When Clare Boothe Luce, a vehement opponent of Franklin D. Roosevelt, was a member of Congress in the 1940s, her legs were voted the second most beautiful in America in a newspaper poll (Marlene Dietrich's came first). Asked by a colleague if this award was beneath the dignity of Congress, she responded: "Don't you realize, Congressman, that you are just falling for some subtle New Deal propaganda designed to distract attention from the end of me that is really functioning?" (Click here to follow Julia Baird).
This is why sexism in the media is a problem: it distracts from what is important. By perennially casting women as decorative, not substantive, it sidelines them from debates and trivializes their ideas. Now an ugly new term has entered the lexicon: being Palinized, usually intended to mean being viciously attacked for being female and Republican. GOP Rep. Michele Bachmann wrote in a letter to supporters that she did not want to be "Palinized" with personal attacks or "liberals' scorn." Former beauty queen Carrie Prejean claims she has been "Palinized" by the "liberal media" for her anti-gay-marriage views. And now Palin thinks she has been Palinized by NEWSWEEK, for last week's cover image of her looking fit and posing in running shorts, even though she has been photographed and filmed more than once in aerobic gear (most recently on Oprah just a few days ago).
Anyone who observed last year's presidential campaign can have little doubt that the media frequently treat women unfairly. It's not just conservatives or liberals. As Hillary Clinton can attest, Republicans and Democrats alike can be savagely sexist. We have a long, ignoble history of women being demeaned, trivialized, and painted as mothers with little political ability, pinups whose talents lie outside politics, and power-hungry "iron ladies" who fight harder than men.
It is wrong, and can be destructive. Ever since Palin arrived on the political stage and was dubbed "Caribou Barbie," debates about her looks have been distracting.
But Palin's pins are not her major problem. Her problem is that the end of her that is supposed to be "really functioning" isn't functioning very well at all. She was a popular and tough governor, is forceful and bold, and has a canny knack for speaking to the disenfranchised. But she has made a stunning number of errors, and her claim to celebrity outshines her claim to authority. She has not proved her ability to run a campaign or a country, and she quit her job as governor of Alaska before her time was up, with a lame excuse about being a lame duck.
When Palin writes tenderly about her family and her love for Alaska, she seems sincere. The rest of her new book is self-serving, preoccupied with revenge, light on ideas, and full of contradictions. President Obama may tell us "the American system is broken," she writes, but what about Facebook, "which sprang up out of nowhere"? She glosses over the reasons for our economic collapse, just cheering that even though she disagrees with all bailouts, we can get through it. She simply advocates cutting taxes and controlling federal spending, "and then [that we] step aside and watch this economy roar back to life." Right, then. As for Afghanistan and Iraq, she says we should just "complete our missions in these countries." Good-o. Once we stop being distracted by fluffy Palin stories and start concentrating on what she says, you realize why we are so easily distracted.
Palin also does not shy from "Palinizing" other women, notably Katie Couric, whom she calls "The Perky One" and "the lowest-rated news anchor in network television." While she writes that her "blond, pretty" McCain campaign adviser, Nicolle Wallace, possesses charm she thinks some other women in politics lack, she blasts Wallace for leading her to believe that her gaffe-laden interview with Couric was going to be a homey chat between women. It is offensive to assume that someone seeking serious political power should not be asked hard questions or critically scrutinized—that it's OK to think an interview with a serious journalist like Couric would simply be a girly chat between working moms. This is embarrassing for women. And working moms.
I admire Palin's pluck and steel. She has some legitimate grievances about the way she has been treated. But unless she articulates a coherent vision for America, the most staggering incidence of sexism in this fiasco will be the fact that someone chronically underqualified and unprepared was chosen to run as McCain's VP ahead of the throngs of women who could nail that job.
Julia Baird is the author of Media Tarts: How the Australian Press Frames Female Politicians. Follow heron Twitter.