“Her Husband’s A Pretty Tough Guy, Too”: Conservative Sexism against Sarah Palin
During the 2008 U.S. presidential election, Sarah Palin was a source of news and scandals. In his book, Moral Politics, George Lakoff argues that government imitates family structure, with its heads acting as metaphorical parents. Accordingly, John McCain, in appealing to Americans with “strict father” views, picked Sarah Palin to be his running mate and metaphorical wife on the ticket. She acted as John McCain’s metaphorical female companion, essentially signing on to dutifully supporting the legitimate authority of the Strict Father. Some conservatives declined to support her relatively early, from September through early October, such as Kathleen Parker and George Will. Others, including many Fox News commentators, retained their support for her as long as she continued to support John McCain, even defending her against alleged sexism by liberals. After she went “rogue” on October 26, 2008, however, she lost considerable support among these conservatives, who finally criticized her extensively after the election. The conservative backlash against Sarah Palin caused by her disobedience to authority activated cultural narratives that, by conservative standards set by such commentators as Michelle Malkin, Carly Fiorina, and Megyn Kelly, are sexist.
Sarah Palin’s Vice Presidential Ties to the Strict Father Model
John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin reflected Strict Father values by emphasizing her motherhood and her own strict father views, as evidenced by his comments at the third Presidential debate concerning Palin. Lakoff specifies that in a traditional nuclear Strict Father family, a mother’s duties include “responsibility for the care of the house, raising the children, and upholding the father’s authority.” By this standard, John McCain chose an experienced running mate: Sarah Palin has five children whose problems she manages while continuing her gubernatorial career, which demonstrates her ability to be a responsible mother while bolstering the Strict Father’s authority. When discussing his pride in Sarah Palin’s ability to mobilize supporters, McCain says he is “proud…of her and her family,” showing that he deliberately stresses her motherhood as a qualification. He continues, saying that “her husband’s a pretty tough guy[…]too,” listing Palin’s marriage as another qualification to be his running mate. In Alaska, John McCain argues, the authority Palin defended was morality, citing her experience on the Energy and Natural Resources board when she “saw corruption, she resigned and said, ‘This can’t go on.’” Lakoff suggests that because people who operate under the Strict Father model believe that morality determines one’s success in life, “Success is therefore a sign of being obedient.” Because of Sarah Palin’s defense of the Strict Father model through reform and opposing corruption, she experienced political success. Overall, John McCain’s choice of words at the third debate is significant; in defending the qualifications of Sarah Palin to be Vice President, he prioritizes her Strict Father morality, her motherhood, and her marriage.
Because his vetting process for vice president values these Strict Father spousal attributes of Palin over intellectual or policy qualifications, McCain clearly treats Sarah Palin as his metaphorical wife: “She’ll be my partner.” Conservative commentators echo that view; as Pat Buchanan said when learning that Palin was selected, he said “Johnny’s got a new girl.” Buchanan’s comment solidifies the view of Sarah Palin as McCain’s metaphorical wife by using the word “girl” and the casualization of the name “Johnny” to suggest teenage courtship. Conservative columnist David Brooks even observed that “Sarah Barracuda was picked because she lit up every pattern in McCain’s brain, because she seems so much like himself.” This also suggests a connection between Palin and McCain that mirrors romance. John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin thereby assumes the role of Strict Father parents at the head of governmental authority, with John McCain as the symbolic husband and Sarah Palin as the symbolic wife.
Conservative Standards of Sexism
Although progressives may define sexism differently, an analysis of conservative treatment of conservative women necessitates using conservative definitions of sexism; Commentator Michelle Malkin, Businesswoman Carly Fiorina, and FOX News host Megyn Kelly offer examples of sexism applicable to Sarah Palin. These examples highlight cases of progressive comments qualifying as sexism by conservative standards; it is important to note these cases so that conservative comments can later be judged by the same standards of sexism. Malkin outlines four stages of “Conservative Female Abuse,” or “CFA.” The first is infantilization, where conservative women are assumed to be “submissive little dolls.” She alludes to liberal assumptions of Sarah Palin as “neocon puppet.” The second is sexualization, where critics will use a woman’s appearance to discourage Americans from taking her seriously. The third is demonization, where women are vilified and portrayed as “nefarious creatures.” The fourth and final stage is dehumanization, and Malkin gives the example of liberals questioning Sarah Palin’s prenatal and parenting decisions. Carly Fiorina and Megan Kelly point out cases of sexism against Sarah Palin that align with Malkin’s four-stage theory. Joe Biden’s comment that Sarah Palin is “good-looking,” is a case of sexualization, similar to the Huffington Post’s slideshow of Sarah Palin’s legs or the documentary “Nailin’ Palin.” Belittling Palin’s experience as a small-town mayor was seen as infantilization, by assuming that Palin would blindly follow her superiors in the Republican Party. Sarah Palin was also allegedly demonized by bloggers who tied her to a right-wing Nazi group, and was dehumanized by challenges of her ability to raise a special-needs child while assuming the vice presidency. Malkin’s standards are clear guidelines by which to judge sexist treatment of conservative women; they apply to Sarah Palin in the 2008 election.
