Sunday, September 28, 2008

Sarah Palin: How female politicians can't win

Female politicians suffer whichever way they play it. Hilary Clinton was dissed for being too masculine:

many of Hillary's attributes—toughness, control, emotional distance—are qualities that are sometimes admired in men but almost never in women.

And not a true female candidate. Yet Sarah Palin is suffering the opposite - the fact she acts like a woman is letting her down.

Palin was called to stand down by a conservative candidate after the latest in a line of 'media roasting'[s].

You can watch the offending interview with Katie Couric below:

Among the comments below the Youtube clip are this one by jlifegivingdeath:

I've seen rocks with more intelligence then Sarah Palin.

I don't agree. She doesn't sound dumb, just appallingly ill informed. And her interview responses on this and a previous clip explain why.

This is a lady from outside an urban elite who regularly travel outside America. This isn't unusual - as a Brit, I never travelled beyond France, Germany and Holland until I reached 21, and I still haven't set foot outside of Europe. If I had five children, I probably wouldn't before I reached Sarah Palin's age. If I were American, I doubt I would have a passport - America is far bigger than Europe. In contrast, my BF, who comes from an upper middle-class family, has been to South Africa, Singapore, America, etc.

Palin will not be alone among American voters in thinking what is outside of America is moderately unimportant. They too won't think there is anything wrong in suggesting that, as someone whose state borders a foreign country, this makes her better able to understand foreign policy than a former governor of Kansas. To a European, it sounds ridiculous. It's like a Councillor for Dover thinking they have a better grasp of foreign policy than someone from Derbyshire. Although her response sounds stupid to media commentators in New York and Europeans, I can imagine many small-town American voters were nodding their head in agreement.

So what has this to do with feminism? Well, a guy would have got away far better with being clueless than she did. Palin knew she was clueless and was flustered. Men in this position start attacking and, interestingly, this can cover up their ignorance to listeners who don't quite grasp what's going on. It can also shut-down an interviewer who is equally clueless. I suspect Couric was clueless because, faced with someone floundering like that during a hostile interview, I would have gone off-script and in for the kill. Couric didn't. I am sure Paxman could have reduced Palin to tears.

A clueless man, faced with the Kissinger question, wouldn't have floundered through it and been shown up as an idiot. He would have started attacking:

"I don't think Kissinger has much bearing on the foreign policy issues America faces today. He had his finger on the pulse of the situation, but times have changed. Given with the realities of the situation we face, it would be ridiculous and naive to suggest that..."

An unconfident interviewer will flounder under this sort of attack, giving an audience the impression that they are embarrassed to be shown up as holding truly heretical views. The guy would sound like he had authority, despite being equally at sea. In contrast, Palin showed her lack of confidence and became defensive. She looked clueless, even to an equally ignorant or unattentive audience.

So why do women sound like they lack authority? Women are dissed for being too masculine or aggressive, and praised for compliant and typically female behaviours. They get more attention from guys if their voice goes up an octave and they listen attentively while he mouths off. They are encouraged to seek approval and not power, and try to make others feel at ease by being open about their lack of confidence. This is great if you're trying to pull a bloke, but less good if you're attempting to be a professional politician.

Training aimed at encouraging women into politics is designed to help women adopt more masculine behaviours. Women are taught that men feel equally unconfident, but bluff through it rather than openly discussing it with others. Women are also taught that, however rude it feels to them, they have to shout over other people, interrupt and go on the offensive.

Of course, it's all a balancing act. Pull the aggressive trick too much and you start being attacked for being a non-woman or receive homophobic abuse. Women have a huge balancing act to do - they need to be attractive and feminine, while somehow not displaying any typically female traits. Men can be ugly and as aggressive as they want.

I think Sarah Palin represents the culture and views of a large number of poorer Americans, who may leave America once in a lifetime, if that. Many of those Americans believe 'foreign' is Alaska and New York. This is bad for Europe and the world, and I don't want McCain to win, but it is important that these people be represented.

In order to represent them better, Sarah Palin needs to act more like Clinton. She doesn't need to be a Mastermind candidate on the topic of Israel (does an encyclopedic knowledge of any topic make you qualified to lead?) She does need to be better briefed, and more prepared to cover up the gaps with a stronger, more forceful approach. Many male politicians get away with being entirely clueless much of the time. No one can be made to feel like an idiot without their consent.


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