Nailing Palin

Politically, Sarah Palin may well have peaked. Polls now suggest that Obama will win easily, and even in her home state, where she once had 80% approval, her ratings have slumpted to around 60%. But even as her political credibility plummets - not even a gutsy performance in the vice-presidential debate could quite banish the memory of those cringe-making interviews with Katie Couric - and her effect on the presidential race, once electrifying, seems to have played itself out, her cultural potency remains extraordinary. A gift to comedians and satirists, a horror to the feminist establishment, an icon to the Republican base, she has also become, in a literal sense, a pin-up.

Actually, she always was - Alaska magazine put her on the cover with the strap-line "America's hottest governor" as long ago as February, months before the wider world was aware of her existence. But last week's announcement by Hustler than a Palin-inspired porn film was in production confirmed that, whatever else might be said about the would-be VP, she's definitely a sexpot.

The project, said to star nineties porn starlet Lisa Ann, with the legendary Nina Hartley in the supporting role of Hillary Clinton, is due to be released in time for the election next month. Perhaps the world will have tired of Sarah Palin by then. And doubtless the product will be as predictable and seedy as most porn. The gossip site TMZ have been releasing what purport to be shooting scripts for Nailin' Palin. In one scene, the Alaskan is addressing the crowd while, out of sight, Mrs Clinton in performing oral sex on her. "You know, Hilly", she says, "I appreciate your enthusiasm, but it's kinda hard to concentrate when you've got your tongue in my hoo-hoo".


Hustler isn't alone in finding Sarah Palin an object of sexual fantasy. Within days, perhaps hours, of the announcement at the end of August (it seems like years, doesn't it?) that she would be John McCain's running mate, the first photoshopped Palin porn-pics appeared on the Net. The most memorable showed her in a stars-and-stripes bikini holding a large gun. Remarkably, there were some who thought the picture genuine. And indeed, while it was not remotely plausible, the image did represent a concise but accurate summation of Palin's appeal to many Americans, patriotic, gun-toting and hot.

Absent from this mock-up was the image that Palin herself has stressed - the down-to-earth, hard-working "hockey mom", a modern twist on the most traditional of all female roles, the Wife and Mother. Rather, the fake photograph combines two previously incompatible archetypes of American womanhood: the frontierswoman and the cheerleader.

The tough, pragmatic frontierswoman - Annie Oakley, Calamity Jane or, on another level, the heroines of Little Women or Little House on the Prairie - was a woman who worked on equal terms with their menfolk (and, incidentally, achieved the vote decades before the women who lived a more sheltered life in cities). She belongs to the heroic past, with little more connection to the lives of most American women than the secluded women of 5th century BC Athens bore to Clytemnestra. In Alaska, on the other hand, such women (or at least a watered-down version of them) might still be found; and so while Palin has spent most of her life in offices, it's her moose-hunting that attracts most attention. She speaks to that part of the American psyche that once massacred the buffoloes and still believes in gun ownership.

But she's also that equally patriotic figure, the cheerleader (something Palin never actually was, so far as I can tell, preferring to play basketball: the point is that she looks like one). As a former beauty queen (albeit a runner-up) she embodies a paradoxical feature of American conservatism, one that has always adapted overt sexuality in the cause of hearth and home - and, not infrequently, strong religious principles. Big hair and lipstick, rather than burkhas, provide the semiotics of the Bible Belt.

In Slate, Tom Perrotta claimed claimed that Palin "embodies a powerful new Christian right archetype", the "sexy Puritan". He even found a point of comparison with the early (and supposedly, though implausably, virginal) Britney Spears - though, as Perrotta concedes, that "didn't work out so well". The miniskirted conservative commentator Ann Coulter would perhaps have been a more appropriate comparison. For Perrotta:

Sexy Puritans engage in the culture war on two levels—not simply by advocating conservative positions on hot-button social issues but by embodying nonthreatening mainstream standards of female beauty and behavior at the same time. The net result is a paradox, a bit of cognitive dissonance very useful to the cultural right: You get a little thrill along with your traditional values, a wink along with the wagging finger. Somehow, you don't feel quite as much like a prig as you expected to.

Perrotta, author of The Abstinence Teacher, mentions his surprise while researching the novel that, instead of the prune-faced plain Janes he expected to encounter, he instead met a succession of hotties. There was, for example the "slender young blond woman in tight jeans and a form-fitting T-shirt—she wouldn't have looked out of place at a frat kegger— [who] bragged about all the college boys who'd tried and failed to talk her into their beds".

He goes on,

What the Sexy Puritan movement represents, I think, is the realization on the part of some cultural warriors on the right that to be seen as anti-sex—and especially to be seen as unsexy—is a losing proposition in contemporary America, even among evangelical Christians most troubled by the fallout from the sexual revolution.

