April 21, 2014

'Framing Sarah Palin:' EMU professor and co-author Rhonda Kinney Longworth examines a polarizing 2008 tale of pit bulls, Puritans and politics

by Geoff Larcom, Published March 04, 2013

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 YPSILANTI – Sarah Palin's 2008 vice presidential candidacy garnered tremendous levels of interest, polarizing the American public-both Democrats and Republicans alike.

Sarah Palin used traditionally masculine and also feminine frames of reference in vaulting to prominence during the 2008 campaign.

Her singular rise to prominence set off separate storms of scorn and praise, with different groups labeling her as a lightweight politician with minimal qualifications, or a fresh and attractive presence whose down-home brand of courage and background resonated with many conservative women.

In a provocative new book, Eastern Michigan University political science professor Rhonda Kinney Longworth teams with a California-based colleague, Linda Beail, in analyzing why Palin ignited such passionate loyalty and loathing. 

"Framing Sarah Palin: Pit Bulls, Puritans and Politics" (Routledge 2013) also examines the ways in which her candidacy mobilized new parts of the electorate.

The book employs the notion of "framing" as a way of understanding political perception. The authors analyze the narratives told by and about Palin in the 2008 election. They are divided into traditional, previously used Republican narratives, such as frontier woman and political outsider, and newer, contested and more controversial frames such as hockey mom and sexy beauty queen, which are focused on gender.  

Considerable confusion and disagreement arose over framing Palin in terms of feminism. Was she shattering a glass ceiling or picked in a move of cynical tokenism? Was her sexualization exploitative, undercutting feminist women who wanted to be taken seriously? Or was her use of her sexuality freely chosen, empowering, and even feminine?

"Framing Sarah Palin" addresses the question of what the choice and perception of these frames tells us about the state of American politics, and about the status of American women in politics in particular.

The book is laden with intriguing insights. Among them:

  • Most past female candidates for office have paid great attention to appearing strong, prepared and decisive. Yet Palin seemed quite comfortable, almost amused, with her beauty queen image, even empowered by it. Indeed, within days of her nomination, Palin's designer glasses became a coveted fashion item. Some voters were drawn to this different way of being a woman in politics.
  • Palin effectively combined masculine and feminine images - cooking, wearing high heels and being a mom to five children while also hunting and shouldering a gun. This less overt way of portraying strength played well with certain constituencies.
  • One of the most influential vehicles for framing Palin, and a huge accelerating factor in her celebrity, was the spot-on impersonation by former Saturday Night Live star Tina Fey. Yet that portrayal, along with poor preparation for a long, probing interview with CBS' Katie Couric, ultimately helped undercut Palin's frames to credible leadership.
  • The sharp contrast between Hillary Clinton's informed and serious persona and Palin offered two models for how to be a successful woman in politics, but even those remain highly limiting. For instance, pundits seemed confounded by the thought of Michele Bachmann running for president if Palin also declared. Said the authors, "Male candidates are allowed to exist within a multidimensional space, constituting a variety of options for voters. Why not a spectrum for woman as well?" This is a particularly interesting question in light of the gender gap Republicans face in their appeal to women voters.

What does this mean for future elections? The authors conclude that gender frames are still being contested, and are nowhere near as resolved as the traditional partisan frames (frontier woman, outsider) that Palin employed.

"(Palin's) experience ... sheds light on the degree to which all candidates must seize all available strategic resources they can through the framing process, and be prepared to respond when opponents attempt to reframe them in response," the authors write.

"The frames through which we understood Sarah Palin in the 2008 election and beyond illustrate the importance of political narratives, the opportunities and constraints still faced by women candidates, and the gendered questions with which American men and women continue to grapple."

Kinney Longworth is a professor of political science who is presently serving as associate vice president for academic programming and support for Eastern Michigan University.

Beail is a professor of political science at Point Loma Nazarene University, in San Diego.

The book is available on Amazon.com.

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Geoff Larcom

glarcom@emich.edu

734.487.4400

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