The XX Factor

Was the Treatment of Sarah Palin in That “Vanity Fair” Article Sexist?

Despite the fact that writer Michael Joseph Gross could not get anyone close to Sarah Palin to talk to him, he went ahead with this story in the latest issue of Vanity Fair , which depicts the former Alaska governor as “a closed book and a constant noisemaker,” someone with a hairtrigger temper whose relationship with the truth is iffy. Gross does a good job of pointing out Palin’s various dishonesties. She tells an audience that before she had her son Trig, who has Down syndrome, “I had never really been around a baby with special needs.” This is a lie. Gross points out that Palin has an autistic nephew, which she discusses in her book, Going Rogue .

But I find the opening anecdote about Palin’s young daughter Piper troubling. Gross depicts Piper backstage at a speech her mother is giving in Independence, Mo. Piper is playing with the other kids, like any normal child, “until she gets the signal to do her job: march to the podium, pick up Palin’s speech, and allow Palin to make a public display of maternal affection. On cue, Piper parts the curtain. As the child appears, a loud and doting ‘Awww’ melts through the crowd.”

While I don’t agree with the way Palin uses her children as political props, I also don’t like the underhanded way Gross uses Palin’s motherhood to indict her character. It’s not just the opening anecdote that rankled. He writes:

[A]t least since the start of the 2008 campaign, Todd has been shouldering the bulk of the parenting and … Sarah’s relationship with her children has grown more distant. The children did not, as Sarah has claimed, have a chance to weigh in on her decision to run for vice president. She did not even deliver the news to them personally; as has been reported, she asked McCain’s campaign manager, Steve Schmidt, to do it for her. Todd reportedly told Sarah that, if the children spent too much time on the campaign trail, they would pay a price: grades would tumble and discipline would fall apart. When she agreed to serve as McCain’s running mate, one of her children was already failing in school, according to campaign aides. But Sarah, these aides say, seemed comforted by having the children around, and she seemed lonely when they were gone. An aide overheard conversations between Sarah and Todd in which Sarah tried to make a self-serving argument sound selfless, holding that the campaign was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, one that she could not deny the children. ‘I don’t care what it costs,’ she said. ‘I want them here.’ Although the couple hired a nanny to help the children with their homework, little homework got done.

I would wager that Michelle Obama has “shouldered the bulk of the parenting” since the start of the 2008 campaign as well, and yet, this is pretty much never mentioned in an article about the president. I’d wager that Cindy McCain has been doing the bulk of the parenting in her household, well, forever, as her husband spends much of his time in Washington while Cindy remains in Arizona. I applaud Gross for calling Sarah Palin out on her endless fibbing. But don’t use the fact that she has an egalitarian household to make her look like a bad mother.