A version of this article was first published as Palin and "P0rn" Part 1: Don't Hate Sarah Palin Because She's Not Afraid of Her Beauty on Blogcritics.
When you've been blogging about the "Sarah Palin" phenomenon for a year and a half you notice something: when someone asks "Is Sarah Palin _______?" the answer, whatever the question, is usually "no".
Julia Baird's article in the current Newsweek recalled this theory when she reprimanded everyone to stop ogling Republican women.
There seems to be an insistent, increasingly excitable focus on the supposed hotness of Republican women in the public eye, like Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Michelle Malkin, and Nikki Haley—not to mention veterans like Ann Coulter. The sexual references are pervasive: they come from left, right, and center, and range from gushing to highly offensive. Harper's* asked, “Is Sarah Palin Porn?” as others quizzed the former governor about whether she had breast implants.
Right Wing News compiled a list of the hottest conservative women in new media. Playboy even ran an outrageous piece titled “Ten Conservative Women I’d Like to Hate F--k,” which read like a sick attempt to make rape cool. “We may despise everything these women represent,” wrote the author, “but goddammit they’re hot. Let the healing begin.” Moron.
I didn't see any analysis implied by (one of) her title(s) "why we sexualize GOP women", though Gloria Steinem's Women's Media Center offers one. A corollary question seems also studiously avoided by anyone doing these sexism-watches: what do you call it when Republican women, or any women, sex themselves up, or sign on to being sexed up in the service of something else? Like, say, winning a political campaign for top office in the world's most powerful nation? Since the announcement of Sarah Palin for VP in 2008, not only feminists but the voting populace in general have been grappling with these questions of sexism, objectification, and one's own participation in being on display, like never before.
It's funny reading this in Newsweek, which has been raked over the coals by socially-confused conservatives for it's own "sexist" Palin covers. Who could forget the ignorant mountain/molehill conservative screamers on Fox, crying "sexism" because Newsweek didn't retouch my favorite cover photo? In the upside-down universe of Neo-PC Conservatopia, showing natural beauty, and thus one's humanity, is now "sexist". Every woman, they said on Fox, should be mortified by that cover. (Weren't.)
Then, there was the infamous cover photo originally taken from Runners World. Oh, the wails of "sexism" we heard from conservatives, suddenly sounding like the same feminazi threats they believe are policing their thoughts and destroying the very fabric of humanity with our calls for the end of gender inequities.
From Palin's own Facebook entry:
The Runner's World magazine one-page profile for which this photo was taken was all about health and fitness - a subject to which I am devoted and which is critically important to this nation. The out-of-context Newsweek approach is sexist and oh-so-expected by now. If anyone can learn anything from it: it shows why you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, gender, or color of skin. The media will do anything to draw attention - even if out of context.
This charge of sexism rings hollow, coming from someone paid to bloviate by Prince bin Talal of NewsCorp, whose own country does not allow women to drive, much less vote, or run for public office, or appear in public alone.
Was the Newsweek cover mean-spirited, below the belt, relevant to nothing, and a cynical (albeit successful) ploy to sell print copies of magazines? Yes. "Sexist"? No. Palin posed for that campy Runners World photo shoot of her own volition, of her own agency.
But is Sarah Palin p0rn, or not? If the Oh Crap theory is correct, we already know the answer. A better question is, Do people make porn out of "Sarah Palin" or the Sarah Palin public image? Obviously, the answer to that is "yes".
Jack Hitt's hit fluff — in the June '10 Harper's, not The Atlantic — doesn't answer what it purported to ask, either, though he did manage to write a money shot. While Mrs. Palin saw sexism in the Newsweek cover, Hitt sees in it the same pR-n Palin saw in Levi Johnston's Playgirl poses:
She seethes at the mention of her daughter’s old boyfriend, Levi Johnston, cattily characterizing his Playgirl photo shoot as “aspiring porn.” Her Facebook updates are as bitchy as those of any fourteen-year-old girl. And her treacly tweets are classic examples of what the philosopher Daniel Dennett calls “deepities” — vagaries that can easily pass as profundities ....
She can also do, by her own standard, some “porn.” She showed off major leg in a racy spread in Runner’s World, wearing a pair of tight, short shorts, with an American flag chucked on a chair like a sweat towel. In other pictures, she wears skin-tight leggings and assumes saucy “warm-up” positions. For her fans, it was an issue to keep in that special place where Mom never looks. When Newsweek ran the tight-shorts pic as a cover image, Palin swiftly denounced it as “sexist.” But she recently showed up at John McCain’s side in Arizona and thrilled her followers by wearing a black leather jacket, cut in butch style, with zippered accents defining her breasts. Palin knows her fan base, and she knows what they want: a brief tour of Google reveals dozens of Photoshopped Palin fantasy images — and it’s clear that they’re not posted by her enemies.
Oh, the act of defining "Sarah Palin's breasts". Ah, the fortunate jacket that got the honors, the one that sends site stats through the roof, the one Ms. Palin made look so, er, showstopping; no, not "butch" at all but rather femmed-out biker-girl.
As for those p0rn-based photoshop fakes with Sarah's noggin on them, an old email sig of mine reads: "All photos SFW, no fakes/photoshops, ever." Their persistent demand in trade determines, in part, what kind of images I'll put on my own site for both lofty feminist and practical reasons. Who wants a bunch of catcalling repressives trolling one's site for nonsense?
This brings us to the central question of this post: how do you theorize-so-you-can-talk-about-it all those second wave concepts — "objectification" "ogling" "the gaze" "sexism" — when the object embodies such in-yr-face agency? when the objectified individual is running for governor, senator or VP? when the objectified subject wink-winkies at the voting populace or steers movement conservatism from behind Facebook or uses the word feminism to argue against women's physical autonomy while so evidently comfortable in her own skin?
I enjoy this about Sarah Palin or at least the consumable, tabloidable, retweetable "Sarah Palin" image. She's got "it", she knows it, and she's not afraid to strut it. If it shows in a body-hugging leather jacket, or a t-shirt at a horse race, in a form fitting shimmery dress suit at a VP debate, or in Naughty Monkey red pumps that still have people like J. Hitt fidgeting two years later, then great. If it doesn't show, equally great; she doesn't seem to give a dern about it, either way.
Like it, hate it, be turned on by it or try to ignore it; Palin's rare form of straight-girl camp is worth paying attention to, if only because we have not seen the last of it. (And what self-aware queer doesn't appreciate watching a wry game of dress-up at the viewer's expense?)
For Part 2: In light of a pR#n undercurrent strong enough to spawn look-alike stripper contests, a complete news cycle ruminating on her cup size, a Hustler video series, a line of sex toy dolls that aren't her, and those silly photoshops; as a conservative feminist doing something different with gender imagery and the politicized female body in the public sphere, and with children sexting themselves to each other, just what is porn, anymore?
Do you, like Justice Potter Stewart in 1964, know it when you see it?
Is Sarah Palin pornography?
Do we know Sarah Palin when we see her? Well?