A realization was creeping up on me before the VP debate even began. It was lurking in the refrain I found myself adopting when people asked if I was going to watch: “yes,” I said, “but only against my better judgment.” Only, that is, for what little entertainment value I might yet squeeze out of watching Sarah Palin deliver another set of lines that Tina Fey could easily copy verbatim on SNL the following Saturday. At least this time Palin memorized the lines—but they were all too predictably the same hollow rhetorical cliches delivered in the same folksy tone that, for all its predictability, dumbfounds me anew every time I hear it. No, I realized as I watched, I couldn’t make it through many more post-speech Palin spoofs. The mockery is just too real, and that reality makes a mockery of me.
“Sarah Palin makes me ashamed to be a woman,” my friend’s g-mail status proclaimed just hours after the debate. It was the most straightforward expression of a sentiment that, I discovered in the days following, many of my female friends shared. Of course, most people these days resist the notion that gender is the most important factor in determining who we relate to—or believe in, or vote for, etc. (“I’m not voting for Hillary because she’s a woman,” so many young women fiercely declared.) Indeed, Sarah Palin’s anatomy doesn’t mean she has anything more significant in common with me than does any other pro-life, evangelical hockey-mother-of-five (or is that four?) who “said thanks but no thanks to that bridge to nowhere” [about 500 times in the space of a week]. But choosing a representative is different from being represented. So many of us feel, instinctively, that certain female public figures represent us as females, in some basic way whether we would associate ourselves with them or not. Because sex remains an undeniably fundamental identifier in our society (at the least a classification scheme, a means of sorting people), and because we’re still far from accustomed to seeing women in positions of power, the women who make it to traditionally male positions are actually pretty likely to be seen, on some more or less conscious level, as representative of all women.
Take the argument that Sarah Palin was chosen as the VP nominee partly to attract female voters. True or untrue, it strikes most of us as at least equally credible on face as all the other reasons that have been offered for her selection. That means we readily accept the existence of some decision calculus along the lines of: women will identify with Sarah Palin because she, as a woman, shares with them certain exclusively-female qualities (/experiences/body parts/what-have-you). So as the first female Vice President of the United States, Sarah Palin would represent not just the American people—a ghastly enough prospect on its own—but also, yes, American women. The fact that someone could choose, not the best representation of female political acumen and intelligence, but possibly the worst (or the antithesis) as an appeal to women is unspeakably offensive. The fact that this antithesis could then potentially be chosen to take on a role that would mark a major advance in women’s liberation is tragically disappointing.
And so, halfway through the Palin-Biden debate, I was overcome by a profound sadness. Sadness that I, one of the eighteen million disaffected Hillary devotees but more importantly, a woman, might be forced to watch a member of my sex who seemed determined to play up a sickening stereotype of fatuous, if modern, femininity rise to the most prominent political position ever achieved by a woman in the United States. Sadness that she could possibly succeed in winning over the American people before the sharp, passionate politician that Hillary proved herself to be and proved our sex capable of producing. Some people say women don’t need to “prove” anything anymore. But I say, when it comes time to select the first woman to stand for America in a truly public, executive-level political position, she damn well better be someone I can feel proud to be associated with—not someone for whom the mocking imitations on SNL are virtually indistinguishable from reality.