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Is Sarah Palin Newsweek Cover Sexist?

November 19, 2009

The controversy of the day seems to be whether Newsweek editors were being sexist by portraying Sarah Palin on its cover this week in running shorts.  Okay, let’s be honest: short shorts. She’s crying foul, and Newsweek claims that after all, she did pose for the photo – albeit for Runner’s World magazine.

Not that Palin’s running prowess had the slightest thing to do with the Newsweek article, which was about her new tell-all book and her popularity as a vanguard of the conservative right.

Far be it from me to defend Sarah Palin. A year ago I thought she was one of the most dangerous individuals to hit the political scene.  Not even so much because I personally disagreed with her on just about everything.   It was mostly because like a lot of people, I thought her only slightly less qualified to be vice president than Harriet Miers was to be Supreme Court Justice. 

But was Newsweek’s choice of a cover shot sexist? Of course it was.  Lord knows, we know a whole lot more about the sex lives of people like  John Edwards, and former governors Elliot Spitzer and Mark Sanford than any of us care to know.  But thankfully, we were never treated to photos of them with legs bared.

It all brings me back to one of the most miserable summers of my entire life, when I held a low level clerical job at a coat company in the New York City garment district.  It was the summer after my freshman year at Cornell, and I was rudely awakened to the fact that my thus-far Ivy League status had qualified me for no employment more challenging than using an adding machine to check the salesmen’s multiplication on invoices. (No kidding, that’s what I did. All day long. I wanted to slit my wrists from boredom.)

When the owner of the company crossed the back roomwhere we lowly clerical drones worked, he would loudly greet me with a nickname which he had personally chosen. “Hey there, Hot Pants!”  he would call out, while never failing to laugh at his own wit.

Anyone who knew me at the time (or hopefully, since) would know that “Hot Pants,” with all its innuendo, was about the last thing I could appropriately be called.  I was a mere seventeen, and still quite the innocent despite the raging sexual revolution.  But skirts were very short that summer – I was the fashion district, after all –  and I sometimes wore culottes which, while being somewhat less revealing than miniskirts,were comfortable in the un-air conditioned back offices.

I never quite understood the owner’s “hot pants” reference.  But the guy seemed to give himself a huge chuckle every time he had occasion to greet me (despite what I was wearing, which never again, after the first week, were culottes).  And I really needed the twenty-five cents per hour or whatever it is that I was earning back then. So what I probably did in return was give him a wan smile and an obedient nod to his daily burst of humor. 

It was a long summer.

What actually surprises me more about the Palin Newsweek cover controversy is that none of her right-wing defenders seem to have any objection to what seems to be more of  an offense, which is her leaning on a crumpled up U.S. flag as though it were a tablecloth. Which once again just goes to show, that insults are surely in the eyes of the beholder – depending on party affiliation, of course.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Christine Pakkala permalink
    November 20, 2009 11:28 am

    I agree with all your points…and there’s the patronizing headline as well!

  2. Risha Shaw permalink
    November 20, 2009 7:41 pm

    Your insights are always so deep and awe-inspiring !

  3. silverseason permalink
    November 21, 2009 6:14 pm

    Just as you were reminded of your summer job, I was reminded of the Anita Hill / Clarence Thomas hearings. In the middle of them I went to Washington, DC on a pre-arranged visit to my brother and his wife, Linda. As soon as I arrived she put her finger to her lips and said, “Don’t say a word, we’re watching,” and we did.

    Linda is ten years younger than me, but we were struck by how similar our responses were. Here we were, two middle aged college graduate women married to middle aged professional men. Both of us had worked, at some crappy jobs and at some pretty good ones. The hearings brought back all the sexual innuendos and humiliations we had put up with because we saw no choice at the time. And they said Hill imagined it or asked for it or secretly wanted it!

    It’s not about sex, it’s about power. I dislike Sarah Palin, but there is method to the media presentation of her, just as there has been for Hilary Clinton. They remind the uppity women that they are, after all, just women.

    • November 21, 2009 9:11 pm

      You’re so right, Nancy. That’s what makes it so remarkable that women like Hillary have persevered until they had to be taken seriously. No one portrays Hillary in shorts any more. (Of course, she’s probably extremely careful never to wear them.)

  4. Ed Kruczynski permalink
    December 2, 2009 10:26 pm

    I agree with you, Jessica, that the photo has no connection to the article. When did we see an article regarding the political career of Bill Clinton that showed him posing in his running shorts holding a Big Mac in his hand?

    So is the photo sexist? On the cover of Runners’ World, no. In this context, yes.

    And what’s this title: “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Sarah?” How is that objective journalism? Since when does any reputable news magazine use a cover story whose title suggests that it’s an opinion piece rather than straight news?

    So how do you solve a problem like that Newsweek cover, which apparently was closer to the annual Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue in that it used an off-topic photo in order to sell more copies of the magazine.

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