A Checkup on that Palinoscopy

September 11, 2008

“That’s not change, that’s just calling some of the same something different. But you know, you can put lipstick on a pig. It’s still a pig.”

– Democratic Presidential Nominee, Barack Obama

These comments by the Illinois Senator set liberals a’clappin and the McCain Campaign a’cryin “Sexism”, “Sarah Palin ain’t no piggie!”. Of course, the bourgeois media quickly took up this vapid discourse, even though Barack was talking about the McCain campaign, and the Republican nominee himself said the same thing about Hillary Clinton’s health care proposals. But is that quote actually calling Sarah Palin a pig, in light of her RNC speech?

As I wrote in my last post, the humor of Sarah Palin’s “lipstick” joke revolves around implying sameness through a superficial non-difference. In the case of the joke, the non-difference and the punchline was “lipstick”. Considering the structure of Sarah Palin’s joke, the signifiers of “Sarah Palin” were the words “Hockey Mom” and “Pitbull”. The “lipstick” was merely the non-differentiating agent, and Palin’s joke in no way implies that lipstick is unique and essential to either Hockey Moms or Pitbulls. Therefore, the notion that Sarah Palin was called a pig is utterly false. If that notion were true, that would also imply that anything wearing lipstick is Sarah Palin: Vultures, Rabbits, Shirt Collars, Tetris, Tugboats, etc.

If anything, Obama’s quip reinforces the idea of sameness that Palin was coyly pushing. In that case, any equivalence between the two jokes lies in their rhetorical usage rather than their signifiers. Obama’s quote is a scathing critique of Sarah Palin’s rhetoric, jabbing at the pretention of differentation. Even if you are convinced that the Obama quote referred to the Sarah Palin identity (although the context implicates the McCain Campaign’s borrowing of the “change” motif), Obama wasn’t saying “Sarah Palin is a pig”, but rather “Sarah Palin is full of shit”.

– s

A Painless Palinoscopy

September 5, 2008

“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.

– s

Oblong Thong be Gone!

April 24, 2008

In 1985, Jim Spencer of The Chicago Tribune decried the increasingly common practice of “going commando,” calling it “simply gross.” And indeed, we are brought up to view lack of proper underwear under one’s clothing as a social indiscretion. In men, “freeballing” is seen as merely unhygienic, but women are often considered slutty or exhibitionistic when they too decide to go without.

I remember an especially awkward encounter during my freshman year of college, when a friend and I were getting ready for a party. She put on a short denim skirt, designed to show off the full length of her meaty thighs, but neglected to select a thong from the colorful, lacy array at her disposal.

“Aren’t you going to wear underwear under that tiny, tiny skirt?” I asked, aghast.

“No,” she replied, tossing her long hair nonchalantly and grinning. “I like to feel the breeze down there.”

At the time, I admired her “freebuffing” spirit, but lacked the courage and self-confidence to emulate it. Now, however, it’s a different story. Yesterday I strolled the streets of downtown Amherst with ease, enjoying the feel of hot but not yet humid April air carressing my bare legs under my sundress, and honestly happy also that no cloth barriers constrained my crotch from participation in this simple but joyous communion with the elements.

And why not? It’s nice to feel some fresh air up there, and besides, Dr. Caroline F. Pukall of Queens University claims that a lack of underwear, especially while sleeping, is healthy for the vulva.

Now, I’m sure there are some skeptics out there. I’m sure that some people reading this might not be convinced of the virtues of going without underwear, and instead have already become grimly certain that the woman writing this post suffers from extremely loose morals (which is true, but that’s a subject for another time and place, a time and place involving an abundance of cheap beer and a plethora of well-hung male strippers).

So let’s take a little look at the history of underwear, undergarments in general. Why was underwear invented at all?

Originally, one might imagine that underwear served practical (rather than aesthetic) purposes. For example, it protected the genitalia from over-exposure to the cold. This seems like a sound hypothesis, until one considers the Scots. As all of us who have seen Braveheart are surely aware, Scottish soldiers wear kilts. And while Scotland isn’t blanketed beneath snow constantly, it’s not a tropical paradise either. It’s safe to conjecture that while slinking across the highlands hiding under rocks and trying to shoot British soldiers with bows and arrows, the Scots might have been suffering from some chill-induced shrinkage. But did these valiant freedom fighters feel the need to guard their penises from the weather or from British oppression by wearing underwear?

No! In fact, it is rumored that as recently as during World War II, Scottish drill instructors regularly inspected soldiers using a long stick with a mirror fixed to the end, to ensure that they were properly unclothed beneath their plaids.

So if underwear is not a purely practical necessity, then why bother? Oh, but wait–we haven’t consulted any religious fundamentalists yet! One of the five articles of faith that Sikhs wear, for instance, is a type of underpants called kaccha, supposedly similar in appearance to boxers. And then we have the Mormons (or, if we want to keep things official, “the Church of the Latter Day Saints.”) Mormon temple garments have been derisively referred to as “Mormon underwear:”

 Mormon underwear

Now, if this is underwear, who wouldn’t want to go without?!

(Of course, I grant that religion, particularly sects of Christianity, may not be the best place to turn for any sort of rational explanation–religious officials such as Thomas Aquinas also once dictated that people should only have sex in the missionary position, to avoid the production of demonic offspring.)

I’m not denying that underwear doesn’t sometimes have its uses. Jock straps preserve the package from injury during athletic activity. “Edible underwear” is probably extremely erotic also, depending on one’s sexual taste (no pun intended). But it seems that on the whole, underwear has become more of a symbol of a rigid system of social morality than anything else. To imply that a woman is sexually easy just because she chooses to feel the breeze between her legs is, after all, anti-feminist, and implies that even today we live in a culture in which women are expected to maintain a certain standard of chastity (or, at the very least, the appearance of chastity).

But ultimately, what purpose does that serve? No purpose at all, other than a culturally aesthetic purpose. And besides, wouldn’t we rather live in a culture that promotes freedom, that promotes comfort with the body, that promotes sharing? I’m not suggesting that we transform America into a giant nudist colony, but some slight stripping down in that direction wouldn’t hurt.

And this, friends, is my manifesto. This is why I did not wear underwear today. This is why I may not wear underwear tomorrow!



. . . that, and the fact that I’m too lazy to do my laundry . . .