Conference Presentation

I thought I’d go ahead and post it since it wasn’t a full paper:

The Ball Breaker and the Hockey Mom:

News Coverage of the 2008 U.S. Presidential Election as Gendered Spectacle

The 2008 U.S. presidential election was notable for many reasons, such as the election of the first African American as president. Of course, now-Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin were also significant for the election news cycle last year, as the first viable female candidate for president and only the second female candidate for vice-president. This fact was often repeated on the 24-hour cable news channels, but instead of substantive reflection upon each woman’s policy positions or the actual significance of women candidates for the highest political offices in the U.S., viewers were fed repetitious images and sound bites from Clinton and Palin that redirected audience attention away from policy and onto each woman’s personalities and appearance, gendering the coverage of these women in ways different from the news channels’ attention to other candidates.

Due to the incessant focus on 24-hour news channels on the trivial attributes of Clinton and Palin’s physical appearance and emotional demeanors as they campaigned as candidates for national office, this presentation will trace the ways in which Hilary Clinton and Sarah Palin functioned as gendered spectacles in news coverage of their candidacies during the 2008 U.S. presidential election. That is, news stories about Clinton and Palin that were distinctly gendered, such as stories on Clinton’s supposedly brusque personality or Palin’s role as a mother and as a politician, construct a spectacle that diminishes each woman as a political candidate while reinforcing the subordinate status of women overall. More importantly, although the reinforcement of proper performances of femininity through these news representations of Clinton and Palin is in and of itself significant, this presentation will further argue these portrayals of powerful women serves the goals of the nation-state within the unstable era of globalization through the perpetuation of the trope of woman as protector and fierce mother-figure of the nation, even as the boundaries of the nation are unraveled through the workings of global capital. Having said that, I will use two specific moments within the news trajectory in 2008 concerning these two women to make my argument: Hilary Clinton’s address to reporters after her defeat in New Hampshire where she appeared to choke up and get emotional and Sarah Palin’s persistent self-description as a hockey mom, or a “pit bull with lipstick.”

First, we have the image repeated again and again of Clinton, sitting after a primary defeat when an audience member asks her how she “keeps so upbeat and so wonderful.” Clinton appears to choke up as she says, “I have so many opportunities from this country, I just don’t want to see us fall backwards.” Reaction in the media to this exchange represents an overhang of the distrust that surrounded Hilary and her husband after the Clinton presidency; the emotion she may or may not have let slip out was questioned for its authenticity and many said it may have been a ploy to mobilize female voters. Left out of the analysis was the concern she expressed for the state of the nation after the Bush administration, her deft grasp and ability to provide nuanced discussions of public policy, and her professed passion for working as a public servant. Instead, news commentators focused on whether or not an emotional woman could serve as Commander in Chief, even though Clinton was often criticized in the media for being overly assertive and under-emotional.

Then, we have Sarah Palin and her signature joke, famously satirized in the Saturday Night Live skit, where she describes herself through the quip that the only difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull was lipstick. This joke came to encapsulate Palin’s persona in the media: an attractive, feminine yet tough, outdoorsy, straight-talking mom of five children from the wild, untamed frontier of Alaska. To be sure, this short little phrase could be seen as a metaphor for Palin’s general lack of substance and depth; over time, she relied on short pithy responses to questions and demonstrated an inability to answer even the simplest question with any proficiency. Her candidacy and her stump speeches relied on catch-phrases and witty comebacks and zingers that more often then not defied factual accuracy. This did not seem to matter, however; Palin’s position as a mother of five, including a newborn with special needs, and her physical attractiveness seemed to deflect any criticism, however well-founded.

Overall, we see captured in these two episodes attributes of idealized femininity, where the fertile, beautiful, and protective mother is valued over the brainy, wonkish, and assertive working woman. The repetitious nature of the 24-hour news cycle ignores the actual issues at hand in the presidential election- the impending financial crisis, a war on two fronts, and numerous domestic issues- to instead reinforce again and again these scripts of femininity, letting women know with no uncertainty how to properly perform as a heterosexual woman in American society.

This misdirection serves a dual purpose, both of which can be seen to serve the interests of the nation-state: first, to draw audience attention away from and deflect any critical exploration of the pressing issues of the time, many of which are a result of globalization, and second, to discipline audiences, and women specifically, into their proper roles as citizens of the nation-state. Put another way, frivolous coverage of Clinton and Palin subdues and entertains news audiences, filling the broadcast “news hole” repetitiously with trivial information and images that do not empower U.S. citizens to make decisions in the voting booth as members of a healthy, functioning democracy. Instead, we see the figure of the strong, smart, savvy woman participating and negotiating through the public sphere, embodied by Hilary Clinton, diminished in favor Sarah Palin, the aggressive, fertile mother.

It is no coincidence, then, that Palin came out swinging on the campaign trail, unabashedly advocating for what can only be regarded as the neo-imperial and staid militarism of U.S. foreign policy. The pitbull with lipstick was also criticized by the left-leaning blogosphere for her thinly-veiled racist rhetoric against the Democratic nominee, Barack Obama, that seemed to be embraced by the white conservatives of the Republican party who gravitated towards her fundamentalist Christian background. By election night last year, Palin very nearly manifested Mother Nation both in her fierce defense of U.S. exceptionalism on the campaign trail and in her daily life as a proud mother of five.

In conclusion, we see the reinforcement of idealized femininity from the gendered spectacle of news coverage of Hilary Clinton and Sarah Palin during the U.S. presidential election of 2008. This spectacle holds particular salience when considered within the context of globalization and the reconfiguration of national borders due to the workings of global capital and the role of the mass media in these processes. The maintenance of gender regimes, particularly through the control of a woman’s reproductive capabilities, is key to the perpetuation of the nation-state, even as the autonomy of the nation-state is eroded and reworked in globalization. As such, the mass media’s role in circulating the social imaginary in globalization, for example, in the disciplining reinforcement of proper gender roles in representations of Hilary Clinton and Sarah Palin as political candidates, can be seen as part and parcel of the processes of globalization that simultaneously unsettle dominant ideologies and affirm them.




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