Female Politician-Celebrity Standard
Merging the Female Movie Star and the Politician
I invited Sarah Palin to the conversation at our “feminist table” because I thought she and most voices like to hers would be excluded otherwise. I have though about her and other very visible public female personas frequently since then. And I have come to understand these women as part of a separate public world, which must be, in terms of feminism, examined it were a “separate geographical location” entirely. This public world requires a specific examination, just as the woman of the global south or the Korean woman might require examination through a specifically feminist lens or gaze. Others have addressed issues of “double standards” arising in very particular circumstances in very different parts of the globe. The public gaze (constantly directed at this public world) creates a unique combination of “double standards” when it turns towards the female body. I would like to explore the very unique position the public woman finds herself in, both in terms of the political and popular worlds and how these once very separate worlds have come to merge.
The film Game Change provided the catalyst for this paper. (I know this film just came out on television, and was only released on HBO, but I think its role in my project is significant enough to warrant at least mentioning it.) The film focuses on the election in 2008, specifically Palin’s unprecedented and exponential rise to stardom in the last two months of the John McCain’s campaign. Game Change is significant to my interest for two reasons. First, it brings attention to recent public demand for “celebrity candidates”— it appears that the public standards upheld by movie stars now also apply to those seeking public office. The film paints both Palin and Obama as having the same spark of celebrity that Clinton and McCain seemed to lack. Second, Game Change portrays Palin in light very different from any previous portrayal: she is depicted privately (within the closed quarters of the campaign) as uncooperative at best and catatonic at worst: read a “mentally unstable”, unhinged woman. This aspect of her as “mentally unfit” for the presidency is melded with prior portrayals of Palin as mentally unfit in terms of basic understanding of current affairs (in Game Change she appears to not understand the concept of “the Fed”, thinks the Queen governs England, and believes Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11).
The two most important points here are, again, the growing incest joining the political and celebrity realms and second, the depiction of Palin, a female politician, as mentally deficient (both in terms of intelligence and emotional stability). In a way, these two issues have a potential relational effect: as a candidate maintains excessive star power, his or her mental capacity becomes less of a significant value. The majority of “star power”, as far as the female body is concerned, is beauty: the prettier you are, the less your intelligence, and to an extent your ability, matter. In essence, a female movie star’s career could easily be founded purely on her pleasing appearance, one that makes her stand out amongst her peers. One could cite Sarah Palin, though not in the realm of “movie star”, as a woman exemplifying this concept: within the realm of her political profession she was uniquely attractive, uniquely female, and yet uniquely uniformed and inexperienced. Her rise from “nobody” to celebrity politician was meteoric. The film begins with the McCain campaigns’ search for an exciting vice presidential candidate that will rev up interest from both the republican “base”, “moderates”, and women. Sarah Palin is chosen because she is a woman and one who can command attention of the general public—read: she is not as dull in appearance and demeanor as most of the other female politicians the campaign considers. Later when it becomes obvious to the McCain organizers that she is desperately uninformed, the manager, Steve Schmidt, resorts to having her memorize lines, and fall back on her “movie star” power.
The clear mergence of the political and celebrity standard is not only problematic because it stands to allow our country to be run by “movie stars”, but also because it stands to have much more of a negative effect on the female politician (than on the male bodied one). The superficial celebrity standard is not only narrower for the female-bodied individual but also more pervasive and less open to exceptions. There is not a strong superficial standard that men in the public eye are held to, beyond perhaps a racial one. I can think of Jack Nicholson as exemplar of this: he is incredibly successful and yet not incredibly symmetrical (symmetry running parallel to beauty). Also he is old; I can think of few, still successful female actors his age—that is I can think of one, Meryl Streep. This celebrity political standard truly stands to bar many qualified women from participating, just as in Game Change it barred the McCain campaign from considering every woman except Sarah.
