Palin was not a sure choice, not even for the stolidly Republican ladies branch of Citizens for a Tackier America. No, she isn't even female really. She's a type, and she comes in male form too.
— Heather Mallick, September 5, 2008
Sarah Palin is, by all appearances, a gender and sexual anomaly. Jon Stewart, riffing on Palin’s joke about hockey moms, cracked that the difference between a flower and hockey mom was that the latter has both male and female reproductive organs. Journalist Katherine Roberts called Palin a female version of Barry Goldwater (September 14, 2008). And columnist Maureen Dowd called her “our new Napoleon in bunny boots” (September 14, 2008). While Palin is no gender non-conformist, there is something “extra” to the mediated per-formance of Palin’s sex/gender system. This surplus speaks to some critics’ sexual identi-fication of her right-wing political sinisterity, like Canadian feminist critic extraordinaire Heather Mallick, who characterize hers as a kind of “rural white trash erotics” that rests on her sporting persona and performance.
Sarah Palin makes visible a political form of right-wing “hetero butch” that amplifies, unlike most butch performance, female feminine coding rather than female masculinity. For many commentators trying to make political sense of Palin, her sporting and sexual body has become the grounds on which to figure her out—a political mystery to be solved at the level of sex and gender performance. Maybe it’s a northern Midwest thing, but I always assumed butch women came in all kinds of packages, and sexualities—at least they did in Iowa and Minnesota where I grew up. Straight butches, like lesbian butches, bear several of the overt signs of “butchness” or female masculinity as defined by Gayle Rubin and Judith Halberstam, but even more “feminine-appearing” women can belong to a category of “hetero butch.” In “Of Catamites and Kings,” for instance, Rubin describes butch as existing along a continuum of looks and sexual practices; I suggest these looks and practices cut across the borders constructed in our thinking between hetero- and homosexu-alities.
Sarah Palin expresses a hyper-sexualized, highly reproductive right-wing womanhood that Mallick and Stewart interpret as a kind of herma-phroditic phantasm, an inter- or duo-sexed being. I do not mean to give butch or herma-phrodism a bad name by associating them with Palin, nor do I seek to evacuate either category of their existing meanings and practices, the former a kind of lesbian vernacular, the latter a reality of inter-sexuality. But the categories are useful for getting at the class, racial and sexual codes critics assign to some of Palin’s public performances—what Heather Mallick calls Palin’s “type,” not “even female really,” a claim for which Mallick was both personally threatened and professionally censured. [On September 29th, CBC news pulled Mallick’s opinion piece from its website after receiving over 300 complaints from right-wing letter writers. Publisher John Cruickshank called it “a classic piece of political invective. It is viciously personal, grossly hyperbolic and intensely partisan.”]. Critics seek to assign Palin to a type because they are seeking ways to make sense of her right-wing politics, when those politics are so bad for women. The question they ask is: how can women actually be right-wing? Looking from feminist perspectives, what explains women’s investments in right-wing Christian politics?
Mallick’s and others’ attempts to “type” Palin can be interpreted as a feminist refusal of political kinship with Palin, a refusal also being worked out in sexual terms, around the kind of woman Palin appears to be. In this VP campaign, the category of political womanhood is very much a sexual one. Mallick and other critics refuse the conflation drawn, in some political conservative talk, between “right wing women doing politics” and feminism. Palin is not a feminist; she’s benefited from feminist movements, and in her Charlie Gibson interview on ABC News, she admitted as much, declaring herself a beneficiary of Title IX. But any feminist worth her salt ought to agree with Feminist-ing.org’s low-budget (and deliciously cranky) Youtube series, “Friday Feminist Fuck You”: that on any policy grounds, Palin is anything but a feminist.
Feminist writers place Palin, as one critic put it, at “the sexual front of the culture wars”: a “flat-footed, I’m-in-the-back-of-the-camp-meeting-truck-drivers-preaching-woman” in the style of pioneer evangelists or the “Carmella Soprano of the GOP,” the enabling wife of organized crime. Samantha Bee’s hilarious skit on The Daily Show demonstrated how Palin’s body bears the burden of some of these attempts, spelling out v-a-g-i-n-a and pointing to her crotch when Jon Stewart asked why she would vote for Palin. In these formulations, Palin isn’t hiding any (unexpected) male sexual parts.
