In 1960, it came down to television versus reality. Richard Nixon’s fate was
sealed under the unforgiving studio lights as John F Kennedy ushered in a
new media age. In 1988, one snapshot of Michael Dukakis looking
uncomfortable in a tank was enough to seal his fate as a peace-loving
refusenik who would have no idea what to do in a Cold War crisis. And, in
2004, Fox News repeatedly told Americans that John Kerry “looked French”,
sealing the Massachusetts senator’s image as an out-of-touch elitist with
fancy ways and a foreign wife.
Yet, so far, this election has had no such clear moment. Yes, the John McCain
camp have tried to brand Barack Obama as Kerry redux, just another
country-club elitist making promises he can’t keep ? and yes, the Obama camp
have hit back hard at McCain, tying his name to that of President George W
Bush in an increasingly tighter series of knots. But neither claim has
really struck a resonant chord with the electorate.
Instead, it increasingly looks as though the 2008 presidential campaign is not
about the candidates, the gaffes they might or might not make, or even about
the issues. This election is really all about women.
And not only in the sense that the Alaska Governor, Sarah Palin, is the
Republican Party’s vice-presidential candidate, or that New York senator
Hillary Clinton narrowly lost the Democrat presidential nomination to Obama.
Rather, it is in the growing realisation that the most interesting punditry
on both the left and the right is female; that the best political commentary
and comedy is female; and so too are those much-fought-over “defining
images”, from Palin herself, surrounded by her family on the convention
stage, to the Alaskan women who lined the streets to protest at her
Nowhere are these changes more apparent than on the US cable news channels.
Traditionally the home of a type of chest-beating masculinity in which
anchors compete to see who can be the most indignantly self-righteous, cable
news might seem an unlikely place for a feminist revolution. Yet that’s
exactly what’s taking place. The good ol’ boys ? Fox’s Sean Hannity and Bill
O’Reilly, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer ?
are still there, hollering their views, but the most interesting reporting
is coming from women.
Leading from the front is MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, who was recently handed the
coveted 9pm slot. Maddow, who also has a radio show on the progressive
station Air America, is an avowed liberal with a background in prison reform
and HIV/Aids activism. But it is her style of reporting, rather than her
viewpoint, which makes her stand out from the pack.
Maddow doesn’t hide her political opinion ? “I’m a liberal, I’m not
a partisan, not a Democratic Party hack,” she has said more than once ?
but nor does she feel the need to berate her audience or her contributors,
as Matthews does, or to dress them down in the manner of her mentor
Olbermann. Instead, her show, which is climbing up the ratings (recently
beating even CNN’s Larry King Live), prefers to gently mock its targets,
sending them up with a sarcastic turn of phrase and relying on its host’s
congeniality to ensure that there are no hard feelings when she agrees to
“Everyone always says that Americans vote for the candidate they’d like
to have a drink with, and I think the same thing remains true of news
anchors,” says Megan Carpentier, who writes for Glamocracy, a political
blog aimed at women, in addition to covering politics for the influential
feminist website jezebel.com. “It’s not that I wouldn’t like to have a
drink with Keith Olbermann or Jon Stewart; I would. But I’d really like to
have a drink with Rachel Maddow.”
There’s something about Maddow that inspires otherwise level-headed women to,
as Carpentier puts it, “extreme fangirldom”. It’s partly that she
comes across as being very down-to-earth ? her website proclaims both her
hatred of Coldplay and her love of her red pick-up truck, while admitting
that she “loves arguing with conservatives and shakes a mean cocktail”
? and partly that she is obviously smart, yet so very unshowy with it.
For many female fans, there’s a sense that she could be your sister, if your
sister was a former Rhodes scholar with a mean line in wit and a doctorate
in political science.
Small wonder, then, that the internet is filled with sites dedicated to or in
praise of Maddow, and that her appearance on the MSNBC panel at the
Democratic Convention in Denver was frequently interrupted by women yelling “We
love you Rachel!” “There’s something about her that really appeals
to all kinds of women,” says Carpentier, who calls herself a “fangirl”
of Maddow. “She’s smart, funny, easy to relate to…”
In a nation where the average television personality is glossy of lip, stiff
of hair and stiffer of attitude, the openly lesbian Maddow has a no-nonsense
crop and minimal make-up. “I know that I don’t look like everybody else
on television,” she recently told The Washington Post. “Women on
television are over-the-top beauty-pageant gorgeous. That’s not the grounds
on which I am competing.”
