The gun-toting, anti-abortionist Sarah Palin is a hit across the gender and political divide. Men find her glamorous, women admire her for putting “misogynists” on notice.
Notwithstanding what happens to Sarah Palin after November 4 (whether she returns to shooting wolves or is propelled into being a “heartbeat” away from White House), Britons are unlikely to be in a hurry to forget this audaciously un-British woman with a taste for moose-hunting and snowmobiling. Strangely enough, a country which is not known to warm easily to outsiders with raving right-wing views seems to have fallen in love with Ms Palin after her gritty performance at the Republican Party convention last month as the running-mate of John McCain, the party’s presidential nominee.
Since that “electrifying” and “barnstorming” speech, she has been the only show in town with self-styled experts showering praise on her for everything from her finger-jabbing rhetoric and media-baiting one-liners to the choice of her dress that evening (in “contrast” to Hillary Clinton’s “frumpy” trouser-suits) and her “hypnotic” rimless glasses which have become the subject of some rather breathless internet chatter.
Britain is in the grip of a “Palinmania” with much of the debate on the U.S. presidential race focused on a woman who may have difficulty even spotting Britain on the map. And here’s the paradox.
While Hillary Clinton who is closer to the British idea of a cosmopolitan, liberal and politically sophisticated politician is intensely disliked in Britain, especially by members of her own gender, the gun-toting, anti-abortionist Ms Palin is a hit across the gender and political divide. Men find her glamorous, women admire her for putting ``misogynists” on notice — as one woman commentator put it — and politicians of different hues like her for her brazen political incorrectness.
But, above all, it is her refreshing “otherness”—her slightly flirtatious style, muscular language (calling herself a “pitbull with lipstick”) and the sheer pluckiness of a small-town woman daring to take on the Washington establishment — that makes her look so interesting to many Britons. The more she appears to be unlike them, the more they like her.
In a country where most mothers hate to be seen near a sportsground they are excited by a woman who proudly introduces herself as the “hockey mom.” And being a “hockey mom” is tough business, apparently. It is not for the faint-hearted, as The Times writer Janice Turner discovered. To be a successful “hockey mom” you need to be not only maniacally disciplined but also aggressively competitive in a way that most British moms are not. “Hockey-moms” are “pitbulls with lipstick.”
This is what Ms Turner learnt, courtesy an American: “Hockey moms don’t sleep because most of the stadiums are half a state away and kick-off is at 5.30 a.m. Hockey moms don’t take holidays — certainly never lovely weekend mini-breaks — as their kids are welded year-long to the league..... Hockey moms certainly don’t slope off to Starbucks for a shifty latte — as I would — but sit through every minute’s practice in the miserable stadium half-light, clad in unflattering polar fleece.”
Ms Palin’s politics, especially her views on social issues (she is against abortion even for victims of rape and incest), are extreme even by the standards of the hang ‘em, flog ‘em variety of the British Right and have few takers in Britain. But, there is a sneaking admiration for her sheer chutzpah. And her ``gritty flamboyance”, to quote one Palin-watcher, reminds many Britons of Margaret Thatcher who was hated for her politics but secretly admired by her worst critics for her steely, in-your-face style.
It is interesting how even a great many feminists have managed to find a soft corner for Ms Palin. Her personal life story — a mother of five juggling a large family and a demanding career, and succeeding — has impressed them and they are willing to overlook her politics to recognise what they believe is a quality that British women lack. One woman columnist contrasted Ms Palin’s “can-do” approach with her own fellow countrywomen who, she complained, were “reluctant to commit to the punishing hours and ordeals of top management.” This, she argued, was why fewer women were in top positions in Britain. And here was someone who returned to work just three days after having a baby in what was a “gleeful throwback to those 1980s shoulder-padded feminists who had fax machines installed in labour suites before new mothers were guilt-tripped into believing that they were damaging their baby or would fail to ‘bond’ if they were selfish enough to retain their drive and lifelong ambitions.”
Another woman writer — The Sunday Telegraph’s Anne Applebaum — hailed Ms Palin as someone who “almost uniquely ...appears not to be bothered at all by this conflict [between family life and an active life in politics] — hence the interest she holds for women.”
“Here is a woman who has managed to raise five children, however chaotically, while becoming one of the most popular governors in the U.S. Along the way, she shot some caribou, drove her children to hockey matches, won a few beauty contests... and learned to talk tough,” Ms Applebaum wrote arguing that the emergence of Ms Palin marked the end of the “Hillary Era” of women politicians.
Ms Palin’s appeal, her admirers argue, lies in the fact that — unlike Ms Clinton, for example — she is not an archetypal woman politician; and despite her strident right-wing views, because of which she has been accused of re-igniting America’s “culture wars,” it is not easy to cast her in strictly black-and-white terms in the Right / Left / Liberal / Conservative / feminist / non-feminist debate.
Which side of this ideological divide does one place a woman who did not insist on long, paid maternity leave instead choosing to return to work so soon after delivering a baby? Was it “feminist” to back her unmarried daughter’s decision to have her baby? Was it “liberal” or “conservative” for her to play cruel sports such as go moose-hunting?
These are the questions we are asked to ponder before casting her as an unreconstructed reactionary.
Rebecca Johnson of Vogue magazine, who interviewed Ms Palin before she became famous, confessed in an article for a British newspaper that despite being a “liberal I’m blown away by Palin.” The argument, put forward by her and some other liberal/feminist supporters of Ms Palin, is that in order to understand what she is about in terms of her life-style and political and social choices it is important to understand where she comes from. Anyone growing up in Alaska with its hard life — made harder by its harsh climate — and its conservative social and cultural milieu is bound to look and sound awkwardly different to the metropolitan liberal elite of London and New York, it is argued.
Ms Palin, we’re told, is a graduate from “University of Life” and should not be judged by Ivy League’s academic standards. To do that would be as distorting as judging Barack Obama by standards that apply to conventional white politicians.
“My liberal friends were outraged when rumours about Barak Obama attending a madrassa or being a Muslim surfaced on the internet, but... they have been gleefully trading emails of Sarah Palin distortions,” Ms Johnson wrote.
Yet, few even among Ms Palin’s defenders are brave enough to put their neck out and say that she is fit for the office she is seeking, especially after her TV interviews in which she struggled to answer simple questions about American foreign policy and didn’t seem to have even heard of the “Bush doctrine” of pre-emptive military intervention. So, I’m not sure that if they had a vote they would have actually voted for her — the admiration for her being confined largely to her exotic appeal.
Meanwhile, Mr. McCain is accused of playing the “feminist card” in choosing her with the aim of weaning away white women voters angry with Democrats for abandoning Ms Clinton. And, judging from opinion polls, the strategy appears to be working at least for now with the Republicans reportedly enjoying an unexpectedly huge “Palin bounce”; and though a bounce, by its very nature, is short-lived if the Republicans are able to pull it off it would be down to one person: Sarah Palin.
Even as native Britons are transfixed by the Palin phenomenon, at least some British Americans are a bit embarrassed. In a scathing attack on Ms Palin, The Sunday Times’ California-born Minette Marrin, who describes herself as the “daughter of the American Revolution,” wrote that the whole Palin-saga had made America an “international laughing stock” and reduced American politics to a “sick comedy.”
“In short, Palin is an ill-educated, inexperienced hypocrite. The Republicans are trying to sell her to the voters as something she isn’t, and Mr. McCain hardly cares what she is. It’s a bad day for my native land,” she concluded.
How bad, we will know on November 4.
7 months ago