The XX Factor

There Can’t Be a Liberal Palin

Jessica , I’m happy to see you take on the task of promoting fiery progressive women to be the sort of “Sarah Palin of the left,” a job the Democratic establishment has basically refused to do.  But I have to take issue with the way that Sarah Palin is assumed to have a lot of power because she can get a lot of attention.  Honestly, if someone waved a magic wand and made her and Hillary Clinton sudden death contenders for the presidency right now, Clinton would win in a heartbeat. Being able to get a lot of attention doesn’t mean you win anyone’s hearts. Look at Paris Hilton.

Hanna , I have to disagree with your assumption that a liberal version of Sarah Palin would have to compromise on basic issues, such as a woman’s right to exhibit willingness to be nonprocreative at any point in time without apology. To be the “Sarah Palin of the left,” you would have to be able to be as firmly on the left as Palin is on the right, and that would mean being pro-choice without apology.

But you can’t really draw direct equivalences, for a couple of reasons. One is that Palin’s main appeal is that she offers herself as proof that a sexist culture’s lies aren’t lies. In a sexist culture, women are expected to be strong yet submissive, maternal yet sexually exciting, sure-footed enough to get all the work that’s put in your lap done, but not intelligent so that you threaten insecure men. Real women basically find these conflicting demands to be impossible to achieve. Sarah Palin draws in her worshippers by implying all you need to be the perfect woman who manages to fit every single male fantasy is to vote Republican. She hides the ugly realities of how she isn’t doing it all, and people gather around her, wishing to believe.

Liberals can’t be fed a fantasy woman because we don’t even agree on what our fantasy is. Many liberals are openly uneasy with feminism, lured by conservative arguments about how women having too much freedom would mean the end of sexual fun for men but the beginning of a sea of dishes and nagging. Many male liberals, particularly in positions of power, are openly made uncomfortable by feminist demands, even when they agree intellectually that women should have rights. (Witness the way that Democratic men in Congress erupted into childish giggling when asked by their female colleagues to listen to a presentation on the economic value of contraception subsidies.)  Even when liberal men can manage not to squirm, many still have a tendency to dismiss “women’s issues” as second-tier concerns, as if half the population were a narrow special interest group, like people who want ferret-owning to be legal in New York City.

Plus, liberals don’t have as many contradictory demands, so we don’t really need fantasies spoon fed to us that these contradictions can be managed. We don’t have a need to believe women can be appealingly stupid yet capable-we’re fine with just plain smart women. We’re not nearly as invested in the idea that our leaders should demonstrate a sexual magnetism that we’re lacking in our own lives . How well a candidate shoots a gun or how productive his or her loins are doesn’t matter as much to us. Politicians like Palin understand that their base is insecure and needing of distracting fantasies, and so it’s just a matter of providing them. But the emotional needs of the liberal base are far harder to sum up and provide with a few photo ops.