Jane Marcellus

(WOMENSENEWS)–I know the V.P. debate is an old story already, given the billions more in bad financial and economic news we’ve had since then, topped off by a new face-off between the two ticket-toppers, Barack Obama and John McCain Tuesday night.

But I keep thinking about the Palin-Biden face-off. I watched it at a hotel bar in Seattle, where I was attending an academic conference. Some of us slipped up to the top floor where we could see Sarah Palin and Joe Biden on a big screen over good ales and margaritas.

Certainly, we felt guilty about it; we were missing a major speaker and a fundraising auction to help students. But who could resist? After all, if it was anything like the Charles Gibson and Katie Couric interviews, it promised to be funnier than a Tina Fey skit.

Of course, we told ourselves we watched because the election is important, but get real: We watched because we wanted her to fail. We wanted to watch her fail. What better place than the Roman Colosseum of modern times–a bar with a good TV?

I admit it. I wanted her to fail.

I am a feminist researcher. I write about historical stereotypes of women in the workplace, am not usually afraid to speak up about what I think and I still have my handwritten notes from the first women’s studies course I ever took, circa 1978.

Still, I wanted this woman, Sarah Palin, to fail.

Buoyed by Triumphant Hillary

It’s been almost two months since John McCain named Palin as his running mate, upstaging Hillary Clinton’s triumph-even-in-failure at the Democratic National Convention. As that convention ended, we were buoyed by the image of the Woman Who Almost Made It, who won respect not because she was female but because she was brilliant, who stood on the stage with her daughter and symbolized the power of mothers and daughters everywhere, talking about glass ceilings cracked if not yet shattered.

So it’s pretty natural that we would be angry that Hillary was superseded on the national stage by an unknown self-proclaimed “hockey mom” who opposed abortion rights and wore her hair in a 1950s poof.

Did McCain honestly think he’d get Hillary voters with just any woman, we asked. As one button seen around Nashville put it, “Yes, he does think we’re that stupid.”

Granted, we were sideswiped. Because of that, we’ve been missing the point.

About halfway through the debate, I took advantage of my back-row seat in the bar and took in the whole scene. Gathered at the front, half a dozen big, loud, drunk guys guffawed at Palin’s every hesitation, roared at her every wink and cheered on their guy (Biden) in triumph. Their girlfriends sat by in quiet agreement.

Switching Stories

What’s wrong with this picture? Is no one concerned with how easily we replaced the story about the powerful, brilliant woman with the safer, more familiar one about the ditzy airhead, and more important, how that happened?

Within days of Hillary’s speech we had a woman on a major presidential ticket whose family life we could compare to Brittany Spears’. And we did. (You heard, right, that the baby may be her daughter’s?) It’s a paradox that John McCain would bring the American people this scenario, given that earlier in the summer he compared Barack Obama to Paris Hilton.

What has happened here?

I don’t claim to have it figured out. I don’t entirely blame “the media,” because as cultural studies theorists tell us, media and culture are as interconnected as beehive ‘dos and hairspray.

But part of my academic research has dealt with how media in the 1920s–another time when women were gaining power–portrayed us in a way that reinforced domestic roles.

Recycled Media Images

It’s a recurring cycle that happened most famously 20 years later when Rosie the Riveter was sent back to the kitchen by magazine and newspaper articles urging women to quit their jobs and be housewives, never mind that most “Rosies” didn’t have that economic choice.

I call this process “symbolic echo” because it’s happened before, and it’s happening again. If the image of a woman willing to be an “office wife” (a term for secretaries that originated in the 1920s) replaces the image of one like Hillary, maybe those ceiling cracks can be repaired, because we all become not Hillarys, but Sarahs. And if she is the object of ridicule, then all women, by extension, are ridiculed. As most women in the workplace know, nothing is as insidious and disempowering as ridicule.

Tina Fey of “Saturday Night Live” is a scream, but we have to sober up.

I don’t agree with Palin’s politics, but I do respect her. After all, she’s managed to live the feminist dream, even if she’s not one. She’s governor of a large state, has a husband who’s clearly willing to do more than “help,” a brother who teaches third grade.

All in all, as a feminist I can salute all that, even if I wouldn’t vote for her.

Jane Marcellus is an associate professor of journalism at Middle Tennessee State University, where she teaches media history, qualitative research methods and feature writing. She earned her Ph.D. at the University of Oregon.

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