And Maddow is not an anomaly. Women reporters on both sides of America’s great
left/right divide have seized the spotlight in this contest ? and it is they
who are asking the most difficult questions. America lives out its elections
in the media glare. Every gaffe, slip and stumble is recorded by the
cameras, chewed over by pundits, digested in the daily papers and then spat
out into the public domain. Where the male pundits remain convinced that
this election belongs to he who shouts loudest, their female peers are
instead asking pointed questions of the men (and woman) who would be king.
First there was CNN’s Campbell Brown, who reduced John McCain’s spokesman
Tucker Bounds to incoherent rage simply by saying that she was “trying
to get someone from the [McCain] campaign to explain what foreign policy
experience [Sarah Palin] has”. In Britain, accustomed to a diet of
Jeremy Paxman, John Humphrys and Jon Snow, Brown’s question seems innocuous;
but in the US, where real reporting comes second to opinion, she became a
media heroine overnight.
But Brown wasn’t the only one asking tough questions. Last week on Fox News,
the previously anodyne anchor Megyn Kelly also laid into Bounds, attacking
him over a series of negative ads. As Bounds spluttered indignantly, Kelly
coolly remarked: “You guys have suggested [Obama is] going to raise
taxes on the middle class and virtually every independent analyst who took a
look at that claim said that’s not true… that’s false. Why would John
McCain do that, Tucker? Why wouldn’t he just level with the American people?”
The flustered Bounds was reduced to claiming that Obama had promised to part
the oceans and heal the sick as Kelly shook her head, more in disgust than
Yet this isn’t the story of one incompetent spokesman (although Bounds’s
flailing failure to answer basic questions does represent a new low). Brown
and Kelly were prepared to ask the hard questions when their male
counterparts failed to do so.
Nor is it just those on the Republican ticket who are coming under attack. In
recent weeks, CNBC’s Michelle Caruso-Cabrera has repeatedly queried Obama’s
economic policy, while Fox News’s Greta van Susteren has taken Obama’s
running mate Joe Biden to task over his Senate record.
Then there’s the case of The Daily Show, long cited as the place where
Americans aged 35 and under get their news fix. The show’s acerbic host, Jon
Stewart, has been on rare form throughout this election cycle and yet, for
all his wit, the finest moments have belonged to his female sidekick
Samantha Bee, who trades on her girl-next-door charm to unnerve her
unsuspecting victims. It was Bee who provided the single funniest moment at
the Republican Convention when she polled attendees about Governor Sarah
Palin’s daughter Bristol’s pregnancy, and then watched as their tongues all
but twisted rather than say the word “choice”.
As a great comedic moment, it was matched only comedian Tina Fey’s recent and
widely publicised skit on Saturday Night Live as Palin herself. Fey’s sly
send-up of the Alaska governor worked not just because the two women look
alike, but because she was spot on in her approximation of Palin’s
mannerisms and accent.
Similarly, Fey’s SNL colleague, Amy Poehler, was recently Emmy-nominated,
largely for her full-blooded take-off of Hillary Clinton, cackle and all,
which culminated during the primary season with an appearance on the show by
The key moment in the sketch, however, came when both women outlined their
take on sexism. “Stop using words that diminish us, like ‘beautiful’,
‘attractive’,” said Fey as Palin; “Or ‘harpy’, ‘shrew’,
‘boner-shrinker’,” replied Poehler as Clinton. And in that moment the
difference between the public views of the two women was sharply defined.
For, where Clinton faced a variety of personal attacks on everything from
her personal appearance to her public demeanour, Palin has been celebrated
as sex object.
