Thursday, September 25, 2008

Caribou Ken

If Sarah Palin was a male governor from Alaska, do you think that she would be treated the same way she has? Would this imaginary Sam Palin be taken to task for his ignorance on foreign politics (coughGiulianicough) or for his weird fundie ideas (coughHuckabeecough)? Would Sam Palin be called Caribou Ken after the penisless boyfriend of the Barbie doll?

These are not comfortable questions for a liberal goddess to ask, especially given Palin's bad platform and the way she is being used by McCain for nefarious ends. Indeed, both the Democratic presidential primaries and the presidential campaigns have been unpleasant moments for me, because I had underestimated the amount of free-wheeling and jokey sexism that still prevails in this country and because I see the term "sexism" itself cheapened and mutating into something that has no meaning at all.

So who are we to thank for these odd gifts, us feminists? There's lots of thanks to go around, layers and layers of sexism, if you wish, and it's extremely difficult to look at the mess and point a finger at one point to say: "There!" Extremely difficult and also frightening, because my attempts to follow the chains lead me to point my finger at all sorts of people I otherwise value. Including some feminists.

Sigh. This is not a pleasant writing assignment.

Let's start from today and Sarah Palin. She is a woman, the governor of Alaska, an ex-beauty queen and a very right-wing Republican who likes to hunt and wants Alaska turned into a gigantic oil refinery. There are many reasons why McCain might have wanted to have her as his vice-presidential candidate, including the fact that McCain is sorta boring and Obama is not, but the major reasons she was picked was a) to satisfy the right-wing base of the party (which does not love McCain) and to take advantage of the lack of women in the final Democratic ticket. Had Obama picked a female vice-presidential candidate McCain would probably not have done so. I understand the political games being played here, including the idea that McCain can pick up votes from women who wanted to see a female vice-presidential candidate.

Was McCain's choice a sexist one? What does "sexism" mean in this context? If it means that he might think of women as all the same and that any one woman could be picked for his ticket to appeal to that mass of womanhood, yes, I think that his choice was sexist. I doubt that the imaginary Sam Palin would have been on McCain's ticket.

If, on the other hand, "sexism" means something like the assumption that no woman can ever rule over men then McCain is obviously not sexist.

Let's remove one layer from this argument and ask a slightly different question: Did McCain want to benefit from the societal sexism with his vice-presidential choice? Here the answer must be a resounding YES. Oh, yes. Imagine the riches of that choice! It's really quite masterful, the pun intended. The choice offers liberals and progressives a very narrow space in which to attack Palin without attacking her on grounds which will uncomfortably echo in many women's minds as something they, too, have experienced in their own lives.

As an example, take the argument that Palin is unqualified to be the vice-president. She may well be unqualified, depending on the terms one uses to define the necessary qualifications. But then "unqualified" is the usual excuse women get when they don't get promoted or when they don't get a raise. If a firm is accused of sex discrimination what do you think they use as their defense? The woman was unqualified or a bad worker. Yet McCain chose someone who cannot be allowed to give interviews because she is not ready to give them yet.

That's a double-whammy, my friends. If Palin succeeds in getting McCain elected, great. If Palin fails to get McCain elected, all the Republican anti-woman people can point out how terrible the idea of picking (randomly picking, mind you) a woman in the first place was. And all the time the liberals and progressives and feminists, even, are hammering away at Palin as unqualified, as a bad mother and so on.

It's enough to drive a goddess to drink. Then add to that the idea of Palin as MILF (a mother I'd like to fuck). The idea is to pick a woman partly on her looks because it might give McCain the votes of men who think through that narrow head only and because the idea to have a pretty woman in the office is not uncommon among the old school sexists. Well, all that is sexist, true.

But so is the response to that trick from the other side of the political aisle. Too many progressives and liberals think that talking about Palin's body is the way to attack the Republican ticket. Yet, once again, many women have had their bodies loudly discussed while walking down the street and even poked by those assessors of female charms. Sometimes those experiences are scary enough to create triggers which can later be pressed by the lightest of sexist jokes...

The bottom layer in all these layers of sexism is naturally based on actual societal sexism. Sarah Palin is only the second female vice-presidential candidate in the United States and anything that is being said about her will be filtered through that fact, whether intended or not. Hence the possible damage to all women when she is kept hidden from the press (women are easily-wilted flowers even when they kill wolves from helicopters) and the often expressed idea in the media that Biden must treat her with kid gloves lest he be accused of sexism. But of course the reverse options would offer equal scope for sexist interpretations.

Now do you see why I hate writing about this particular topic?