What Perrotta misses, in his lucid analysis, is that the "sexy Puritan" is nothing new. It's as old as the Beauty Pageant or the high school prom. It belongs to the American cult of wholesomeness as much as it does to socially conservative positions on subjects such as abortion or pre-marital sex. It's not so much a matter of packaging old-fashioned messages in an appealing manner: the medium, rather, is the message. What this means, among other paradoxes, is that the plastic Barbie-doll, or her real-life equivalents in the manner of Anna-Nicole Smith, is as much a product of American traditionalism as a Sunday-school teacher.

Which brings me straight to the next fantasy-Palin, which derives directly from the first. This large painting of a full-frontally naked Palin, holding an even bigger gun, standing on a polar-bear rug and posing by an open window, can be seen in all its glory in Chicago bar-room.

The painter, Bruce Elliott (who also co-owns the Old Ale House, which doubles up as a gallery for his softcore erotic art) claims that he was inspired to create the painting while watching his daughter Grace (who modelled for him) "performing an uncanny Sarah Palin impression." Grace's devotion to her father clearly resembles that of Lucien Freud's progeny. Elliot is a confirmed Obama supporter, who calls Palin a "real nasty piece of work" but admits to finding her attractive. Her smirk, he explained, says "I was the town whore in high school and look where I’ve gone."

"I really don’t think too much about taste," Elliott said when asked about reaction to the work. "I’d like to offend somebody. I would love it if the secret service called me up."

The red shoes, prominent here, are of course a Palin trademark. The Washington Post's fashion editor, Robin Givhan, was fairly dismissive. "Red shoes do not say vice president," she maintained. (Indeed not: they say Pope.) At the same time, thinks Givhan, the shoes provide solid evidence that "she's using prettiness and cuteness to her advantage. And without any hesitation." After all, "You don't just roll out of bed and fall into red shoes. That took some thought."

Elliot's effort, like much Palin pornophernalia, is somewhat tongue-in-cheek. In a similar vein, a sex-toy company has brought out an inflatable Palin "love-doll". "She's the hottest thing to have come out of Alaska in years" says the publicity. "Blow her up and show her how you’re going to vote". Elsewhere, Gawker reports that Sarah Palin is this year's must-have Halloween costume. Nicole Scherzinger of the Pussycat Dolls has said that she could have a place in the group. "She seems like a headstrong woman, a tough chick. And she's hot," says Scherzinger. And a San Francisco burlesque artiste (i.e. stripper) going by the name Lady Satan has devised a routine in which she removes her Palinesque clothes while fondling a gun. It's on YouTube. I would post it up but it's rubbish.

Hugh Hefner, meanwhile, invited Sarah Palin to pose for Playboy. "It would be a new definition of the word ‘vice’ in vice president," he joked. At only half Hef's age, one might think Sarah a bit old for him (his conquests are usually in their early twenties) but he's clearly into her. "I don’t know what it is," he told OK magazine, "but there’s something about a really sexy-looking woman wearing glasses. Imagine what she’s like when the glasses come off!"

Ah yes, the glasses. Along with the carefully tied-up hair, they form a key part of the Palin image, and they send what may be an intentionally double message. Palin is on record that she chose that particular hairstyle because she thought it would help her be taken seriously: it is intended to express a businesslike attitude, and indeed it looks vaguely corporate, if not schoolmarmish. But the outwardly restrained, inwardly smouldering sexy librarian - another cultural archetype - is in there too.

At one level, Palin's sex-appeal doesn't require much explanation: it's something that you've either got or you haven't, and which many people (myself, I should say, included) think she clearly has. But that doesn't quite explain the sheer visceral excitement she has produced, the way in which her sexual attractiveness has - on both sides of the political debate - become an issue. Regardless of how the race ends - regardless, too, of Palin's own limitations, many of which have been painfully exposed - she may well turn out to have transformed the possibilities for women in politics. And she has done so by canny manipulation of her sexual image. No doubt it is in response to such success that Newsweek placed an unflattering close-up of Palin's face on their cover. Some of her supporters certainly seem to think so.

Palin has the successful woman's knack for appealing to men without alienating women. To women she says, I'm one of you, but a smarter, sassier, more successful one of you. To men, she stands for manly things - huntin', shootin' (the dropped gs are integral), flag-wavin', Bible-believin' all-American self-reliance, but at the same time she's all woman. A real woman is not a simpering, fainting, corsetted princess, and she's not an air-headed, airbrushed, silicone-implanted sex object either. But nor is she Harriet Harman.

