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Lipstick on a Pit Bull and the Woman in the Pantsuits

hwink's picture


Sarah Palin is a fascinating figure that we have begun to talk about in this class, but I would like to explore more deeply the ways in which Sarah Palin’s political career was played out on the national stage and the feminist implications. The figure of Sarah Palin-- as a woman, as a politician, as a joke-- captivated America throughout the 2008 campaigning season.  Tina Fey’s portrayal of Palin, especially alongside her colleague Amy Poehler playing Hillary Clinton in one popular SNL clip, demonstrates some of the popular dialogue centering around women’s issues throughout the election. By contextualizing Palin’s impact as a woman on the political scene with Hillary Clinton’s presence, this Saturday Night Live sketch positions itself to examine the ways in  which America negotiates a relationship to its female politicians. Poehler’s portrayal of Clinton alongside Tina Fey’s Palin serves to both contrast and align the women in regards to their treatment in popular media and public imagination.

This clip from Saturday Night Live featuring Amy Poehler as Hillary Clinton and Tina Fey as Sarah Palin is obviously a comedic sketch, but as good political comedy does, it has a biting relevance to the discourse of the time. At this political moment, Sarah Palin has been chosen to be the vice presidential running mate to the Republican candidate John McCain, and Hillary Clinton has just lost out as the Democratic presidential candidate to Barack Obama.  The conceit of this opening sketch is that Palin and Clinton have been brought together to voice a shared objection to the sexist language that is occurring during the 2008 presidential race, “An issue which I am frankly surprised to hear people suddenly care about,” quips Poehler as Clinton. The joke works because of the audience’s awareness that conversation surrounding Clinton as a woman in politics and Palin as a woman in politics has differed greatly.

There are numerous factors at work here. It is hardly beyond the realm of imagination that the difference in discourse surrounding the two women could be due in part, even in large part, to their respective gender presentations. Palin utilizes her femininity as a part of her overall persona. Youthful and conventionally attractive, Palin highlights her status as a mother and wife. She is a “hockey mom” first and foremost, she dresses in a conventionally feminine way, she acknowledges and even plays up her status as a woman. On the other hand,  Clinton’s success in politics has been garnered through hard work learning to navigate a male world, she is credited with a “shattering of the glass ceiling” that in popular imagination is due to her ability to imitate the masculine behaviour that gets rewarded in the political sphere. Her iconic pantsuits speak to the masculine vision of who Hillary Clinton is as a female politician. At the end of the sketch, Poehler as Clinton says, “In conclusion, I invite the media to grow a pair. And if you can’t, I will lend you mine.” Her masculinity is a core part of her image in the American mind.

The dichotomy between the two is highlighted throughout the clip, and in no uncertain terms does it reference the reasons that they are treated drastically differently.  Fey as Palin asks for the public to stop photoshopping her head onto “sexy bikini pictures” while Poehler as Clinton asks them to stop saying she has “cankles”. The difference between Palin and Clinton is their appearance, and then by extension the intellects that go along with each stereotype. Palin is hot and dumb, and Clinton is intelligent and ugly-- and it is according to these stereotypes that they are treated in the public eye. But even as Palin is objectified or otherwise dismissed for her feminine attributes, and Clinton is dismissed because a woman who cannot be objectified in this patriarchal system must be derided as disgusting and then ignored, these dismissals are all occurring on the same spectrum. Both are being held up against harmful notions about femininity inherent to the patriarchy, and though their “flaws” are different, even opposite, they only make sense under this system of patriarchy and derive directly from it.

