Did you see Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live the other night? You can see the clip here. Governor Palin, like many politicians before her, (and like her running mate John McCain appearing on David Letterman’s show last week), rose to the challenge to appear on a top-rated national comedy show to demonstrate her sense of humor and ability to engage in mild self-deprecation. Seems that many voters think this is as good a way to judge candidates for high office as listening to them opine on the nuances of tax policy and health care reform.
I think the Governor was a good sport and did fine, but SNL hit a low blow when Alec Baldwin, after making some very snarky comments (“Caribou Barbie” and so forth), said to Palin, “You are way hotter in person….” Scripted or not, this turn of the phrase immediately changes the conversation from political satire to sexual objectification of a woman who is aspires to be taken seriously as a national leader.
If a supervisor made such a comment to a female subordinate, she’d have grounds for a harassment complaint.
Plenty of silly, nasty things get said about political candidates. Both Senator McCain and Governor Palin have insinuated that Senator Obama is a socialist because his policies seek to share wealth. Obama supporters may bristle at such language, but the comment arose from his policies, not his personal characteristics. Sketchier are the comments that Palin made recently that raise the “terrorist” association spectacle, a controversy that strikes me as needlessly inflammatory and exploitive of serious crimes (terrorism) for political gain (trying to win an election by drawing a dubious line of association).
True, comments about the personal characteristics of political candidates get made all the time, and sometimes in satire. At the Alfred E. Smith fund raising dinner in New York last week, both candidates made jokes about each other, and Senator Obama got in a crack about Senator McCain’s age: speaking to the great grandson of former New York Governor and 1928 Presidential Candidate Alfred E. Smith, Obama said, “I obviously never knew your great grandfather, but from everything that Senator McCain has told me, the two of them had a great time together before Prohibition.”
So, why does the “way hotter” comment seem so jarring when it’s offered as a compliment, and when so many other comments about candidates are just downright insulting?
History will tell whether Palin’s candidacy is a real breakthrough for women or an anomaly. Some of the trend lines suggest the latter. A story in the Sunday New York Times described her appeal to the “Joe Sixpack” crowd, a demographic not previously known for being favorably disposed toward powerful women. Perhaps, as the article suggests, it takes a Palin candidacy with its startlingly new and different image of the powerful woman to blaze a very new pathway out of sexism and into equal opportunity.
Or, there’s the other side of that coin — that the clever exploitation of gender for political purposes masks the continuing discrimination that represses actual equality of opportunity. Women who are serious about leadership should not have to worry about whether they will appear to be “way hotter in person.” But they need to know that, for a certain significant part of the culture, that’s the primary yardstick by which their achievements will be measured, regardless of their professional achievements.