Tuned In

The Palin Media-Sexism Debate: A Preview

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You must be wondering by now what I think about the question: has the media coverage of Sarah Palin been sexist? Well, for starters, I—

What’s that you say? You didn’t ask? Because no one’s asking? Because it’s not actually a controversy yet?

Maybe not. But as night follows day, it will be.

Here is how it will happen.

Sarah Palin got glowing coverage right after John McCain announced her as his running mate. Why wouldn’t she? She’s got a great personal story; she’s charismatic; she’s like a character from a movie.

But. She’s from Alaska, which most Americans know for moose, Northern Exposure and Deadliest Catch. She was a beauty-pageant queen. Two years ago, she was mayor of Wasilla, AK, which sounds like it should be a location for David Letterman’s Home Office. She has Tina Fey’s glasses and Marge Gunderson’s voice. Oh, yeah—and it turns out her teenage daughter is about the make her a grandma.

So. There will be jokes. This is not meant as an attack; it is a fact. Jay Leno’s writing staff has probably sent John McCain a fruit basket.

Some of the jokes will be innocuous, and some will be egregious. Some will reference her appearance (see “beauty queen,” above). Salon’s Rebecca Traister has noted that there are already references to Palin as a GILF (see MILF, substitute “Governor”). Stephen Colbert was not the first, and will not be the last, to call her a “sexy librarian.” (To which, as the husband of an M.L.S., I reply: Is there any other kind?)

These jokes will be on late-night shows, in standup routines, in YouTube videos, posted anonymously in blog comments and passed around by email. Which means they are only part of “the media” in the broadest sense. But they’ll be replayed and referenced on cable news and eventually—as with Hillary—folded in with the news-media coverage as Part of a Pattern.

Media talking heads, meanwhile, will run their mouths and say stupid things, because they are paid to. Many of them will be male. I mean, you may as well put a ticking clock on Chris Matthews’ forehead.

Reporters and straight-news anchors will say things too. They already have, like the CNN anchor who asked whether it was responsible for Palin to run for VP when she has a baby with Down Syndrome. No way in hell this question would be asked of a man. Of course, this kind of question actually should be asked of men, but that’s more nuance than the media are interested in handling.

(Question: is it still a sexist question when women are the ones asking it? Extra credit: given that Todd Palin is on leave from work, isn’t it also sexist against stay at home dads?)

The media will go into overkill mode on personal issues, right about… now.

As with Hillary, some negative comments about Palin will be directly gender-related and many will not. Some will be sexist and many will not. Some will be personal and some will be substantive. But as with Hillary, the existence of the former will allow McCain surrogates to cite the latter as also… Part of a Pattern.

There will be features about Palin, framing her in terms of her gender. Her clothing will be analyzed. Someone, somewhere, mark my words, will do a story on how men find women with guns hot.

That some of these features—like Robin Givhan’s notorious one about Hillary’s cleavage—will likely be written by women and even attempt to make serious points about how women are perceived in the culture will not matter. They will also be Part of the Pattern.

Eventually, at the right time, an outrage machine will emerge, and McCain-Palin surrogates will denounce this Pattern in the media.

The fact that some of the comments about Palin will be from friendly quarters will not matter. (For instance: Pat Buchanan has already referred to Palin as a “great girl” on-air, and the right-leaning New York Post had a headline referring to “ALASKAN LASS” Palin. A male McCain adviser has said she will learn “at the foot of the master,” a remark that, had it come from a male Obama adviser, would have brought immediate demands for his resignation.)

Then the media coverage of the media coverage will begin.

The media—still stinging from being accused of being sexist or overlooking sexism in the primary—will be primed to do this story. Regardless, someone will accuse them of going easier on anti-Palin sexism because of liberal bias.

Having cited overtly sexist remarks about Palin, the outrage machine will argue that other tough coverage of Palin is also motivated by hidden sexism. (They will be aided by the fact that [1] sexism is sometimes hidden and [2] many people will have every motive to see it, whether it’s there or not.)

The strain of real or perceived sexism will be different from Hillary’s. Sexism comes in many flavors. With Hillary, it was the older, accomplished woman’s experience of being passed over for younger men and dismissed as a bitch for being assertive. With Palin—so the narrative will go, at least—it will be the experience of being underestimated, written off as a pretty face, asked to choose between being a mother and a professional.

Whether the outrages in the campaign are legitimate or not, the fact that they parallel the real-world experience of ordinary women will generate another round of stories.

Some comments about Palin will be flat-out offensive, some will be debatable, some will be legitimate criticisms that could have been made of a man as well. But once the outrage machine lumps them all together, the coverage-about-the-coverage stories will too.

There will be ugly, beyond-the-pale sexism, and innocuous comments opportunistically blown up into sexism. Various people will cite one of the two groups to minimize the other, as if it’s not possible that both can be true at the same time.

Palin herself—who criticized the Clintons’ “whining” in the primary—will likely not herself accuse anyone of sexism. From her past statements, she seems inclined to brush this kind of thing off.

The outrage machine, however, will not care what Palin thinks, and will continue to take offense on her behalf.

It will focus especially on MSNBC, which has already been attacked as sexist against Hillary and biased in favor of the Democrats. The term “liberal sexists” will be employed.

The media will feel obligated to take the accusation very seriously, because to minimize it is just the sort of thing that liberal sexists would do.

Katie Couric will be expected to comment on the issue.

The outrage machine will feel moral justification from things such as the hair-trigger Obama supporters and pundits who went bonkers over the New Yorker cover and saw McCain’s “Celebrity” ad (juxtaposing Obama with Britney and Paris) as an attempt to subliminally make him a Mandingo-style racial-sexual threat. They will cite this if accused of being an outrage machine.

The outrage machine will demand that Obama denounce the incidents, whatever they are. If he does not—in a big, public way—it will be proof he tacitly approves them. If he does denounce (and reject), they will ask, why didn’t he do that when Hillary was running against him?

Then they will ask again, to make sure former Hillary voters heard it.

The attack ad writes itself: Why does Barack Obama have a problem with women?

This will all be amplified after the vice presidential debate, in which Joe Biden, if he is aggressive with Palin, will be seen as demeaning; and if he is not aggressive, will be seen as patronizing. (Biden, who is derisive of his political opponents for a living—just ask Rudy Giuliani—will have teeth marks on his tongue for weeks after.)

Repeat as necessary until the election.