There are complicated dynamics at work here. The discourse surrounding both Clinton and Palin is entirely colored by the fact that they are women, and in that sense they are the same amount harmed by the patriarchal structures of our culture and politics. But is there also a hierarchy between the two women, and the brands of patriarchal put-down they experience? Is it better to be more conventionally attractive, or to eschew the feminine? Is it easier to face sexualization-- is Palin cleverly and manipulatively utilizing her “feminine wiles” to her political advantage? Is it easier to, like Clinton, attempt to divorce oneself from a feminine identity and embrace an empowerment that centers on working within a male-centric system and “beating them at their own game”? Or, as suggested above, are they merely different but equal expressions of misogyny which falsely set up a hierarchy between women but are in reality invested in such competitions due to their impressive qualities?

It is hard to parse where on this issue the comedy sketch from Saturday Night Live winds up. Amy Poehler, as Clinton, begins to monologue about the differences between her feminist struggle and Palin’s easy ride, and Fey, as Palin, poses somewhat provocatively in the background. This seems to indicate some sort of acknowledgement of a difference between the ways in which the two female politicians are treated based on their appearances and conceptions within the popular imagination. And considering the levels of distress portrayed in the two characters, it would appear that the particular brand of sexism Clinton’s been subjected to is more brutal than that of Palin (although some of this blase attitude on Palin’s part can be attributed to this particular caricaturized depiction of her as unintelligent). Then again, when you look at where the trajectory of their respective careers has come to now, Hillary Clinton is arguably much more successful than Sarah Palin has been. It is hard to determine exactly whether or not their differences are stratified or equivalent.

One of the most interesting moments of this SNL sketch is when Fey as Palin states, “I think women everywhere can agree that no matter your politics it’s time for a woman to make it to the White House,” and Poehler as Clinton reacts strongly. “I didn’t want a woman to be president,” she says, “I wanted to be president, and I just happened to be a woman.” This moment is a site for many of the dynamics being explored. It implies Palin’s emphasis on her woman-status is to an extent mere political strategy, and also gives the impression that such an emphasis as an unenlightened position to take. Clinton’s “just happened to be a woman” line gives her a post-gender attitude, as well as acknowledging her lack of feminine identification. Part of the reason this is such an important moment in the sketch is that there is something about it that appears to be “the point” amongst the comedy. If that is the message of the sketch, that the ideal for female politicians is a post-gendered world where a woman president is a president that happens to be a woman, I would argue that the sketch is feminist. But this is potentially problematized by the disparity between the caricatures of both Palin and Clinton and their real-life counterparts. If the message of the sketch is made at the expense of possibly unfairly portraying Palin as anti-feminist, can the sketch itself be feminist? Or is that a fair portrait of Palin after all?

Ultimately, this clip is a fascinating lens through which to view the position of female politicians in our culture. The ways in which an SNL skit plays out such a dynamic are interesting, especially considering the added dimension of the well-known female comedians portraying the political figures. It is hard to say if the clip is feminist or not, but the discussion of its feminism is highly pertinent and perhaps in microcosm to the larger political arena in America where such discussions are proving more and more vital as women politicians increase in number and visibility.


Anne Dalke's picture

Getting the joke?

I ended my comments on your last paper by asking if you wanted to move, next, to "questions of political speech and action"....

and here you are! You worked hard, during our class discussions of Palin, to get us to take her seriously, and so it gives me pleasure to see you taking her humorously here, especially in light of your astute contrast of her portrayal with the send-up of Clinton.

I think your observation that both are skewered by conventional gender norms--"Palin is hot and dumb, and Clinton is intelligent and ugly"--is acute, as is your judgment that they are placed in hierarchical competition with one another within a patriarchal system.

Your analysis also puts me in mind of an earlier essay by one of your classmates, who asked whether Feminists are Allowed to be Funny. What do you think about the possibilities of feminist humor, about the ways in which it can bring a group together, make its cause palatable to others, and function as a sharp means of resistance to oppression?

To what degree is humor always exclusive, dependent on a shared set of norms, a shutting-out of those who are made fun of, an attack on those who are different? Such bonding inevitably has an outside: those who don't share, whose exclusion is precisely what we are laughing AT. How much of humor is about making fun of those who aren't in the room?

And how feminist is that?