Notes from the Perimeter

Monday, June 22, 2009

Truth & Beauty


Sarah Palin is back in the news. Oh goody. She’s the most fun when she goes rogue, as she did with her off-again, on-again, will-she-upstage-the-Newt? appearance at the big GOP fundraiser a few nights ago. I readily admit to being no fan of SaPa, who strikes me as no more thoughtful or informed than she was at any point during the election—she seems less a political contender and more and more like a celebrity reality show contestant who would rather wrangle with David Letterman over a tasteless joke than offer ideas about dealing with Iran or fixing health care. I will admit, however, that she looks good. Nice hair, great bone structure, snappy dresser. And that got me to thinking about the ‘babe factor,’ in life and politics.

We humans have always attributed special qualities to those who, through no agency of their own, possess beauty. Beautiful people benefit from a host of often unconscious assumptions: that in mind and spirit they are superior to us ordinary-looking blokes. While this is true for men and women, men are blessed with the additional boon that power trumps looks. (My use here of ‘trump’ is deliberate.) Power in men, even men of unprepossessing physical attributes, is compelling while too frequently power in women is the opposite of sexy: strong women—especially opinionated, outspoken and accomplished—are viewed as having forsaken their essential femininity. To my knowledge, there is no male equivalent in English for the B word.

These attitudes are changing despite fossilized misogynists like G. Gordon Liddy who complained that Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor might have her period while making a critical decision—oh gawd, the irrationality! the emotional excess! (The debunked cliché!) The candidacies of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin did not suffer from the charge that women aren’t fundamentally fit for highest office. Each woman faced different challenges to her legitimacy but initially gender did not seem to be a factor.

Nevertheless, in both cases, gender was a subversive element. Clinton was mocked for her ‘cackle’ and cleavage. Her wrinkles and weight were brutally scrutinized. She adopted a ‘policy wonk’ style that, while it showcased her considerable experience and expertise, worked against her personal appeal—she was described as ‘cold,’ code for the B word—and it didn’t play well against Obama’s inspirational oratory.

The gender effect in Palin’s candidacy was more insidious. When she burst on the scene as McCain’s out-of-right-field choice, she enjoyed a lengthy honeymoon with the press—‘don’t be mean to the girl’ seemed to be the unspoken rule, implying a measure of ‘feminine’ fragility (never applied to Clinton). Finally, Katie Couric threw down the gauntlet and exposed Palin’s now legendary unready-ness…and unique syntax.

Certainly in McCain’s choice of Palin, gender played a role. Yes, she brought energy and star appeal to the rather stodgy McCain campaign and galvanized the conservative base. However, after Obama secured his nomination, conservative strategists speculated about the supposed eighteen million disaffected Clinton supporters ripe for the plucking. Of course: throw them a woman! Any woman would do, especially if she’s good-looking, folksy, reproductive and generally non-threatening to male—dare I say Republican?—notions of female propriety.

Perhaps the most egregious aspect of the gender effect is how Palin herself has embraced it. This latest skirmish with Letterman exemplifies her willingness to embody the worst of female stereotypes: that women are creatures of emotion, not reason. Letterman’s joke was crude and unfunny but obviously it was not directed at Palin’s fourteen-year-old daughter. Nevertheless, Palin responded with the kind of manipulative stubbornness that has given women a bad name for eons. Sarah might not have ideas but she’s got drama.

Beneath it all is the scurrilous notion that to be of value a woman must be decorative. Would Sarah Palin have been a feasible candidate without her looks? (She certainly didn’t get the nod on the strength of her resume.) To what extent does her beauty imply other qualities? If she suddenly gains fifty pounds, will she forfeit whatever potential she might have for remaining on the national stage?

After all, beauty is not always truth and in life and in politics, that we really do need to know.

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