Sarah Palin won’t go away. Despite having very little political or scholarly clout, Sarah Palin is still somehow a very prominent figure. After being a part of the losing 2008 Presidential ticket, Palin has not had any serious political involvement. Instead, she has given up her seat as Governor of Alaska, starred in her own reality TV show, made critical comments against President Obama, Chris Christie, and the Pope, and, most recently, written a book about Christmas. Since Palin does not hold political office or play a large role in any public sphere, the question of the day is this: why is she still around? The answer to that is simple: the media loves to cover her and the people love to hear about her. She has become an entertainment, even a joke. This leads to an even better question: how did she turn into a joke to so many people when originally people were very excited about her? The answer to this question is also simple: media and society are increasingly portraying women as sex objects and nothing more. Sexual objectification is the underlying reason why people stopped taking Sarah Palin seriously during the 2008 campaign and why they still do not take her seriously. This sexual objectification is also a contributing factor to the loss that the McCain/Palin ticket experienced in 2008.
Women experience many double standards throughout life. Female political candidates are no different. In campaigns, female candidates are subjected to a different and harsher type of critique. Female candidates need to exhibit both feminine and masculine qualities, take care of their families, and be appealing, all at the same time. In their article, “Sexualizing Sarah Palin: The Social and Political Context of the Sexual Objectification of Female Candidates,” Caroline Heldman and Lisa Wade discuss how society’s and media’s objectification of women has hindered female success in the political sphere. They discuss in length others’ research on sexual objectification, media’s impact on society, the normalization of female degradation, and women in politics.
Heldman and Wade discuss the Objectification Theory to explain the increased normalization of women being seen and treated as sex objects and third wave feminism to explain how women can contribute to this normalization. The Objectification Theory is the idea that a large amount of emphasis is put on women’s appearance, which “leads them to internalize observers’ perspectives and chronically monitor themselves in terms of how others would evaluate their appearance.” The Objectification Theory discusses not just a woman’s objectification of herself, but others objectification of her as well. Third wave feminism is a branch of feminism that view sexuality and sexual objectification as a source of power. This type of feminism has led into a “girl culture,” which is the idea that women can be empowered through “girly” things such as high heels, clothes, make up, etc.
The media is the main perpetrator in the projection of women as sexual objects. Since advertisements have increased exponentially over the past few decades, advertisers have to use shock value to get consumers to pay attention to their ads. Sexually explicit content has proved to have the most highly effective shock value, so advertisers are utilizing that tactic in order to have successful ads. The type of sexually explicit content we see today includes objectifying and degrading women, violence against women, and borderline pornographic content. These ads have become normalized and expected in today’s society whereas in the early 1990s (shortly after the women’s movement of the 1970s) surveys show that people were highly offended by this type of content. Pornography is also becoming more normalized and accepted, which also contributes to society’s viewing of women as sex objects.
Female political candidates are not immune to this objectification—in fact, they are some of the biggest targets, both by the media and by society. Despite the success of the women’s movement in the 1970s, voter bias against female candidates has increased since the turn of the century. A considerable group of people view women as less suited for politics than men. These societal beliefs are reflected in the amount of women in politics. The growth of women in politics has slowed, leveled off, and even reversed within the past decade. In 2010, women experienced a loss of seats in Congress for the first time since 1970 and the number of women involved in state legislators has leveled off since the late 1990s.
The media has played a large and detrimental role in this reversal of female political involvement, not just in advertisements and entertainment, but in its reporting coverage as well. By focusing on the “first woman” frame instead of actual policy issues, the media does a great disservice to female candidates and diminishes their seriousness, thus leading the public to view them less favorably. The media also objectifies female candidates differently and more harshly than male candidates, which proves to be a barrier for females working to obtain political office. Studies show that the media covers the appearance and attire of female candidates much more than male candidates and this coverage is more “intense” and “negative.”
In the case of Sarah Palin, Heldman and Wade argue that she is the most sexually objectified female candidate to date. This is partially due to her attractiveness and partially due to society’s recent increase in objectifying women. During her run for Vice President, 14 percent of Palin’s coverage pertained to her appearance. She was referred to as the following: Caribou Barbie, Malibu Barbie, Presidential Barbie, Winking Wonderwoman of Wasilla, a national obsession, and the stereotypical hot librarian, to name a few. The media’s objectification of Palin led the public to perceive her as “less competent, warm, and moral—even less human” and arguably played a large role in the failure of the McCain/Palin ticket.
While the media’s objectification of Palin and society’s acceptance of it largely contributed to society not taking Palin seriously, the former VP candidate must also take some blame. Sarah Palin has made a series of questionable decisions since McCain chose her as his VP, as stated in the introductory paragraph of this post. Instead of starring in her own reality show, Sarah Palin could have stayed on as the Governor of Alaska. Rather than making incendiary comments about other public figures and sensitive political issues, Palin could have taken on important issues such as special education and created an agenda. The media has objectified Palin, but she has done very little to combat that objectification.