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There may be a mathematical proof that addresses the circularity of the Sarah Palin - Newsweek - sexism conundrum

...but I'm not astute enough to know what it is.
Probably because I'm a girl.

But, seriously folks.
This Newsweek cover


is generating tons of controversy. Sarah Palin doesn't much care for it, apparently angered by the same evident sexism rightly criticized by Jullie Millican at Media Matters for America.

The actual photo was taken in a shoot for Runner's World with Palin's full participation. As an art critic, I find it appalling for reasons quite aside from the fact that Palin's femoral epidermis is showing. The pageanty, semi-contrapposto pose actually makes it look like she's hiding one of her legs, the lighting's way too harsh, her elbow resting awkwardly on the flag seems flippant from a patriotism standpoint (using Old Glory as an elbow rest?) as well as physically irrational (she isn't really leaning any weight on it). Also irritating me is that I can't tell what kind of room she's in. is that her office? Why is that flag-draped chair so high? Is it a baby chair? ...Barstool?

Is that Russia through the window?

But let's move on.

Millican also rightly, to my sensibilities, objects to this image inside the news magazine's pages:


Yes, it looks like those boys are looking up her skirt. Yes, that's annoying.

And about the following image

Millican says, "Then, for no apparent reason, illustrating Christopher Hitchens' piece on "Palin's base appeal," Newsweek ran a picture of this disgusting Sarah Palin-as-a-slutty-schoolgirl doll."

Well, it's not for no reason. For one thing, it adorns an essay by Christopher Hitchens, Vanity Fair's louche, intermittently relevant bad boy who also infamously opined last year that women aren't funny. HItchens is nothing if not skilled at generating gender controversy with schoolboyish glee; why not illustrate his point with graphic representation of the childish and puerile?

It's almost funny. Almost.

The whole Newsweek shebang (har) was brought to my attention by my friend Michelle Garcia, journalist and documentary filmmaker.

"What do you make of this?" she Skyped.

My first reaction (keeping in mind that the Current editorial staff had  a lunch meeting with some of our company suits about driving traffic to the website, so eyeball currency was very much on my mind), was "it's great for Newsweek."

My guess is this issue will sell well, and the website's sucking in eyeballs.

And Sarah Palin pointing out the sexism is a double edged sword--it's certainly disingenuous of Newsweek to take the cover out of context.

And Newsweek editor John Meacham's defense doesn't help. He claims:

"We chose the most interesting image available to us to illustrate the theme of the cover, which is what we always try to do. We apply the same test to photographs of any public figure, male or female: does the image convey what we are saying? That is a gender-neutral standard."

OK, I call semi-bullshit on that. Newsweek likely would not have run a running-outfit picture of Michelle Obama...but then again, would Michelle Obama ever have posed in a skimpy running outfit? Highly unlikely.

Which brings us to the circularity conundrum.

BAGnews contributing photographer Nina Berman had this to say about Newsweek's tactics:

The Newsweek cover is a shrewd strategic maneuver to demean Palin without having to take responsibility for it. I think it's brilliant. They take an inelegantly, even laughably propped photo where Palin is an obvious participant as opposed to being a manipulated subject, and recontextualize it to show how far out she is willing to travel on the road of self promotion. They beat her at her own game and in the process shield themselves from what would have been the inevitable criticism if they had dolled her up themselves and posed her the same way.

Julie Millican (with whom, again, I largely agree in her Media Matters for America essay), argues that "Newsweek is supposed to be a serious newsmagazine, and the magazine is certainly not reporting on Palin's exercise habits."

True. Newsweek isn't reporting on her exercise habits. But Palin did. Palin herself participated in that photo shoot, engaged as a subject of both word and photo-journalism in short-shorts and what appear to be nylon pantyhose in "dark nude."

Yes, the Newsweek coverage is mired in the same explosively gendered minefield of over-sexualized Palinography that the rest of the male-dominated press are, as MIllican  points out.  I mean, Jesus, if you're gonna make fun of the woman—which is totally kosher in my view, by the way —  make fun of her goddamn book.

And as Berman argues, Newsweek seemingly outfoxed her, "beat her at her own game." Her Runner's World cover is Sarah Palin's Playboy shoot, her sex tape. The implication always with those sex tapes is that "she knew the cameras were on, right? The consequences are her lookout, not that of a free press with the rights to the images."

This was no cooked up Photoshoppery, after all, like this image:

...which must have been e-mailed to me about fifty times during election season last year, several times by male journalists and male media folk of the lefty persuasion.

Here's another photographic artifact of male leftiness, one I turned up quite by accident while doing a Google image search just now to find the Newsweek cover. It pretty much sums up the sexist-yet-leftist dilemma (maybe they should've used this at Newsweek to illustrate the Christopher Hitchens essay?):



And yeah, it's annoying as hell. Palin reduced to an obscenity for vagina sucks. This modeled T-shirt appeared as a for-sale item on an indie-alternative website in Philadelphia. And actually, for all I know, a woman could've designed it.

What's doubly annoying is that this bullshit helps Palin, whose policy stances are so frighteningly and ironically anti-woman. Newsweek hasn't beaten her at her own game, as Berman states: it's handed her the ball.

So here we are, at the heart of the Palin conundrum. She's both mediagenic, and media-hating. She's certainly media-manipulative: she can legitimately object to over-sexualized images of her— including those okayed by her— and this legitimate objection allows Palin, in the eyes of her base, to discredit the editorial content. "It doesn't matter what words they print about me," she's saying. "They showed my panties!"

It's a win-win really, or lose-lose. Zero-sum? Palin gets to look good as a(n admittedly corny) pin-up, while crying foul about looking bad as a political hopeful, which only spurs her popularity as a political hopeful with those who hate Newsweek and the rest of the "liberal media" already! The people who love Palin as well as those who don't can each use the Runner's World/Newsweek cover as ammo. On the left, they can lob this image against Palin for her perhaps-crass use of her own good looks. On the right, they can demonize the left's crass use of Palin's use of her good looks.

I swear, there's a word problem in here somewhere. Some algebraic shenanigans, or logical theory disproved, or reproved, or something. Schroedinger's cat? That's a thing, right?

Unfortunately, the only thing Sarah Palin and Newsweek have in common is that they both benefit by showing a woman's legs, rather than her ideas.

Posted by sarah fisch on 11/17/2009 7:01:22 PM
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