What hits you in real time in a debate is not necessarily what you carry with you the following day. I noticed John McCain's smirking refusal to look at Barack Obama -- to credit his existence as an equal competitor -- during the first Presidential debate, but it was not until the next morning that I realized that it was the image that now appeared when I thought about the debate, and that it was weird.
Somethink similar happened with last night's debate. The image that comes the mind when I think of the debate is not the catch in Joe Biden's throat as he recalled the death of his wife and daughter and near-death of his two sons. It it not Sarah Palin's robo-killer reaction to that moment of emotion. It is not her "Say it ain't so, Joe," nor -- as I would have predicted -- her announcing that she didn't feel any responsibility to answer questions.
No -- it's her winking at the camera.
I thought it was weird at the time. Now I think it's even weirder than I thought.
In Tina Fey's first SNL spoof of Palin, she had one move that I thought was hilarious but unfair. While Amy Poehler, as Hillary Clinton, was talking, Fey's Palin upstaged her, at one point miming a model from a gun magazine or calendar, loading a rifle and then striking a sexy pose with it. It was not "funny because it was true"; it was funny because it was an absurd caricature.
Last night, reality caught up to parody.
I spent a bit of time last night and today arguing with people here about Sarah Palin's actions and men's reactions to them. It is difficult even to start from the same fundamental assumption. I think -- and I think that most men, at least, outside this site would agree -- that Sarah Palin is a very attractive woman. (Her appearance actually reminds me more of Gloria Steinem or Barbara ("Agent 99") Feldon than of Tina Fey, but these are all women ranging from attractive to downright beautiful.) A lot of people won't grant even the initial point, which makes analysis of what she is doing and what effect she is having difficult.
So: I will acknowledge that it is possible to find ugly photos of Sarah Palin. I will acknowledge that perfectly reasonable people who are sexually or aesthetically attracted to women may not find her to their taste. I will acknowledge that she is one ugly person on the inside, that her use of feminine wiles is unattractive, that her speaking voice grates, that her Bush-like viciousness and studied contempt for knowledge undermines any beauty, and various other critiques.
But folks -- if you will not admit that Sarah Palin is a physically attractive woman, you can't even get to step 1 of analyzing her impact. Her success is predicated on her being an attractive women. She was a freaking beauty pageant winner and a state runner-up. It is a big part of why she was chosen for the ticket! Her political success has come from flashing big smiles, mostly at men, and later stabbing them in the back.
Some people will say "well, I don't find her physically attractive." That's fine. But recognize that many, many, many men do. So once we accept that she has got stuff, let's look at what she does with it.
Two days ago, I might well have troll-rated someone for posting a diary saying what I'm saying right now, but I don't think one can avoid it anymore. Sarah Palin was blatantly using her sexuality last night to suggest a come-on to male voters. Note: I do not say "coming on to them." I mean suggesting or miming a come-on.
I have thought back to see whether I can think of this ever happening before with any woman's political campaign other than La Cicciolina in Italy -- who admittedly took it further -- and I can't think of one. There have been plenty of attractive women politicians in the past -- some that people might call handsome and some that they might call beautiful -- and I cannot remember a single one of them using a spokesmodel's technique of appealing to an audience even to the point of repeatedly winking at them.
This doesn't mean that women -- like men -- are not aware of their attractiveness and use it to their advantage. But among women -- and usually among men -- it is always done in a certain way: look good and let the good looks speak for themselves. Never, ever, have I seen a female politician turn herself into a coquette for the camera.
This is why I think that comments like the ones Markos made about Rick Lowry's column are misplaced. Many readers -- check out the comments in the above story -- construe Rick Lowry to have been saying, in essence, that Sarah Palin was giving him an erection as she spoke, even jumping on the phrase "sat up a little straighter on the couch" as some sort of proof. No, that is not what he was saying, and it's important to understand the difference.
What Lowry was describing was an almost involuntary reaction that many (I'd say most, if not virtually all) heterosexual men have when an attractive woman interacts with them in a certain way: the realization that one is in a sexualized situation.
