I am trying very hard to see where Newsweek’s choice to use Sarah Palin’s Runner’s World photo as their cover is a horribly sexist decision that belittles women everywhere. No, seriously, I am – I’m aware I’m not going to see a flaw the first time I look at something, and I find it not just possible, but likely that a major newsmagazine would use sexist imagery to depict the most popular woman in the GOP.
But I’m sorry, no matter how many times I’m told the sexism is obvious, I just don’t see it.
It’s not that the image doesn’t play on sexist tropes. Dear Ceiling Cat, does it ever. If it was a Photoshop job, I’d absolutely decry it for portraying Palin as a bizarre faux-patriotic fembot. I mean, look at it:
That’s out of control. And it reminds me of another image that mixed faked überpatriotism with extreme conformity to gender roles. You may remember this one. It was all the rage in April 2003:
The images are almost a perfect yin-yang of the conservative vision of female and male. Sarah Palin: athletic, but not so athletic that she can’t strike a cheescake pose. A mom, first and foremost, keeping the home fires burning (note the careful positioning of the Blue Star banner over her right shoulder). So in love with her country that she’ll desecrate the flag in order to show it. And George Bush: a total warrior with a big cock. Not concerned about family, but about blowin’ stuff up. A guy fighting in war (or, you know, avoiding it; same difference, right?). So in love with his country that he’ll use soldiers and an aircraft carrier in a premature photo-op to prove it.
Both of these images were calculated – Palin’s, to show she’s not one of “those” women, who choose sensible clothes when they run, but who is sexy all the damn time, because she can be. To show that she loves her country, war, apple pie, and the beautiful scenery you can see from her front porch, the one that was built with kickbacks she received as mayor. And Bush? Bush, of course, to show he isn’t a wimp like Clinton, but a true Warrior-King, one who literally conquered Mesopotamia himself.
Both photos also show something else, something hiding behind the artifice: that both Bush and Palin are Potemkin representations of these ideals. By trying to oversell the idea that they are perfect representations of their genders, Bush and Palin remind us of how hollow those representations can be. Bush is not a warrior, and he looks silly playing dress-up. Palin is not a pin-up girl, and she looks silly playing dress-up. Both took what could be powerful symbols and went so over-the-top with them that they look like fools.
That’s why Newsweek chose this cover. Not because it shows Palin as sexy, but because it shows her as a caricature of herself. As a sitting governor, Palin chose to engage in a photo shoot that would do a better job of validating the “Caribou Barbie” epithet than anything the most misogynist liberal could come up with. As Lindsay Beyerstein accurately says:
Predictably, Palin complained that Newsweek’s use of the image was sexist. Yes, the image was plucked from its original context. The whole point was that the picture was appalling it its original context. Newsweek is holding this picture up to the world and asking: Who does this?
The bottom line is that Palin’s a clown. She doesn’t get a pass because her chosen clown persona is stereotypically feminine.
She caricatures herself. Day in and day out. Good for Newsweek for pointing and laughing.
And that, my friends, is the point. One cannot point out the absurdity of Sarah Palin’s wallowing in sexist tropes without using the very sexist imagery that she herself approved of. Yes, the image is appallingly sexist. But that is not Newsweek’s fault. It’s Palin’s.
Using a photo shoot that Palin posed for and endorsed after the fact to make the point that Palin is a caricature of herself is not sexist. It’s good journalism. Believe me, I will defend Palin from true sexism wherever it rears its ugly head (like, say, this bit of “humor” from HuffPo, which is crappy, and simply an excuse to attack Palin for being a woman). But this is not a case of sexism being used to attack Palin. This is a case of Palin’s own sexism being used to attack Palin. And there’s nothing wrong with that.