To return to the second aspect of Palin’s supposed “mental instability”. Game Change’s painting of Sarah Palin did not shock me. This added hysterical catatonic aspect simply fit in with the publically visible Palin I recall from 2008, who constantly seemed, specifically in Couric’s infamous interview, to be flunking some sort of oral exam after cramming for days straight. That this “cramming” would take its toll mentally is not shocking. Though it should be mentioned that the film went significantly further than to simply depict Palin as mildly overworked and overstressed. In light of Game Change Palin is an ignorant and deluded little girl prone to bouts of catatonia or conversely hysterical tantrums in which she abruptly fires employees or breaks things in fits of anger. She is in every respect a woman pushed to the brink. The campaigning must be reorganized constantly in order to assuage her various states of distress. The Palin of Game Change molds perfectly to the stereotype that women are “too emotional” or too unstable to fulfill the role of president—that to choose a woman would require special consideration, or even that choosing a woman would require that she be babysat and supervised by her own campaign.
Now of course there is a double standard here both in regards to female vs. male “beauty” and also in terms of female vs. male emotion, or lack thereof. I see this standard playing a role in the phenomena of Sarah Palin. It is implied that Palin is chosen because she embodies the female movie star ideal: she is “sexy” and exciting, women everywhere relate to and aspire to be like her, their idol. She is the opposite of McCain’s original VP choice, Joe Liberman—she is entrancing and inexperienced and young. Sarah embodied the McCain campaigns’ main critique of Obama: his inexperience. Yet she is blindly chosen because the campaign thinks it needs her to “rev” up voter interests, and wants her to do so, at all costs. In the wake of the political celebrity it appears that the female-bodied politician has shifted to become a tool of the male politician—the supposed key to female interest and to female votes.
The excessive attention paid to the appearance of the female politician (versus the non-existent interest in the appearance of the opposing male) is not something new. Back in 2006, John Spencer, Hillary Clinton’s opponent, felt the need to point out her physical unattractiveness to a reporter (Willis-Aronowitz), lamenting that he “didn’t know why Bill married her”, he further “speculated that Clinton had ‘millions of dollars’ worth of plastic surgery”. Further the extreme attention paid to the “emotionally stability” of the female politician is equally un-novel. Hillary Clinton’s perceived lack of emotional range was a huge topic in the ‘08 democratic primary. Then when she teared up during an event, she was faking it, pandering for votes—the public critique was everywhere. In response she alluded to “ ‘the double standards that a woman running for president faces…If you get too emotional, that undercuts you…A man can cry; we know that. Lots of our leaders have cried. But a woman, it’s a different kind of dynamic’ “(Dowd). It seems the female politician has no means to win; she is so constrained by the duplicity of the political standard that there s no way out (unless, of course, she possesses that “movie star” charm, only then will every door open).
Bill Clinton, in a weak moment, described Obama’s campaign as “the biggest fairytale I’ve ever seen”. In light of Game Change, the McCain Palin campaign would also fall under this category as a misguided wish, a fanciful fairytale. In retrospect, based on the lack of follow through on most of Obama’s “hope” and “change” platform, it seems that Clinton was right, that the Obama campaign was nothing more that a story. The public demand for a fairytale, for a celebrity, has trumped any other political ideal, to the seeming detriment of the female-bodied politician who must now be subject to both the political and celebrity (double) standard. I think if I were to take this interest further, I would have to examine the strong representation of women as “unhinged” in both the celebrity and film realms, and now within the political realm. In thinking about this, I have started to notice “crazy” women in film, and simultaneously notice that most unhinged men mentioned are crazy because they are defending or protecting someone, generally a child or female—i.e. they are “crazy” for a good reason.
Austin, E.G. “Game Change: Unsympathetic Characters”. The Economist. 12 March 2012. http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2012/03/game-change?fsrc=gn_ep
Dowd, Maureen. “Can Hillary Cry Her Way Back into the White House?. New York Times. 9 January 2008. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/09/opinion/08dowd.html?pagewanted=all
"HBO's Game Change Details Sarah Palin's Nervous Breakdown". 7 March 2012. Lee Baily's Eurweb.com: Electronic Urban Report. . http://www.eurweb.com/2012/03/hbos-game-change-details-sarah-palins-nervous-breakdown/
Game Change. Dir Jay Roach. Perf. Julianne Moore, Ed Harris, Woody Harrelson. HBO Films. 28 February 2012.
Willis-Aronowitz, Nona. “Calling Hillary Clinton Ugly”. Salon.com: Broadsheet. 23 October 2006. http://www.salon.com/2006/10/23/spencer_3/