No Angel: Second Thoughts on Sarah Palin

East Lansing, MI. Mark Mitchell’s brief essay on Sarah Palin reminded me of a Treasonous Clerk installment I wrote back in November, contemplating the significance of Palin’s persona for American politics and culture.  Though an instinctive admirer of Palin’s populist attributes, much as Mitchell does, I then was troubled by the nomination of a married mother of five to the nominally second-highest office in the land insofar as she was nominated thus specifically as an avatar of the conservative defense of the family.  At first glance, it appeared that her candidacy for a public office was intended to protect or, rather, to re-establish appropriate reverence to the private-realm roles of women as wives and mothers.  The situational irony was greater than in those television advertisements that instruct us to do something other than watch television, such as talk to our children.

Upon reflection, of course, it became clear that Palin did symbolize an American conception of the family but not a truly conservative or traditional one.  She represented adequately a rightly insecure, inexorably conflicted, and definitively American, vision of womanhood widespread today: the woman who can be wife, mother, and wage slave, who can “balance” maternal and job-market authority without apparent sacrifice.  I observed then,

Palin represents very closely the kind of life a broad swath of Americans live or would like to live. Her attractive smile, husband and five children, dual-income household, indefatigable community service that emerged from her role as a mother (PTA, Mayor, and then, not quite seamlessly, Governor), mirror what a great number of American women want. Her expressed femininity, instinctive pro-life stance, no less instinctive opposition to homosexual “marriage,” and blithe belief that almost anyone could enter the upper reaches of the middle class if government got out of the way, all comports well with the core convictions of most suburban and rural Americans.

The word “core” I use advisedly, for Palin symbolizes a contradiction at the core of contemporary American life. Many of us want to believe that dual-income families are not a necessity brought on by an unstable service-and-finance economy (one which, in turn, contributes to that instability), but the advent of greater individual freedom; that a mother can work long hours outside the home without compromising the bonds of love and dependency in the home; that marital and sexual choices are mostly private, but that social stability can best be maintained if we minimize the challenges to the nuclear family as the privileged economic (rather than political) unit. Above all, many of us want to believe that, so long as that privileging of the nuclear family remains in fact, all kinds of behavior are legitimate personal choices, by which we really mean they are equally legitimate and morally indifferent consumer choices. We want the home of the nuclear family preserved as a site for consumption but not as a good whose preservation requires routine sacrifice. We want to be able to “have it all,” as the phrase goes, to make choices between various consumer items all of which eventually can be had. “I’ll have a quick lunch today so I can go browse at The Gap” is, in this scheme, little different from “I’ll have my two kids without delaying (much) my career.”

What we do notwant to be reminded of is that most choices are not consumer choices: they are not between various commensurable goods that we may elect in succession and without sacrifice. On that score, it matters little that those hard-working journalists uncovered photographs of a young Palin as a Beauty-Queen-also-ran; it matters much that she remains attractive after having had five children. She demonstrates that one can have children and not look as if one had five children; one can reap all the benefits of the body without compromising the body’s fitness to consume and consume again, to reap and reap, to choose and choose without having to make irrevocable decisions. Nothing determines you, Baby! So feel free to refashion yourself according to your latest desires.

Page 1 of 4 | Next page