The Sexist

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.

SARAH PALIN

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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.

CARRIE PREJEAN

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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.

LARRY CRAIG

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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.

  • lv

    ok i get this, i think my grandma warned me of this sort of hatin on at some point.
    related to simple point making on this issue--what was up with kathleen parker's column in the sunday wp? she starts out railing on letterman for going after kids, and then wanders over to conservative women. why not pick one? if you're out to defend conservative women against mysogynist smearing, do that. don't hide behind protecting kids. likewise, she woulda had a strong article about how effed up it is to insinuate violence against kids if she'd drawn connections between letterman's poor taste and those dbag krxq radio hosts promoting beatdowns for trans kids.

  • http://hillratdc.blogspot.com Hill Rat

    Dear The Sexist,

    I sit here in awe of your latest column. Even though I couldn't see the videos (YouTube is blocked here at work) your writing and thesis were so clear and concise that it didn't matter.

    What I appreciate the most was your willingness to re-examine your own attitudes and actions and hold yourself to a higher standard. You don't use others hypocrisy to excuse your own and you showed a rare intellectual honesty and empathy when you outlined the myriad reasons that Bristol Palin may have had for not using birth control 100% of the time.

    Bravo!

    Sincerely,

    Ken

  • http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/sexist Amanda Hess

    @lv Part of the problem with arguing against a particular joke is that we don't have too much of a public narrative going about sexist jokes in general. So, if we hear a joke about a celebrity having sex with an underage daughter of a politician, some of us will react to it and say, hey, that's not funny, and furthermore, making light of stuff like that can further gender stereotypes that excuse rape, etc. etc.

    At the same time, however, we don't always have the tools at hand to explain WHY this is inappropriate, or what remedy we seek after a joke like this is told. So we turn to identifying marks about the joke---who told it? who was it told about?---to explain why we don't like it.

    I fell into this very trap last night while watching an episode of Arrested Development. Tobias showed a business card identifying himself as a duo analyst / therapist, or as he called it, an "analrapist." I thought this joke was hilarious. The episode then proceeded to include several more jokes about rape, which I found less funny---but mostly, I'm pretty sure, because I had just written a post that day arguing against excusing the Letterman joke.

    It took me a while to figure out why I thought those jokes were funny---they weren't about an actual people, and in particular, an actual minor. They didn't make a rape victim the butt of the joke. But really, if I'm being honest with myself, I have to admit that I also just find Arrested Development's form of humor funnier than Letterman's.

    Do I find those jokes funnier because they're less offensive? Or do I find them less offensive because they're funnier? Do conservatives find Letterman's joke offensive only because it's about Sarah Palin? Do liberals only find it funny because it's about Sarah Palin?

    As the long lists of past inappropriate Palin jokes that have emerged since the Letterman incident prove, a larger discussion is necessary here.

  • Conrad Davis

    Levi said on Tyra that they only practiced safe sex "most of the time." We don't need to imagine broken condoms and midnight drives to Rite Aid only to be turned down by a fundamentalist pharmacist to understand how Bristol got pregnant.

    However, Bristol (and Sara) continue to maintain that abstinence only education will somehow reduce teen pregnancies. Bristol is a spokeswoman for an organization lobbying for this cause. She made the choice to put her pregnancy, and the choices that led to it, into the public discourse. When comedians make jokes about Bristol getting knocked up, they're not solely about her being a "slut". I'm sure some morons are chuckling "hur hur that girl used her vagina" but that's not why I'm laughing. And I don't think that the possibility of a joke being misinterpreted or laughed at by morons is enough reason to censor oneself.

  • Gunner Sykes

    Sarah Palin is not "abstinence only." If you had bothered to do any research at all, you would know that.

    Please stop lying.

  • http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/sexist Amanda Hess

    Conrad, obviously, Bristol and Levi did not practice abstinence OR safe sex all of the time. And she, like many many many women, accidentally became pregnant. For Bristol and many of those girls, the accidental pregnancy came at a young age---17. Do I disagree with her about abstinence? Of course! But personally, I don't see what's "hypocritical" about Bristol lobbying for young people to abstain from sex until they're ready to deal with it---to me, it sounds like she's arguing that she's learned from experience. Likewise, I wouldn't find it hypocritical of her to become an advocate for comprehensive sex education, even though she didn't practice safe sex completely as a teen.

    Some people do view Bristol Palin as a hypocrite, however, and I think those arguments are valid. But when the jokes turn into this---Bristol Palin knocked up by hockey team! Bristol Palin knocked up by John Edwards! Bristol Palin knocked up by A Rod!---we're poking fun at more than Bristol's ability to miraculously become pregnant while advocating abstinence. At some point, we're also poking fun at her stupidly and irresponsibly fucking anything in sight, and just refreshing the joke by placing a new famous dude in her vagina.