Like a reverse James Bond, Sarah Palin is a woman that women want to be and men want to fuck. A feminist, but not a Feminist, she annoys many pampered progressives with her unapologetically traditional views. But those views, too, are sexually alluring. Hers is a world in which men are men and women are women.

If Sarah Palin is the sort of woman men fantasise about, she is also (and this is important) the sort they respect. There's no contradiction between the two. In fact, Sarah Palin would probably have little problem exercising supreme power. It's a myth that men resent taking orders from women. Men spend most of their lives taking orders from women - mothers, nannies, teachers, wives, nurses and, these days, quite often bosses as well. The kind of feminist who labours under the delusion that this sort of authority is anything new - who thinks that, because the number of situations in which woman are able to exercise authority has greatly increased, the way in which they do so must necessarily change - is far more likely to experience a glass ceiling than a woman like Sarah Palin who merely carries on as she always did, who naturally expects men to do what she tells them and, as a result, finds that they do.

Successful female leaders have tended to discover that their position was not so anomalous as they might have thought, because they fell naturally into the already-present archetypes of matriarchs and goddesses. Some have inspired hatred - usually from left-wingers - as a result, such as Mrs Thatcher who was never forgiven by feminists for being so clearly (but uncomfortably) a woman. Admiration, envy, and salacious gossip are also recurring themes. Cleopatra, Boudicca, Catharine the Great, Elizabeth I, Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandhi, all successfully exploited (and suffered from) these mythic types. In the case of Cleopatra, her ascendency over Mark Antony was presented by Roman propagandists as emasculating, but it's unlikely Antony himself saw it that way; or Cleo herself, for that matter. He was, rather, Brad to her Angelina, Todd to her Sarah Palin: a First Dude.

By contrast, some modern female polticians have attempted to react against such stereotypes, not by presenting themselves as would-be men but by rejecting both male and female images. The results are rarely attractive to either sex: they are easily caricatured as cold, bossy, humourless. These women, who are so recognisable in New Labour, have their male equivalents, who eschew traditionally masculine forms of self-presentation, and are equally unattractive as a result. The political equivalent of eunuchs, they want to appear entirely rational and up-to-date; instead they come across as boring and complacent.

To some people, of course, even discussing Palin's sex appeal is insulting. But successful male political leaders trade off their sexuality every bit as much as actresses do: only their sex-appeal is disguised beneath code-words such as "authority" and "strength". Sexuality and sex are different, but linked: there's a difference between being stirred on a primeval, sexual level by someone and consciously wanting to sleep with them. The so-called F-factor is usually subliminal. The difference with Palin, perhaps, is that the subliminal message has been made manifest.

UPDATE: Trailer released on Youtube. It includes the hoo-hoo moment! Bliss.


Anonymous said…
Erm, is this a spoof? I sincerely hope so...
Anonymous said…
Great stuff, I LOVE the painting: does the artist mean to imply that Palin is the new Bush?

Heresiarch, you missed Ian Hislop on (so to speak) Palin -

Also i think Clytemnestra was a Spartan who became a Mycenean queen, rather than an Athenian dame, at least I think that's what implied in Time Bandits!
WeepingCross said…
You're very taken by the Pope's shoes, aren't you? My best shoes are only red on the inside. Don't speculate on what that tells you.
Heresiarch said…
About Clytemnestra: yes, she was Spartan, and Spartan women in classical times were far more "equal" than Athenian ones; in Mycenean times there wouldn't have been such a stark difference. (My point would apply to the women depicted in Athenian tragedy generally, though; Medea would have done, and she wasn't even Greek.) Spartan life was notoriously tough, rugged and militaristic, of course, so I suppose it might be compared in a way with the frontier society of the American West. Interesting point I hadn't thought of.
Anonymous said…
Okay, it's your blog and you can write whatever you like. But am I alone in wondering why you're not taking a good, hard look at the orthodoxy and received wisdom of the free market at this moment? It looks a bit like a case of 'Tory in denial' to me. But, hey, if Palin porn floats your boat, continue to pull away from the shore of economic reality. So to speak.
Heresiarch said…
The "orthodoxy and received wisdom" at the moment, it seems to me, is that the free market is bust and only government can save us. I'm not a "Tory in denial"; I haven't written about the economic crisis yet because I haven't formulated my thoughts properly. This stuff is difficult. But I'm not going to join in with the "down with free markets" rhetoric of a government that has presided over 11 years of most un-Conservative waste and debt.
valdemar said…
I wasn't aware that this government is opposed to the free market. I must have missed the bit where they scrapped the PFI-NHS hospitals and the the city academies run by creationist car dealers. It's so hard to keep up!
David Gerard said…
Dear God, I watched the YouTube clip and I feel made stupider by it than I did watching Palin herself.

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