Now look -- Lowry knew that this was on TV, that Sarah Palin was not winking at him directly, etc. Consciously, he knew that. But what a television spokesmodel learns is how to give viewers that feeling. It is what gives them a frisson, what brings them back. But the fact that something is happening on TV and not aimed at you personally is something that our emotional reactions often look past -- even if they are fiction, as this was not. We see the strangler coming up behind the victim and we feel sympathetic fear. We see the mother clutching the lifeless body of her child, we feel sympathetic grief. We see the vigilante coming after the murderer, we feel sympathetic anger. We see the murderer killed just before he can strike again, we feel sympathetic relief and/or exultation.
What Lowry was saying in that piece is that he knew -- quite against his expectations -- that suddenly he was in a different sort of emotional situation than the one he had expected. He was experiencing what a man expriences when an attractive woman comes onto him. His reaction was not "real," but a simulation. He was not going to call her up and ask for a private meeting; he was not going to cheat on his wife with her. It was just an unexpected feeling -- and a pleasant one.
And that is why Sarah Palin did it.
And our questions are: why, and how do we feel about that?
The best word I've seen for what Sarah Palin was being last night is a coquette. It's a bit of an old-fashioned word and I don't know if all readers are familiar with it, but the link takes you to these definiions:
a seductive woman who uses her sex appeal to exploit men
chat up: talk or behave amorously, without serious intentions
What Rick Lowry has done -- and we should thank him for it -- is to let us stipulate without fear of contradiction that what Sarah Palin was doing last night was being a coquette. Men knew it and (unless already inured to her charms) enjoyed it -- as we do with the flirtatious pretty waitress or ticket agent with whom we have no intention of any actial involvement. (Why do waitresses flirt? They believe it leads to better tips. There was a wonderful "This American Life" episode that I don't have time to find now that tested this: it turns out not to be true.) Women, on the other hand, saw it and disapproved -- and will continue to disapprove the more they are reminded of it. The gender gap at those points in the debate when she was most the coquette were huge.
So let's thank Rick Lowry for explaining what the likes of a burbling Roger Simon were obviously thinking last night without being quite so specific: a primal response of "a pretty woman flirted with me." That is what Sarah Palin chose to convey emotionally in her debate.
Don't men do this too?
Absolutely. George W. Bush's flight suit was all about a blatant (and, to a man with more self-consciousness, embarrassing) appeal to women's aesthetics, something that Ann Coulter and G. Gordon Liddy (believe it or not) stress for those of us who didn't get it. Bill Clinton used his seductive personality and good looks to connect with voters, thourh nevcer so blatantly. So did JFK.
So, to some extent, the criticism of Sarah Palin for using her sexuality in this way is a bit unfair – men do it too. But all of these examples except Bush's flight suit at least have some subtlety and ambiguity about them – something I don't take lightly. (After all, plausible deniability of sexual tension in public situations is a good thing – it helps keep them from getting out of hand.) But none of these men – again, with the possible exception of Bush – ever made out like a Chippendale dancer or Lothario in his public appearances. So I still consider Palin's demeanor to be almost without precedent.
So where do we go from here?
I think that Sarah Palin made a huge mistake yesterday – a huge mistake. Men see a lot of pretty women on TV. We get over the thrill of seeing any particular one fairly quickly. But women tend to be attentive to improper displays of sexuality – and I submit that they remember them a lot longer than men do, and are far more unforgiving than men are titillated.
So I say that – on every show that women watch – Obama (or perhaps a bright 527) should have video of Palin working the camera: flirting, pouting, smiling with shining eyes, and winking. These ads should be aimed, manifestly, at her qualifications for office. But they should send a strong subliminal message as well: "this woman went on TV and tried to vamp your man – and your man liked it." (Throw in some footage of Roger Simon drooling like a moon-eyed teenager as well.)
It was Sarah Palin's choice to discard her dignity so as to try to connect with men at the level of the lizard brain. Now it is our turn to figure out how to respond to it.
Play it right, and the results will not be pretty.