When her supporters aren’t being humorously reduced to their political love of lady parts by Bee and Stewart, Palin’s political sinisterity is cast in more monstrous sexual and political terms: as a Stepford wife, a transvestite, a zombie feminist and even Barbie. Each signals a deep feminist distrust of the political apparatus that costumes Palin’s sex, a distrust further played with, in gendered physical terms, across internet sites where celebrities are molded and morphed into like versions of Palin. Rather than expose the ideological contradictions of right-wing womanhood, The NY Daily News Palin photo composites of Angelina Jolie and Charlize Theron instead reveal the apparent interchange-ability of celebrity and political candidate’s female physiognomy. It is unclear whether it is Palin, or Angelina and Charlize, who end up looking more like a Stepford wife.
If Palin occupies the body politic of robotic female evil—that just might reveal itself to be female and male as some critics fear—there are some historical analogues of her particular political womanhood. Palin’s been compared to Phyllis Schlafly, most notably by Gloria Steinem; perhaps a more telling comparison would be Anita Bryant, another former beauty queen, right-wing homophobe chick. Like the bankrupt and payroll-shirking Bryant, whose career as a beauty queen, singer and Florida orange grower’s spokesperson crashed after her 1977 anti-gay “Save the Children” campaign, Palin’s campaign has been plagued by her Machiavellian management style and evidence of her intimidation of public servants who work under her. Unlike Bryant, however, Palin’s troubles have yet to create a real crisis of legitimacy around her candidacy. Perhaps her best analogue is a fictional one: Disney’s Cruella de Vil. Like dog-killing Cruella (who kills for fashion), Palin recently came under fire in June 2008 for having approved the illegal killing of wolf pups in the name of predator control.
The terms of Palin’s difference from Bryant and even Cruella—the key currency in her own talk of “outsiderness” on the campaign trail—rest in fantasies of her rurality and white nativity, for which Palin’s hunting and husband Todd’s part-Inuit heritage do the burden of work. It is here where her hetero butch is most visible. Palin’s abilities to wield a shotgun and fell a caribou, or kill wolf pups from the air, constitute a butch reverberation within an otherwise femme maternal echo chamber. In addition to depicting her as a hunter/provider, her ability to kill wild game also appears as a form of sexualized spiritual warfare between maternal hunter and the animal world, a white possessive investment in Alaskan territory that fuels her calls for unregulated resource extraction and God-driven militarism.
The sexualized dimensions of this hunter womanhood appear readily in Ted Nugent-inspired pin-up imagery, like the widely-circulated, doctored photo of Palin in a bikini, holding a rifle (see also Gina Gershon’s rather silly video short that portrays Palin as a bikini-wearing governor who can’t wait to pick up her gun). In these spoofs, Palin represents a kind of “erotic rural” made up of links in what David Bell calls “the popular imagination between nature, rural life and forms of sexual activity and identity” (Bell 2000, p. 84). These admittedly faux depictions of class code both Palin’s maternalism and her availability as a gun-toting tool of sexual pleasure. According to Mallick, “The semiotics [of white trash] are pure Palin.”
My point here is not to reclaim Sarah Palin for some unacknowledged dimensions of butch identification as they appear in female sportsmanship. Rather, I wish to show how talk about and depictions of Palin’s sporting practice—and talk about and depictions of her sexed body—are contributing to the meaning of her right-wing politics. As Maureen Dowd exclaimed, “Sarah has single-handedly ushered out the “Sex and the City” era and made the sexy new model for America a retro one – the glamorous Pioneer Woman, packing a gun, a baby and a Bible” (Sept 14, 2008, 10). Palin’s campaign rides on the post-feminist premise that her physical and sexual skills will translate into the national political field. Hetero butch, in this case, re-signifies right-wing femininity rather than a kind of masculinity without men (see e.g. Halberstam 1998). Hetero butch need not be the sexual opposite of lesbian butch nor its hetero analogue, but another taxonomy of gender variance linked specifically to female heterosexualities. It may not even be a category of female masculinity, but a form of gender performance that, in the case of Palin, actually tightens the associations between female femin-inity and right-wing politics.
Palin's official portrait
Angelina Jolie as Palin
Charlize Theron as Palin
Palin bagging a Caribou
Carrie Rentschler is Assistant Professor, teaching in Communication Studies and Women's Studies at McGill University in Montreal. She has just completed a book manuscript titled From Crime to Trauma: The Grammar of Victims’ Rights, on the changing story of crime victims in the U.S. and is currently researching a new project on the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese in Queens, NY. She wishes to thank Liz Airton, Andrea Braithwaite, Mary Hunter, Aysha Mawani, Jonathan Sterne, Will Straw and Samantha Thrift for their conversations, Palin references and/or comments on earlier drafts of this essay.
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