Things in my life have finally started to settle down a bit to the point where I can do things like spend a Sunday morning digging through one of my favorite image archives – the collection of AP images that Yahoo hosts, which are sorted by various topics in a slideshow format that you can flip through. I love looking at these images as I love looking at strangers’ snapshots on Flickr. I’ve probably drawn more information and inspiration for my work by going through both these kinds of “non-art” images than I have by going to museums or galleries, although the latter remains a major source of inspiration too.
I started off this morning by doing something that I knew would piss me off, and yet I did it anyway: There are currently 424 photos in the Sarah Palin slideshow, and I clicked through about 150 of them. (It’s not that I gave up or lost interest; in these AP slideshows, many of the photos are duplicates or near duplicates, and after a point once you’ve spent an hour looking at pictures of one subject, you’ve kind of seen them all.)
I have to say, I have never seen pictures of a politician quite like these before. I’m sort of impressed and horrified, revolted and intrigued, all at the same time. I don’t like her; what I do really like are the Alaskan wilderness, abortion rights, and the idea of a Democrat in the White House, so these are things that immediately set me up to be critical of her. And yet I think these pictures are worth looking at because they tell us so much about the expectations that we place on women in our culture.
The very first thing I noticed flipping from picture to picture is how many of them portrayed Palin walking arm in arm with a man. She looks in these photos less like the Governor of Alaska and more like… well, a girlfriend.
This was interesting to me at first as it seems that much of the attraction to Palin by her more rabid supporters comes from this idea that she is representing what “real” women are like. Picture after picture of her supporters show them with signs, banners, and t-shirts proclaiming that they too are “lipstick wearers” or favor high heels, as if these were qualifications for being Vice President (or possibly just qualifications for being a “real” woman). For example:
If you look at her clothes (and it might seem unfair to do so – would anyone really critique the wardrobe of Joe Biden? No, probably not… but it’s also impossible to ignore that Palin’s glamor isn’t somehow part of her appeal), you’ll quickly see that she must be the best-dressed female politician out there; I don’t like her very much, but I will admit her clothes are pretty fantastic. Whereas the norm for politicians in general is a sedate suit in a neutral color based on the classic men’s suit, albeit with a knee-length skirt in place of pants, eg:
Palin, meanwhile, goes all out in her outfits, which are tasteful and professional, but unabashedly “feminine,” with oversized buttons, fashion-forward details, and the occasional frilly edge:
The figure-flattering belt in this one I thought was especially interesting.
And let’s not forget the shoes:
Or again, as there are several shots of those shoes:
The idea of Hillary Clinton (or Nancy Pelosi or whomever) wearing shiny red, three-inch heels seems like a joke, as does the idea of a photographer zooming in on whatever shoes she is wearing and publishing a picture of them. But the message seems pretty clear to me – Sarah Palin is the kind of woman our culture craves. She is “all-girl” at heart (not one of those scary, “manly,” no-fun women we’ve gotten used to eating up the political spotlight), prone to moments of silly femininity and with a secret love of dressing up.
Ok, why is this important? Because, look: The Democrats have been going after Palin’s obvious lack of foreign policy experience and unreadiness to become President. Those are fine, valid arguments… but they’re not going to work. The people who are going gaga over Palin are doing so because she represents what we might see in academic circles as being a very regressive form of femininity, one based on a variation of very old and out-dated gender stereotypes. But that, unfortunately, is the state of affairs for women in our culture right now: what your professional experience is with foreign policy doesn’t really matter when you’re a woman running for Vice President. What matters is that you rock gorgeous suits and balance on towering heels, know how to put on lipstick, assume a traditionally feminine (and secondary, if not overtly subservient) role when you’re walking with men, and embrace your inner girl at all times:
I also have a bunch of thoughts about the pictures of Sarah-Palin-as-mom, but this post is too long already. So, next time.
There’s a dissertation in here somewhere and I’m not the one to write it. Still, I just had to put these really preliminary thoughts out there.