as conservatives accept Palin’s publicity, they have already moved significantly away from traditionalism and toward a practical accommodation with feminism.”

    Maybe this is one of those blind men and elephants stories. It’s a tree, no it’s a snake, it’s a wall. Depends on which appendage you grab. From my limited experience and the indifferent education of a tedious autodidact it seems like liberals are at long last required to acknowledge another sort of feminism, one that conservatives have always accepted. It’s something like has happened with environmentalism. Peel away the partisan cruft from environmental notions and you have something that everyone is always already supporting.

    To me it seems that there are several legitimate claimants to the idea of feminism and that the unbiased observer would have to include them all in any comprehensive definition. It may be worth noting that there are feminists of the left who say something like this. They may not agree with Palin’s policy ideas, politics, lifestyle choices or fashion sense, but she is indeed a feminist and one that many conservatives just love. The men want to do her, the women want to be her. Ok, for some it’s the other way around.

  4. Thanks Gary, this is one of those examples of what I mean when I say that all thinking is a conversation and I think better when I’m not just talking to myself.

    The points you’re making were in the back of my mind but getting at them requires the clearing of a vast debris field. I’m going to move this conversation out front in a bit; in the meantime you might enjoy the book reviewed here, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese’s Feminism Is Not the Story of My Life. With her husband Eugene she has been busy pissing off ideologues of the Left by unclothing the emperor for quite some time now.

    “Scholarship-backed securities” is priceless.

  5. I can’t speak very intelligently about conservative notions of feminism. I agree with Gary, though, that Sarah Palin represents not a new type of woman, but a very old type, one that many traditionalists would quickly recognize. From a Jungian perspective, she is an archetypal figure, one represented by such manifestations as the frontier woman and the Amazon. As I understand it, this is the woman who situates herself not behind the protective barriers of civilization but out where danger resides. She is strong in a direct, assertive way, not in the seductive, deceptive manner that is a common stereotype of women in patriarchial societies–and is respected as such, though sometimes feared as well. Space is created for her not only by her willingness to go beyond the confines of the protective-oppressive system of society, but also by some recognition that the men who are supposed to provide protection are not always adequate to the task. The Palin story seems to fit this prototype in lots of ways, e.g. living in Alaska, being a hunter, the “pit bull with lipstick” image, the Russian bear across the straits, fighting corruption, and refusing to accept earmarks.

  6. Great point, Bob, I moved this up into the frame analysis post.

  7. How come nobody brings up Nancy Reagan in this context? Or do they?

  8. Yeah, that’s a good call Dad. I contrasted Ann Richards and Barbara Bush in another post as two models of frontier womanhood, but I haven’t seen Nancy come up in any of the threads I’m following.

    It’s interesting to me how twitchy I am with the reflexes of liberal feminism, despite the example of all the strong, even domineering housewives on both sides of the family. Maybe it’s in part because I had an inside view on the ways that power is blocked and channeled and the mischief that can ensue.


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