Sarah Palin And the “Hypocrisy” Trap
It is a simple formula for both comedy and political commentary:
Take a public figure (Sarah Palin) who holds disagreeable views (abstinence-only education). Zero in on an aspect of her personal life counter to those views (her own teen daughter, Bristol Palin, becoming pregnant). Reveal the comedic irony and/or hypocrisy of the public/private contrast. Repeat ad nauseam on blogs, 24-hour news channels, and late night talk shows.
We should all beware this construction. Though very easy to pull off—and often journalistically and comedically sound—it is a trap. And it will render us all hypocrites. Three lessons from history, after the jump.
DISAGREEABLE VIEW: Too many to count, but in this case, it's the abstinence thing.
HYPOCRITICAL MOVE: When Palin's 17-year-old daughter Bristol became pregnant months before Palin rose to political fame as John McCain's running mate in the 2008 presidential election, political commentators and comedians held up Bristol's pregnancy as evidence that abstinence is futile—even under the roof of your state's no-sex-before-marriage Governor.
IT'S A TRAP! The revelation came at the height of election season fervor, and liberal commentators ate Bristol's sexual activity up with a spoon. The term "knocked up" became par for the course. When the baby's father, Levi Johnston, told Tyra Banks that he and Bristol had practiced safe sex, Tyra et. al dismissed him as a liar. The late-night comedy cycle feasted on the Bristol-is-a-slut jokes. Even Palin family cheerleader Greta Van Susteren asked Bristol if she had been "lazy."
We forgot that even the most responsible of 17-year-old condom users don't put it on right every time. We forgot that condoms break. And we forgot that, when you're the governor's daughter in the small town of Wasilla, requesting birth control from your family doctor, seeking Plan B at a local pharmacy, or even buying condoms—anywhere—could cause such a shit-storm for you, your boyfriend, and your family, that it would have been hard to mount the courage to even approach the counter.
At some point, we forgot about why Bristol having sex was funny to begin with. The insane glee that we all derived from a teenage girl having sex before marriage became counter-intuitive—and downright creepy. We had crossed the hypocrisy bridge. We were no longer making a point about how young women should be free to choose to be sexually active. We no longer joked to show how bogus abstinence was. We joked to show that Bristol Palin was slutty, and that was enough to make it funny.
DISAGREEABLE VIEW: During the Q-and-A section of the 2009 Miss USA pageant, Miss USA California Carrie Prejean described her views on same-sex marriage this way:
"I think it's great that americans are able to choose one or the other. We live in a land where you can choose same-sex marriage or opposite marriage, and in my country, and my family, I think that I believe that marriage should be a man or a woman. No offense to anyone out there, but that was how I was raised, and that's how I think it should be. Between a man and a woman. Thank you."
HYPOCRITICAL MOVE: After rising to blogosphere infamy—with the help of question-asker Perez Hilton's videoblog declaring her a "bitch"—Prejean's past modeling career caught up to her. When topless photos of the 21-year-old Prejean surfaced on the Web, Prejean was accused of both violating her pageant contract and preaching inconsistent moral views. Who is she to preach good Christian values when she's flaunting her assets for cash?
IT'S A TRAP! Wait a second—since when did we start caring about women upholding the contractual obligations of beauty pageants? Pageants are among the most sexist and anti-feminist of American traditions. They encourage patriarchal views about the traditional roles women and men should hold in society. And guess what—gays don't have a place there.
But the patriarchy is also responsible for one of the most damaging of all hypocrisy constructions: the virgin-whore dichotomy. Shaming Carrie Prejean—a woman we've elevated through beauty pageants—for taking topless modeling photos is a very short leap for shaming gays and lesbians for expressing their sexuality. That's why this whole thing was hypocritical in the first place—but perhaps we're all too distracted by Carrie Prejean's boobs to remember. We may keep posting them in the interest of "revealing hypocrisy." But we all know the real reason they're on the Web: It's not hypocrisy anymore; it's hotness.
DISAGREEABLE VIEW: As a Republican Senator from Idaho, Craig often championed conservative moral values. William Saletan got specific in 2007, pointing out that Craig "helped to enact the military's 'don't ask, don't tell' policy," revealing his "anti-gay hypocrisy."
HYPOCRITICAL MOVE: In June of 2007, Craig was arrested for soliciting sex from a male undercover cop in the Minneapolis airport:
According to the report filed by the officer who arrested Craig at the Minneapolis airport in June, Craig stood outside the officer's bathroom stall for two minutes, repeatedly looked at the officer "through the crack in the door," sat in the stall next to the officer, tapped his foot, and gradually "moved his right foot so that it touched the side of my left foot … within my stall area." Craig proceeded to "swipe his hand under the stall divider for a few seconds" three times, palm up, using the hand farthest from that side of Craig's stall. Most of these gestures, the officer explained, were known pickup signals in a room known (and hence under surveillance for) public sex. When the officer took Craig outside and told him so, Craig claimed he had been reaching down with his hand to retrieve a piece of paper from the floor. The officer wrote that no such paper had been on the floor.
IT'S A TRAP! I'll admit it—this is rich, fertile ground for the hypocrisy construction. Craig blows Palin and Prejean out of the water with this Perfect 10 hypocritical move: enacting anti-gay policies in law, and being gay in private. Jokes at Craig's expense were easy, valid, and very popular.
Conservatives, when not denying that any of this happened, joined in the shit-throwing. After all, this is the stuff homophobes' nightmares are made of—strange gay men attempting to have sex with them while they're taking care of business in a public restroom. For them, Craig reinforced the idea that homosexuals are sick and disgusting individuals just waiting to pounce on your unsuspecting bare penis. In other words, gays can pose a very real threat to their heterosexuality, and Craig proved it.
And yet, those who railed against Craig's institutionalized homophobia were the ones who took the most immense joy in the gay jokes. So—again—reveling in jokes about Larry Craig being gay began to lose their hypocritical anchor. On some level, the hypocritical construction allows people with pro-gay political views to indulge in some homophobic ribbing of their own. They see a rare window where making fun of gay sex is politically acceptable, and they sieze it. It's the same tale with Sarah Palin: People who support progressive sexual health policies, like comprehensive sex education, sieze the opportunity to make jokes about sluts. It's the same tale with Carrie Prejean: People who rail against patriarchal values, like "opposite marriage" and beauty pageants, sieze the opportunity to make sexist jokes.
So, let's all try not to descend too deeply into the hypocrisy construction's rabbit hole. Fall too far, and we become ripe for ironic commentary ourselves.