October 20, 2016
The Trainwreck Files: Sarah Palin
by Sady Doyle
It’s time for another installment of The Trainwreck Files, in which we ask Sady Doyle, author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… And Why, to pull a name from the headlines, and definitively tell us: are they a trainwreck, and why?
My body gave up on this election before I did. With only weeks left, I have collapsed into a cold that punishes any attempt to move with long, racking, Hillary-Clinton-at-a-stump-speech-level coughing bouts. Unlike Hillary, the only thing I can do while thus infirm is to (a) lie in bed and (b) masochistically Twitter-search the word “Trump” every ten minutes.
It’s hard, covering gender this election year. It has been a thankless, endless slalom of ugly surprises and diminishing expectations, beginning with a variety of otherwise intelligent people insisting gender had nothing to do with the election at all, and ending with the potential President of the United States (a) bragging about sexual assault, and (b) calling the women accusing him of said sexual assault “horrible” liars who are too ugly to deserve his attention. On live TV.
Well, at some point—maybe around the time Donald Trump said he’d scoped out Clinton’s ass at a debate and “wasn’t impressed”—my immune system just said fuck it and quit. So, here I am, coughing up the residue of the single worst year for gender politics I can remember. It’s gotten so bad, these days, that I honestly feel nostalgic for Sarah Palin.
Until 2016, Sarah Palin was the worst political conundrum feminists had ever faced. Palin, herself, was anti-feminist; you can find her today excusing Trump’s sexual assault comments (“as a former sports reporter I’ve heard much worse in locker rooms. I kinda think Hill has too. If not, she needs to close her virgin ears,” etc.) and, as mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, she forced women to pay for their own rape kits. She was, notoriously, so anti-choice that her teenage daughter was pressured to carry her pregnancy to term and marry her high school boyfriend. And, oh, yeah: She’s super racist. Her rhetoric about “real Americans” as John McCain’s VP candidate arguably paved the way for birtherism; this summer, she declared that Black Lives Matter was a “farce” and that its protesters were “thugs” and “evil.”
But, if Palin was the proto-Trump, she also lacked Trump’s most reliable protection: That of Being A Dude. His male privilege allowed him to rise to alarming heights, often without any serious challenge from the media. Palin, no matter how much she played along with the patriarchy, was still female, and thus was treated as a dirty joke pretty much from the moment she stepped onto the national stage.
There were the supposed “Palin bikini pictures.” (They were fakes.) There was the immediate, and extremely popular, porn parody. There was the endless media focus on her looks, her hotness, her past as a pageant queen. There were the conspiracy theories about her uterus — which of her children was truly hers? How many of her daughter’s pregnancies had she covered up? She was a politician, albeit a malevolent one, but we turned her into just another bimbo.
Of course, Palin was fatally underqualified for the job of Vice President — she was a token pick, intended to inject youth into the campaign of a 71-year-old nominee, and femaleness into a Republican ticket that still thought it might peel off some votes from disgruntled supporters of Hillary Clinton. And, when she gave interviews, her answers did indeed tend to devolve into word salad. No feminist worth her salt thought Palin should get the job.
But even if Palin wasn’t a competent woman, or a kind woman, or a smart woman—even if she was the worst woman in the world, which she increasingly appeared to be—she was still a woman. And the treatment she encountered was still sexist. So, didn’t we have some remaining obligation to her? Shouldn’t we resist the sexism of the coverage, not to help Sarah Palin, but because sexism was always a bad thing?
It was a long, ugly fight. It disrupted all our fantasies of a sisterhood based on female goodness and purity. It revealed, to many of us, the fact that under the right circumstances, we were more than capable of claiming a fellow woman “had it coming.” It forced us to come up with more complicated ways of talking about women in power; to separate opposition to sexism from personal approval of the woman in question, to separate a candidate’s gender from a candidate’s gender politics. That’s why I miss her: Painful as they were, at least we had those conversations. And at least the Republican party still cared enough about women to make a token out of one, rather than just stuffing rape culture into a suit and letting it run for office.
Not that this helped Palin any. Nowadays, she exists on the vaguely laughable fringe where all the bimbos go when we’ve used them up: A reality-TV star, the author of a few controversial Facebook posts, a nostalgic reference point from an era that happened about five minutes ago, who, even when she shows up on television again, looks somehow automatically faded and sepia-toned. Awful as she was, Palin got the full trainwreck treatment, with the familiar trainwreck end point of obscurity and invisibility. And to think, when she first showed up, we thought this couldn’t get any worse.
Verdict: Trainwreck, and a historically inconvenient one at that.
Sady Doyle founded the blog Tiger Beatdown in 2008. Her work has appeared in In These Times, The Guardian, Elle.com, The Atlantic, Slate, Buzzfeed, Rookie, and lots of other places around the Internet. Her first book, Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear... And Why is out now from Melville House.