  • AndyShep

    It is nice to see someone intelligent enough to see the important subtext.

    Despite the stereotype of her stupidity, Palin is smarter than many people understand. She was able to make an impression on people who do not support sexual jokes about children. Most importantly, Christians who do not hate gays or support torture. She provided liberals in the media an opportunity to look very bad by how they reacted to the story, and many of them did.

    Between Hillary and Palin the Women's movement has taken a hit. NOW responded to Letterman late and qualified their support with very dated Limbaugh references. Palin made NOW seem like NODWO .. The National Organization for Democrat Women Only.

    You are not supporting a person in their entirety when you support a person in a specific situation. Too many women's groups got bogged down in their efforts to support Palin while still making it clear that she stinks. The more important thing to do is to support Palin's opinion of a specific situation. What you think of her as a whole is not relevant.

  • badger

    All I can say is I am roflmao at your article on Palin. So her daughter got pregnant who cares except you on the left. Maybe your mad she did not get an abortion. At least she fessed up to her mistake and is raising her son minus taxpaying dollars. Thank goodness at least her parents make enough money so she doesn't have to collect welfare and foodstamps medicaid oh didn't all those people vote for O. Sorry still laughing at the lefts hypocrisy

  • Claire

    The trap is you so are so easily misinformed about Governor Palin. She is a Constitutionalist, which means she governs under the rule of law which is irrevelant to her personal views. As a governor she has ruled in favor of sex education, of contraception, and chose a pro-choice judge (a former board member of Planned Parenthood no less) this year to Alaska's Supreme Court because she was (shocking!) best qualified.

    As a Constitutionalist she does not believe abortion should be illegal; she believes abortion should be legal in the states who choose it (like gay marriage) and the made-up "privacy" idea in Roe vs. Wade was a faulty premise and an excuse for an invasion of the Federal government over the constitutional rights of states and their residents.

    If we REALLY want to get somewhere in this world we need overthrow the organized crime machine on both sides of the aisle which will say ANYTHING to stop women who can rouse the public to disrupt their rackets--albeit it Hillary, Sarah or, bless her, Benezir Bhutto.

  • Egallantry

    Newspaper source: "Palin spokeswoman Maria Comella said the governor stands by her 2006 statement, supporting sex education that covers both abstinence and contraception."
    http://articles.latimes.com/2008/sep/06/nation/na-sexed6

    Read Dr. Violet Socks aka Reclusive Leftist for more information at http://www.reclusiveleftist.com/2009/06/13/stop-the-lies/

  • mdesus

    dude abstinence has very little role in sex education. Other than a brief glossing over as in "you won't get any of these if you have no sex." I mean her daughter who got knocked up was a promise ring girl.

  • AndyShep

    Bear in mind that studies show that comprehensive sex education courses that include birth control might reduce pregnancy rates and do not increase them, while studies also show that regular church attendance without question does reduce pregnancy rates and absolutely without question does not increase them. One possibly being positive does not mean the other is not.

    Religious participation that includes an avocation of abstinence absolutely does reduce rates of pregnancy. Interesting observations aside, many comments seem uninformed.

    I don't believe that the feminist position stands in opposition to abstinence or religion. It stands in opposition to a lack of options available to those women who fail to prevent pregnancy using whatever method they were using.

    My take is that the abortion issue has destroyed feminism. Other than abortion there are no more feminist ideals only partisan Democratic ones. That does not mean that you cannot be a feminist and a Democrat, it means that being a good Democrat should not be all that you are. Hillary seemed to get the most sexist treatment at Salon.com. Most of those guilty for that treatment seem to feel that as long as they have the 'correct' stance on abortion anything else goes.

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  • http://shimmykat.blogspot.com Shimmy

    Great post!

    Greta Van Susteren returned from grocery shopping with bags full of decomposed elements, artistic debris, and esthetico-technical hybrids.

  • L-dog

    Interesting points, but you miss the point of why we laugh at the Bristol Palin situation. It's not because she had sex before marriage, it's because her mother preached "abstinence-only", and then she showed up pregnant. If abstinence-only education worked, you wouldn't have pregnancy.

  • AndyShep

    "If abstinence-only education worked, you wouldn’t have pregnancy."

    If comprehensive sex education worked we wouldn't have pregnancy either. The evidence supporting comprehensive sex education is thin, that doesn't mean it should be abandoned, there is marginal evidence it has a positive effect and should be part of the picture. Regular church attendance is vastly more statistically significant, however, and the value of a strong emphasis on abstinence cannot be discounted.

    Broad blanket statements without a basis in fact have little value. The debate would be improved substantially if people looked at the issue scientifically, rather than through the lens of their personal biases on both sides of the issue.

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