Sarah Palin: A Woman of Caricature

by:  Sean O’Toole


The strangest mental image struck me recently whilst I was watching a scene in Game Change, the HBO TV movie about the rise of Former governor of Alaska Sarah Palin, from hockey mom to Republican candidate John McCain’s running mate in the 2008 US Presidential election.

The scene in question is Julianne Moore, as Palin, watching TV after one of her particularly embarrassing gaffes in an interview with Katie Couric, where she cites Alaska’s proximity to Russia as a major feature of her foreign policy credentials. The show being screened in that scene was a comedy skit on SNL featuring Amy Poehler and Tina Fey dressed up as Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin respectively as Fey announces in a perky Alaskan drawl “I can see Russia from my house!”

Watching Julianne Moore watch Tina Fey (both simultaneously delivering a somewhat caricatured performance of Palin) was enough meta to almost blow my mind until I realized that the real Sarah Palin was most likely at some point, watching Game Change, shaking her head at Julianne Moore shaking her head at Tina Fey.

Game Change was overall a fascinating production to watch because it seemed to simultaneously send up and compliment Palin alike, highlighting her sense of being extremely politically ill-at-ease whilst underlining her potential for achieving rock star-like adoration from factions of the American public. Perhaps the scariest truth that the film exposes is that Palin possessed a charisma and an influence as a public persona and how, throughout the Presidential campaign, she could make regular voiceless people feel like they were important, that they weren’t being ignored.

What it asks of the viewer is that, are those assets potentially harmful or dangerous when possessed by the wrong type of person, on a national political stage? As the film progresses, you see an increasingly out of her league Palin, blundering about the political stage as the McCain campaign team teeter on the verge of a collective nervous breakdown, looking for a way to reign in the Palin publicity monster and somehow play to her (not always obvious) strengths.

Regardless of her political credentials, Palin came off of the election trail as a veritable media machine. Palin’s autobiographical book, Going Rogue sold more than 300,000 copies in it’s first day of release and has proceeded to shift in excess of 2 million copies to date. She hosted her own TV show, Sarah Palin’s Alaska on TLC, which drew 5 million viewers for it’s first episode.

Although she was also offered a $1m per year contract by Fox News, arguably to just say Sarah Palin lines here and there, she recently split with Fox after 3 years of lucrative commentary duties, signifying to some speculators that the Sarah Palin star might be fading fast. The reality of the split was that Palin was offered to renew her contract for a considerably lower fee and consequently an amicable split was agreed on. It is notable that her worth as a Political figure has been continuously in question since her arrival on the Presidential campaign trail but never her star quality or her ability to attract an audience. This unique instant charisma is what singled her out as a potentially game changing V.P. choice to McCain’s campaign team and put her straight onto the covers of Newsweek and Time magazine.

Very little has managed to hurt Palin’s core base of support since she arrived on the national scene. Most likely the Sarah Palin show only ever showed major signs of derailing in the aftermath of the Gabrielle Giffords shooting in January 2011. The shooting in Arizona, preceded by Palin’s controversial political graph that included a gun crosshair over Giffords’ voting district gained widespread and long running international media attention, thanks in part to Aaron Sorkin’s now signature heavy handed treatment of it on HBO’s serial news drama The Newsroom.

Palin responded, saying that “Acts of monstrous criminality stand on their own. They begin and end with the criminals who commit them,”  Equating the accusations of her role in the shooting to a “blood libel” drawing almost equal measures of fervent support and resentful outcry from commentators. Her relationship with Fox had already become strained as a result of her comments as Palin effectively was paid to leave her own opinions in Alaska.

As calculated by journalist Laura Gottesdiener, over the three years of her employment, Fox spent $158.50 for Palin to say “Right on!” and $1,759.35 for her to say “Amen.” It also spent $729.10 for her to utter the almost swear words of “darn,” “hell,” “damn,” and  “heck!”

Palin, in an interview with Breitbart News on Saturday, spoke on the subject of her departure from Fox, stating:

“I’m taking my own advice here as I free up opportunities to share more broadly the message of the beauty of freedom and the imperative of defending our republic and restoring this most exceptional nation.”

You can take from this that Palin still has a lot to say, however vague it may be and as promised, she will likely find a suitable platform to do so, as evident by the amount of social media shares the Breitbart interview has received to date (26,500 facebook “likes” at the time of writing). Compare this figure to a paltry 840 shares for an article on the same site criticizing the mainstream media for fawning over Gabrielle Giffords handwritten note that was allegedly written by her speech therapist. From this comparison, you can surmise that Palin might not be riding as high on the star power that carried her off the election trail, but she still has a unique ability to draw people’s attention to where they wouldn’t usually go. Her supporters are fervent and she has come to possess somewhat instant newsmaking potential, whether it’s intentional or not.

Speculation as to what she might do next could very well be a question of anything goes because if you look at her resumé to date, there’s already very little she hasn’t done in media. Palin is undeniably capable of attracting media attention at the drop of a hat, whether it’s a daytime talk show, reality TV or further teasing the possibility of a 2016 Presidential campaign. At minimum, Palin and her distinctive look and speech pattern can inspire powerful parody, such as that of Tina Fey. If you look at your facebook news feed at certain times, she has provided a popular, effective and cheap option for Halloween and party costumes, not only within America but anywhere in the world that you can avail of elegant eyewear and a brightly coloured power blazer.

Palin has inadvertently created the model for a new female character prototype in cross media narrative: The executive assistant- a woman who possesses a degree of beauty, brains and charisma, testing the slippery ground in the icy corridors of male dominated power. A woman who might not know it all, but firmly believes that she can someday have it all.

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