One of the most popular parodies of Campaign 2008 was a photoshopped image of Sarah Palin's head onto the body of a woman wearing an American flag bikini and brandishing a gun. Enough people found this image of Palin plausible that Snopes had to debunk it.
Vanity Fair's Todd Purdum hit the streets this week with a lengthy Palin piece. Seemingly in response, though the timing is a coincidence, Palin appears in Runner's World. The takeaway quote is her complaint that Team McCain didn't schedule enough time for her morning jogs.
But what's really interesting is the photo gallery. Palin poses in tight workout shorts, with better hair and makeup than one would normally have for jogging. Baby Trig is a prop in a couple shots. There are no shots of Palin actually exercising, the way they show Obama shooting hoops and sweating. Instead, she's stretching and posing. One pose has her hand on hip in front of a flag, and there's almost no way not to think of the bikini-gun picture.
Physical fitness is of course a good thing. Palin and I are almost exactly the same age and she looks to be in better shape than I am (my workouts have slipped lately). But wouldn't baggy sweats have sent that message just as well as a Maxim lite layout?
Middle-aged male candidates since JFK have had the tanned and blow-dried anchorman archetype to follow (see: Romney, Mitt and Edwards, John). Female politicians have no equivalent, so Palin is on uncharted ground. Purdum writes:
"Another aspect of the Palin phenomenon bears examination, even if the mere act of raising it invites intimations of sexism: she is by far the best-looking woman ever to rise to such heights in national politics, the first indisputably fertile female to dare to dance with the big dogs. This pheromonal reality has been a blessing and a curse. It has captivated people who would never have given someone with Palin’s record a second glance if Palin had looked like Susan Boyle. And it has made others reluctant to give her a second chance because she looks like a beauty queen."
Dangerous ground for a male writer. But he says in prose what the woman who parodied Palin said in punch lines.
Fierce feminist Tina Fey backed Hillary Clinton in the primary with the rallying cry "Bitches get stuff done," yet played heavily on the Palin as Conservababe image from her very first impersonation, the famous "I can see Russia from my house" appearance.
Hillary Clinton: But, Sarah, one thing we can agree on is that sexism can never be allowed to permeate a American election.
Sarah Palin: So, please, stop Photoshopping my head on sexy bikini pictures!
Clinton: And stop saying I have cankles!
Palin: Don't refer to me as a MILF!
Clinton: Don't refer to me as a "flurge" -- I Googled what it stands for, and I do not like it!
Palin: Reporters and commentators, stop using words that diminish us! Like "pretty", "attractive", "beautiful"...
Clinton: "Harpy", "shrew", and "boner shrinker".
With 1:36 remaining in the clip, Fey actually strikes the bikini-gun pose. Her later parodies usually touched on the Conservababe image: flashing some leg or doing some "fancy pageant walkin'" in front of Palin herself. Of course, parody was difficult when Palin was winking at us in the debate.
Meanwhile, Amy Poehler's long-suffering Hillary Clinton touches on one of the big reasons that a moderately attractive middle-aged pageant contestant was greeted in the world of politics like Jessica Alba on a red carpet: Women still generally wait until after they've had kids to run for office, and often abandon their own ambitions in favor of their husband's.
Bill Clinton was 28 when he made his first run for office. Hillary was 53. One of the interesting things about Nancy Pelosi's rise to power wasn't just the first woman thing--it's that she rose to the top when she didn't win elected office until age 47, a decade or two older than most other recent Speakers.
One would think, as the baby boomers approach Social Security, that our culture's notions of what's considered attractive would have aged accordingly. Instead, we've become more youth-obsessed than ever. A still-beautiful Jamie Lee Curtis is stuck at age 50 in yogurt ads because 60 year old leading men get to play opposite 25 year old starlets as love interests. Catherine Zeta Jones, meet Michael Douglas. Saturday Night Live played the idea of sex with 62-year-old Susan Sarandon for laughs in May. Faith Hill gets photoshopped into a Barbie doll, and Nicole Kidman has disfigured her 40something face until she looks like the Stepford Wife she once played.
They say Washington is Hollywood for ugly people, and that sets the bar low enough that the physically fit but relatively ordinary Palin stands out. There simply aren't very many women in their 30s or early 40s in public office, and our society doesn't acknowledge female beauty past that age. Thus Palin's main achievement -- if you call being plucked out of relative obscurity an achievement -- is merely to have climbed so high at a young enough age that she's still seen as a woman and not an "old lady."