When Sarah Palin Went Rogue
From October 26 through the election, Sarah Palin deviated off of John McCain’s official campaign message through comments about North Korea, the presidency in 2012, the RNC funds used for her clothing, and on the withdrawal of the McCain campaign’s resources from Michigan, which validated accusations that she “went rogue;” these demonstrated clear disobedience from her duty in upholding John McCain’s authority as the Strict Father. On October 26, 2008, Sarah Palin spoke at a rally in Tampa, Florida on the subject of hundreds of thousands of dollars in clothes and accessories that the Republican National Committee had allegedly financed for her candidacy. She also mentioned that she did not approve of the campaign’s decision to pull out of Michigan. Instead of adhering to talking points that the McCain campaign provided to her, Palin improvised, causing a McCain adviser to tell CNN that “those comments were not the remarks we sent to her plane.” In fact, the phrase “going rogue” can be attributed to McCain advisers who spoke anonymously to the press on Sarah Palin’s independent comments. Even earlier, on October 11, Palin had mentioned that she supported the Bush administration’s new negotiations with North Korea, after McCain had voiced disagreement with President Bush. Subsequently, when Palin was prank-called by a person she believed was French President Nicolas Sarkozy, she stated that she might “make a good president” in 2012. Collectively, these insubordinations from the McCain campaign message undermined McCain’s authority.
Palin’s off-message comments challenged the Strict-Father authority by undermining John McCain, causing a break from Palin’s original assumed role as his metaphorical wife in a stable family. First, the McCain campaign’s lack of control over Palin’s comments mirrors a husband’s inability to control his disobedient wife. By saying that she did not follow the comments sent to her plane, the McCain campaign indicated that they have little influence over Sarah Palin. A writer for Politico.com cites a “close Palin ally outside the campaign who speaks regularly to the candidate” as saying that Palin has “gone from relying on McCain advisers who were assigned to her to relying on her own instincts.” Later, by suggesting that she might run for president in 2012, Palin seemingly withdrew her support for McCain in support of herself, which is seen as immoral. Because Sarah Palin’s job in the Strict Father model is to support the legitimate authority of John McCain, her sudden disagreement with him is emasculating and challenges the Strict Father.
Backlash Against Palin
Following her break from the Strict Father model, from October 27 through the aftermath of the election, several conservatives criticized Palin for her cessation of support for McCain’s moral authority, including talk radio host Rush Limbaugh and the McCain campaign itself. Rush Limbaugh complained that “there is no elected or political leadership in Washington or in the Republican Party that people can rally around,” on October 28, 2008, which establishes that though John McCain and Sarah Palin were both showing leadership in their strong opinions on issues, Sarah Palin’s lack of support for McCain’s positions undermined both Republicans’ authority. Peggy Noonan called Palin “a mark against John McCain, against his judgment and idealism.” Within the campaign, frustration with Palin’s disobedience also manifested itself through distrust of Palin. On the November 5 O’Reilly Factor, Bill O’Reilly spoke of extending an offer for an interview to Sarah Palin, only to have the McCain campaign insist that McCain sit next to her during the interview, presumably to control her message. McCain also allegedly refused to speak with her on his campaign plane in the days leading up to the election. Interestingly, this is a type of punishment that coincides with the view of morality as a system of rewards and punishments; Palin disobeyed McCain’s authority and suffered the consequences. The criticism against Palin was so severe that she held a press conference after the election, and spoke about McCain: “I have such great admiration for him. I honor him. I love him.” These comments respond to the criticism by conservatives that she broke from her duties as McCain’s metaphorical wife. By showing admiration, Palin attempts to show deference to his authority, and by using the word “love,” she reinforces that they are partners.
Sexist Cultural Narratives Activated in the Backlash
Much of the backlash against Sarah Palin uses language to activate cultural narratives that are, by conservative standards, sexist. In The Political Mind, Lakoff lists several common cultural narratives that apply to conservative criticism of Sarah Palin, including the Gold-Digger and the Calculating Bitch. Additionally, the narratives of the Shopaholic and the Bimbo (or Pageant Queen) apply. As Lakoff asserts, these “classic American narratives that concern women are largely sexist.” Yet, because he is progressive, a proper analysis of these narratives must instead be held to the conservative standards of sexism.
The Gold-Digger narrative manifested itself when the McCain campaign criticized Palin for billing the RNC for $150,000 in clothes and accessories costs for her and her family. The Ledger reports that “two top McCain campaign advisers said that the clothing purchases for Palin and her family were a particular source of outrage for them,” and that the McCain campaign was “incredulous” when hearing of the purchases. By blaming Sarah Palin for buying clothes for her family when she was instructed to only purchase “three new suits,” the McCain campaign successfully portrayed Sarah Palin as money-grubbing. By Michelle Malkin’s four-stages, the Gold-Digger narrative fits the third stage, demonization.
