“You know what they say is the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull? Lipstick.”
– Republican Vice-Presidential Nominee Sarah Palin
This unscripted quip by the Alaska Gov’ner and VP Nom drew cheers at the RNC and punning headlines all throughout the media. Not that I’m one to take anything a politician says seriously, but this impromptu joke is worth some critical assessment, not because I’m trying to prove anything about Sarah Palin, but because I think the joke isn’t funny.
Let’s begin with the speaker. I imagine that Sarah Palin was looking to bolster her own aggressiveness within the context of maternal responsibility, more vulgarly, she was going for the “I’m a hot bitch and a small town mom at the same time” impression. What better way to do this, than witha a punchline? Within the context of the speech, the joke came as she was transitioning from the nowhere USA working class credentials, to the political resume. She wanted to spice it up with the notion that the fight (rather than the flight) is essential to her.
The humor of the joke lies in paradox between the superficiality and uniqueness of the stated difference. Because the joke is all about “differences”, the sameness that it actually conveys becomes masked. Sarah Palin was just a shade of grey away from saying “Mothers are bitches”. The phrasing of the joke seeks to shift the responsibility of the content away from the speaker with a downright sophism, hence the “they say”. Sarah Palin doesn’t actually say “mothers are bitches” (although she does), they do. The anonymity of the source is as much a projection of self as it is an affirmation of content.
Then there are the terms chosen:
“Hockey Mom” – a media-fabricated label for white bourgeois women. According to Slate, the median income for Hockey Moms is around twice the national average. On the “Mom” scale, being a soccer mom is a step below, since youth soccer leagues tend to be cheaper and filled with minorities of all shapes and smells.
“Pit bull” – a domesticated dog that’s a breed of a bulldog and a terrier. Since they are tough, sturdy dogs, they have been used for ranching, hunting, rescuing, as well as cocaine sniffing. Pit bull’s have recently gotten bad press, they are used in illegal dog-fights and have been known to kill babies. Wikipedia states that “with guidance from its handlers, [Pit bulls] are obedient and show a high desire to please. However, when left without direction they can become stubborn and may become aggressive”.
“Lipstick” – although it’s been around since ancient Mesopotamia, most people associate lipstick with its modern form, that is, as a commodity that enhances superficial appearances.
Given Palin’s motivation, these qualifiers are rather odd. First, there is the choice of “Hockey Mom” rather than “Mom” (a term that’s profoundly universal). A Black mother of two in Alabama and a Orthodox Jewish mother of eight in Williamstown don’t fit the qualifier, unless their kids play hockey. They are excluded from this representation of toughness, determination, etc. Then there is the “Pit bull”… Sure, people think pit bulls are “badass” or whatever, but they are domesticated animals designed to be subservient to their masters. That Sarah Palin chose a small domesticated animal over a wild one (Bear! Tiger! Penguin!) is telling. It’s also interesting that Pitbulls aren’t even a pure breed, they are a cross. They bear the indignity of design (essence preceding existence). Finally, there’s the “lipstick” punchline. Considering the mechanism of the joke, “lipstick” carries the weight of “the difference” between white woman and domesticated animal. It’s interesting that she chose “lipstick”, a symbol for female superficiality, a commodity fetish. For the punchline, Sarah Palin could have pointed to her breasts and said “these” (although she was at the RNC), or she could have said “chap stick” (a more poetic choice), or “birth control” (but she’s evangelical), or any number of things… So what does this all add up to?
“You know what they say is the difference between a bourgeois white mother and a domesticated animal? Lipstick.”
Probably the reason why I didn’t care for the joke isn’t that Sarah Palin says she’s a bitch, but that she’s someone’s bitch. She manages to convey both bourgeois entitlement and a dehumanized submission. All with reductive and dehumanizing qualifiers. The way the media is treating Sarah Palin, and it’s own sexist treatments is an issue unto itself. What bothers me about Sarah Palin isn’t that she’s a religious conservative, or that she’s inexperienced or slightly fascist, or that I would rather die than have her as my mother… She’s bound to the paradox of a woman with a pregnant teenage daughter who flies around with a special-needs baby about to be born and returns to work three days after its birth, that’s to say, a woman who forsakes being a human mother to being a political mother… Surely, she’s entitled to seek political office while raising five kids (more power to her!). She also happens to think that she’s entitled to everyone’s reproductive rights and to ban books, but that’s another matter… What bother’s me about Sarah Palin is that she seems to be nothing more than strategic advertisement for the McCain campaign, down to the Juno-esque pregnancy and the snowmobile racing husband. She chose to become an image, a commercial. You can argue the same for Barack Obama, although I find him a much more compelling image because of its historical implications.
If Sarah Palin had been a reincarnation of Descartes, she would have probably said:
“You know what they say is the difference between a bourgeois white mother and a domesticated animal? Reason.”
Whether she wanted to or not, Sarah Palin touched on an essential question. What separates us from animals? This summer, I read “The Lives of Animals” by J.M. Coetzee. In it, a fictional character named Elizabeth Costello gives a rather radical lecture about animal rights at a university. What interested me most about her arguments was the refutation of the Cartesian argument that reason separates us from animals. This notion of reason is unprovable. Testing the “intelligence” of animals with mazes and puzzles, only forces them to think the basic thoughts we want them to, such as “how the fuck do i get to my food?”. A more essential thought would be “why am I here?”, “why has this scientist taken me from my home?” or “how do I make him return me to my home?”, which is harder to prove, if at all possible (Kafka wrote a great short story about this). It’s just an absurd methodology as if we threw people in a jungle and see how well they “reasoned” things out. That we are different from animals is so obvious to us, yet so hard to pinpoint. A classical Marxist would say that Sarah Palin’s joke has truth to it, if it’s spun properly. That is, if “lipstick” were taken to mean a totality of social processes rather than a fetish. Marx believed that the difference between us and animals was in the fact that animals at most collect while men produce. While, I think this thought goes in a good direction, it’s not an entirely satisfying answer… What about language? Or society? How would this be tested given the complex and variable relationship between self and environment…
I digress… all this for a joke? you may ask. It’s only a fucking joke!
Yeah… i guess.