“Refreshingly Reaganesque or Gidget Goes to Washington”: Uber-femininity Brokers Power & Winks at the American People


During the commentary after last week’s Vice Presidential debate, PBS commentator Richard Morton Smith, said that it was yet to be seen whether Republican nominee, Sarah Palin was, “refreshingly Reaganesque or Gidget goes to Washignton.”  A truer assessment of Palin’s overdone gender peformance couldn’t have been made. More than staying on message about Iraq, trying to point out Obama’s flaws, or establishing her middle-class bonafides,  Palin was dedicated to displaying her virtouso talent for anachronistic gender presentation.

Judith Butler in her landmark work, refers to how one presents and proves or shows one’s gender, as gender performance. We all, in various ways, perform our gender – through the clothes we wear, how we fix our hair, the way a womyn might tilt her head, just so to reveal the soft flesh of her neck, might wrinkle her nose, jut out a shoulder, and wink. Butler’s assertion is that gender is performance: we learn to be(have) as womyn and men. We perform our genders – and that performance varies based on our comfort with traditional or stereotypical roles, how we understand our identity, and what situation we might find ourselves.

Palin’s performances, both during the Vice Presidential debates, and as immortalized in Saturday Night Live skits with Tina Fey, presents audiences with a gender performance that seems more appropriate for 1950s post-war America, than 21st Century post-modern America. And yet, Palin’s gender performance, and the responses to it, may tell us quite a lot about what kinds of female leadership we’re willing to accept and integrate -what kind of female leadership we deem most interesting, or perhaps amusing, to watch.

Are we really ready for a womyn who transgresses in the spotlight? By that I mean, are we ready for a womyn who holds both power and attractiveness, and does not bow to performance?  Are we ready for a capable, brilliant, assertive womyn who stands confidently in her power? I think Hillary Clinton might tell us that we’re not. We’ll take our powerful womyn, done up in bee-hives, form fitting pencil skirts, open-toed heels, and full of nose-crinkling, race-baiting wit.

Palin is a womyn in her prime, who is clearly unafraid to display her feminity in order to draw attention. To me, she’s like the popular hot girl in high school, who was so accustomed to using her pretty privilege, that she believes her own entitlement based on appearance and gender performance. Generations of womyn, not only in Washington, but throughout the U.S. have often had to de-emphasize their attractiveness and gender identity. Palin has no such trouble. Her femininity is front and center – in fact, it’s the centerpiece of her political performance.  Being “cute,” has become ammunition against having real knowledge or experience. This is the insult to womyn. The system trained so many of us to regulate our gender performance, our femininity, and when the system wanted to most usurp the power of womyn, it selected the very womyn we were all warned not to be, and told us to vote for her. 

It seems as if the Republican leadership is only willing to engage womyn who perform their ideal of womanhood.  Womyn who can be deemed beautiful as they spout Orwellian doubletalk. They are all womyn who perform a bejewelled form of gender (think Dana Perino, Elisabeth Hasselbeck). This is not to say that all Republican womyn have to or even do have a normative gender performance. And it’s certainly not to suggest that there are not beautiful, charming womyn on both sides of the aisle. But when you couple the propensity for placing womyn like Palin at center stage, with a Republican political platform that suggests that womyn should not have access to reproductive health choices, equal pay for equal work (which McCain voted against), and a resistance to expanding measures that would help womyn, it leaves one to wonder. Is the message that the only sanctioned role for womyn, is as a lipstick wearing lap dog to the idealogue Chief?  Are womyn only useful when they agree and wear a dress?

And that’s the trick of course. Sarah Palin should be allowed any gender normativity or performance that feels right for her. That is true to her core. It’s the pandering that’s the trouble. Womyn should be able to be sexy, in charge, in powerful policy-making positions, while being respected – if that’s who we are at our core. Condeleeza Rice, manages to wear Manolo Blahnik knee-high boots, but no one would ever dare say that she doesn’t have an expertise in geo-political relations (even as many of us would disagree with her). Madeleine Albright collected dolls and teapots, often displayed throughout her office, never would we assume that she could not take on Putin if need be.

All of it would be subversive -hot hockey mom wields power on the political scene, that is if national security, the demise of capitalism as we know it, and a two-front war weren’t all at our doorstep. It would be subversive, if beneath her gender performance, Palin was really challenging, as opposed to mimicking, traditional paths to power. 

But Palin’s performance? What exactly does her regressive gender performance get us in a “war on terror,” where we’re fighting for the hearts and minds of “terrorists” and the Middle-East, who we ostensibly would like to bring freedom and democracy to? Will we show up to womyn in Afghanistan and honestly tell them they have the freedom to choose their gender performance, when Sarah Palin’s path to power has rested on her best impersonations: Gidget and an unconvincing Regan. Are we telling womyn in Afghanistan that they’ll be free to perform their gender just like Sarah Palin does? Is this the ideal of femininity that we want to project to the world?

Throughout the 90-minute debate Palin was in full performance mode: she performed her knowledge of foreign policy, she recited her attack lines with the necessary (though not outstanding) aplomb, and then she lobbed the doozy of her gender performance toward the bright lights. She winked, looking straight at the American people, to whom she was speaking directly, as opposed to the respected journalist of color Gwen Ifill, who’d dared to prepare a slate of questions for the candidates. When speaking she’s fond of wrinkling her nose and lifting her smile into a smirk – to really drive home the point. And then, there’s the head tilt – the favorite of womyn everywhere. Professor of Theatre, Speech and Dance, Barbara Tannenbaum points out that the tilting of the head, to reveal the neck, is one of the most classical poses in gender performance. It’s a pose mimicked in nature – when a cornered animal bares its neck to the aggressor with the hope that the attacker will take pity. It is a movement that suggests a certain level of naivete, vulnerability, surrender, and youth.

Gidget did it all the time.


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