Similarly, the Shopaholic narrative fits with the sexualization and the infantilization stages of conservative sexism. Ben Smith in Politico reveals that “Palin hadn’t realized the cost when the clothes were brought to her in her Minnesota hotel room.” The McCain campaign’s public frustration with the purchases painted Palin as irresponsible and out of touch with the value of money, and infantilized her through the image of a teenage girl whose favorite pastime is shopping. Carl Cameron on The O’Reilly Factor on November 5, 2008 said that McCain aides suggested Sarah Palin is “a bit of a shopaholic.” Sarah Palin’s many purchases, from Neiman Marcus and other high-end retailers across the United States, were also highlighted in photos in major news sources displaying her shoes and her legs, drawing attention to her appearance. This media coverage sexualizes Palin, and is therefore sexist by attempting to diminish her authority.
The Calculating Bitch and Bimbo narratives also arose when Mark Cameron briefed Bill O’Reilly on several anecdotes about Sarah Palin on The O’Reilly Factor on November 5, 2008, and fit the demonization and infantilization stages of conservative sexism. Cameron reported (falsely, accidentally) that Palin did not know that Africa was a continent, not a country, and that she could not name all of the countries in North America. This evokes the Bimbo narrative by showing that she is unintelligent, and fits the infantilization stage by logical progression: If Palin is this unintelligent, she must be blindly following the Republican party, a so-called “puppet.” He then gave an account of “Palin throwing tantrums” at her aides, which implies that Sarah Palin is a dramatic diva who, like an infant, has no control over her emotions. Throwing tantrums also contributes to an image of Palin as a “nefarious creature,” just as women are accused of being “monsters” or “out of control.” Cameron continued by describing the “back-biting that’s going on,” which activates the narrative of a Calculating Bitch who will stab anyone in the back to achieve her means. Consequently, Sarah Palin’s discussion of whether to run in 2012 in her post-election interviews also activate the Calculating Bitch narrative; it was assumed that her off-message remarks were an attempt to ruin his campaign to secure her own political interests. The Calculating Bitch narrative thus fits the demonization stage by portraying Palin as evil. Because they exemplify the infantilization and demonization stages of conservative sexism, therefore, the Calculating Bitch and Bimbo narratives used by Mark Cameron and the McCain campaign are sexist.
In a clear progression of events, Sarah Palin accepted the role of John McCain’s partner and running mate, disobeyed his moral authority, suffered backlash from conservative critics who had previously supported her, and was treated with sexism from these conservative critics. Despite efforts from Michelle Malkin and others to lay down guidelines, conservative sexism against Palin went largely unnoticed. Although conservatives did not recognize the sexism that they used, they certainly observed Palin’s disobedience from the Strict Father Authority. After dutifully supporting John McCain’s authority, Palin’s off-message remarks represented a lapse in her own moral authority, and conservative critics punished her because Strict Father morality is a system of rewards and punishments. As a result, she lost support among her conservative base. Ironically, Carly Fiorina commented, “American women are more highly tuned than ever to recognize and decry sexism in all its forms. They will not tolerate sexist treatment of Governor Palin.” American cultural narratives identified by progressive Lakoff map nearly perfectly onto Malkin’s four stages of sexism against conservative women. Interestingly, Lakoff’s assertion that cultural narratives about women are sexist, and the correlation of several of these narratives to Malkin’s four stages, suggests that progressives and conservatives share some common views on sexism against women.
Lakoff, George. Moral Politics. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois: 2002 p. 66.
Commission on Presidential Debates. “Debate Transcript of The Third McCain-Obama Presidential Debate.” <http://www.debates.org/pages/trans2008d.html> 15 October 2008.
Moral Politics, p. 68.
Brooks, David, “What The Palin Pick Says.” New York Times. <http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/02/opinion/02brooks.html?incamp=article_popular_3> 1 September 2008.
Malkin, Michelle. “The Four Stages of Conservative Female Abuse.” Townhall.com. <http://townhall.com/columnists/MichelleMalkin/2008/09/03/the_four_stages_of_conservative_female_abuse> 3 September 2008.
Halperin, Mark. “Carly Fiorina Statement on Gov. Palin Attacks.” Time.com. <http://thepage.time.com/carly-fiorina-statement-on-gov-palin-attacks/> 2 September 2008.
“Palin’s Off-Script Comments Irk McCain Aides.” CNN.com. <http://www.cnn.com/2008/POLITICS/10/27/palin.tension/index.html> 27 October 2008.
“Palin Off Message On North Korea?” FoxNews.com. <http://embeds.blogs.foxnews.com/2008/10/11/palin-off-message-on-north-korea/> 11 October 2008.
Smith, Ben. “Palin Allies Report Rising Camp Tension.” Politico.com. <http://www.politico.com/news/stories/1008/14929_Page2.html> 25 October 2008.
Noonan, Peggy. “Palin Failin’.” Wall Street Journal. <http://www.peggynoonan.com/article.php?article=438> 17 October 2008.
O’Reilly, Bill. The O’Reilly Factor. Fox News. 5 November 2008.
Lakoff, George. The Political Mind. Viking Penguin: New York, 2008. pp. 28-31.
Bumiller, Elisabeth. “Reports: McCain, Palin Camps Split.” The New York Times. <http://www.theledger.com/article/20081111/NEWS/811100426> 11 November 2008.