Things are getting out of hand. There’s even a call for papers on Sarah Palin, together with a definitive Lacanian analysis by the current Pope (Jacques-Alain Miller, Lacan’s son-in-law) and a typically cretinous and self-congratulatory effusion by Camille Paglia, who has never met a butch woman, or for that matter a misogynistic woman, whom she didn’t swoon over.
I’ve already written more than enough about Palin; I don’t have the desire (or maybe I just don’t have the stomach) to engage in further analysis here. I just want to note that the problem I have with all these accounts (and even with infinite thought’s far more thoughtful response) is that they all take the question of gender, or of the construction of femininity, or of sexual difference, as being far more central to the situation than I think it actually is.
Of course it is true that McCain chose Palin largely on account of her gender; and that her affective effect upon “the American people” (an entity that I do not believe actually exists, but that I am using, in scare quotes, for convenience here), is rooted in her gendered (and explicitly marked as gendered) performativity.
But to redefine the election in terms of some analysis of how Palin reconfigures the essential figure of Woman seems to me entirely to be missing the specificity of what is happening in this election. There is little to choose here between Miller, who says that Palin “knows that the phallus is only a semblance and, furthermore, one not to be taken seriously: it is the de-complexified femininity”, and Paglia, for whom Palin represents the “robust and hearty” femininity, and a “can-do, no-excuses, moose-hunting feminism”, that supposedly existed in American frontier society before it was spoiled by the “whining, sniping, wearily ironic mode of the establishment feminism” of the last thirty years.
Such analyses transform the socially and historically conditioned gender relations that are at work in American society today into transcendent and trans-historical structures. They blithely ignore the ways that Palin’s media persona (the “hockey mom” entirely dedicated to Family who is also the ferocious “pitbull” or “barracuda”) could never have been imagined in another time and place, because it is so closely tied to the economic situation of American middle-class families today (in which the necessity for both parents to work subsists uneasily alongside the still unequal distribution of household and child-raising chores), to the ways that the feminist movement of the 1960s and after, together with the “sexual revolution” of the same era, the explosion in technologies of contraception, etc., have radically restructured gender conceptions and roles even among the most “conservative” and familialist sectors of the population, to the revival of fundamentalist Christianity in the last forty years on an entirely new basis (which is inseparable from the latest technologies of business and marketing, so that it has has very little in common with any sort of “old-time religion”), to the reconfiguration of shopping and consumption in our post-Fordist era (e.g. the new kinds of malls and the ubiquity of chains like Walmart, Target, etc., without which “hockey moms” could not possibly exist), to the ways that race has been reconfigured in post-civil-rights American (something that is, of course, essential to Obama’s image as well), and so on almost ad infinitum.
Any consideration of gender roles and positions aside from all these factors (and many more) simply misses the mark. Palin has not substituted plenitude for lack, or “physical fortitude and indomitable spirit” (Paglia) for wimpy, shrill, “politically correct” feminism. Rather, she is a phenomenon of the contemporary mediascape in which such binary oppositions are meaningless and pointless. Both the excitement she has generated (as a super-Mom who can do it all) and the disdain she has attracted (with bourgie liberals openly, and old-style country club conservatives more circumspectly, looking down on her as “white trash”), need to be understood, rather, in terms of communicative capitalism and its relentless premediations.
If Palin embodies any sort of plenitude, it is that of the commodity economy, rather than that of an economy of gender. Palin was (quite brilliantly) chosen by McCain because — like any successful commodity product in the postmodern marketplace — she embodies what Alex Shakar, in his novel The Savage Girl, calls a paradessence: a “paradoxical essence,” a conjunction of contradictory qualities. “Every product has this paradoxical essence. Two opposing desires that it can promise to satisfy simultaneously.” The paradessence is the “schismatic core, [the] broken soul, at the center of every product.” Thus coffee promises both “stimulation and relaxation”; ice cream connotes both “eroticism and innocence,” or (in more psychoanalytic terms) both “semen and motherâ€™s milk.” The paradessence is not a dialectical contradiction; its opposing terms do not interact, conflict, or produce some higher synthesis. Rather, the paradessence affirms everything indiscriminately; it is a matter of â€œhaving everything both ways and every way and getting everything [one] wants” (from pp 60-61 and 179).
Palin is a paradessence, and hence a wildly popular commodity, because she combines the family-centeredness of the ideal suburban Mom with the ruthlessness of a corporate “warrior” in the dog-eat-dog neoliberal economy, or of a hard-core ideologue/foot soldier for the Far Right. She is sort of a perfect combination of June Cleaver and Ilse Koch. She both energizes the GOP’s fundamentalist-Christian base (which was previously very suspicious of McCain), and appeals to non-fundamentalist, independent white voters (who find her even more charismatic than Obama — with the added advantage that she’s white, to boot). It is probable that, given how gender formations work in America today, so powerful a paradessence would have to appear in the form of a woman, rather than a (heterosexual) man. But the most valid categories for comprehending Palin remain those of media theory and political economy, rather than those of the metaphysics of gender difference.