At the same time, the Palin nomination has led to some fascinating, and
strong, reactions from America’s most celebrated feminists. Gloria Steinem
stated that “Palin shares nothing but a chromosome with [Hillary]
Clinton,” while Camille Paglia claimed that the Alaskan had “made
the biggest step forward in feminism since Madonna… rammed pro-sex,
pro-beauty feminism down the throats of the prissy, victim-mongering,
philistine feminist establishment”. Maybe the truth about Sarah Palin
will be revealed when she sits down for her much-touted one-on-one interview
with CBS’s chief anchor, Katie Couric. Whatever comes out of that meeting,
there’s no escaping the fact that the picking of Palin has led to a strong
reaction from women on both sides of the political divide ? hundreds of
women turned out to greet her on her return to Alaska, yet it must also be
noted that hundreds more turned out on those same Alaska streets to protest
about her place on the Republican ticket. The most recent poll taken on
behalf of CBS news and The New York Times had Obama with a 54 per cent to 38
per cent lead over McCain among women voters and a two-point lead among
white women, a swing of 21 points in the week since Palin’s nomination.
Yet, for all that, this election is not just about Palin. “I think that
what you are seeing with this election cycle is the growing importance of
female voters,” Carpentier says. “When magazines such as Us Weekly
[a celebrity-gossip title], which for better or worse is predominantly read
by women, start putting politicians on the cover, then it’s obvious that the
interest is there.”
Carpentier’s own posts on politics for Glamocracy and jezebel.com attract a
huge number of comments, from women of diverse backgrounds and divergent
beliefs. Her live dispatches from both the Democratic and Republican
conventions for Jezebel regularly attracted more than 1,000 comments and
fuelled frequently heated debates. When Carpentier’s colleague Jessica Grose
posted an article titled “Why Sarah Palin Incites Near Violent Rage In
Otherwise Reasonable Women”, the site went into overload, each side
stating their case with increasing passion.
“There’s clearly a lot of interest out there right now,” Carpentier
says. “I think there is a sense that women’s voices are gaining in
prominence as the [campaign] goes on. Which is as it should be ? I mean, why
wouldn’t you listen to 51 per cent of the population?”
Until this election, the tendency among poll-watchers has been to lump all
women together into one homogenous mass. Women were important if they
represented an easily identifiable segment of voters, as in the case of Bill
Clinton’s “soccer moms”. Meanwhile, each prospective First Lady
saw her fashion choices dissected, her hair and make-up analysed and her
ability to bake scrutinised; woe betide those such as Hillary Clinton who
claimed to know about politics, or those such as Teresa Heinz Kerry, who was
forced to admit that the pumpkin spice cookie recipe submitted in her name
to Family Circle magazine was not actually hers. Nor have such Fifties
attitudes been confined to the First Ladies. In 1984, when Geraldine Ferraro
stood before the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco, the
respected US anchor Tom Brokaw announced: “Geraldine Ferraro… The
first woman to be nominated for vice-president… size 6.”
It’s hard to imagine today that an anchor who made such a remark would keep
his job, yet even this election has been to some extent dominated by
fashion, from Clinton’s Sisterhood of the Travelling Pantsuit to Palin’s
secretary chic. And let’s not forget the prospective First Ladies. The New
York Times all but expired on discovering that Michelle Obama didn’t pay for
the services of a fashion stylist ? woman in able-to-dress-herself shocker.
Cindy McCain’s bright jewel-coloured outfits have been overshadowed only by
the size of the jewels that accompany them.
But for all the fashion frenzy, the net result of both Clinton’s campaign for
the Democratic nomination and Palin’s vice-presidential run is that
America’s women politicians are finally getting the attention they deserve.
The Missouri senator Claire McCaskill has emerged as the Democratic
campaign’s most effective attack dog, and, crucially, one who always scores
her points with a smile. Arizona’s Democratic Governor Janet Napolitano is a
vocal critic of McCain; Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius has proved willing
to take on Palin on the paucity of her record on women’s rights.
On the Republican side, the women have not been as vocal ? one of the biggest
talking points of Maddow’s show has been the number of Republican women she
has invited to debate who have claimed to be “unavailable”. Among
those to have declined are Maine’s reform-minded senator Olympia Snowe, and
the experienced Texas senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, both of whom have
repeatedly been cited by pundits on both the Republican and Democratic sides
as having more experience and better credentials than Sarah Palin. On the
issue of abortion, however, they are also both pro-choice.
That’s not to say that every woman on the right has remained silent about
Palin, although her party may wish that McCain’s economic adviser Carly
Fiorina had done so. Fiorina, the former chief executive officer of
Hewlett-Packard, added to a bad week for McCain by claiming that Palin
didn’t have the experience to run a major business, thereby proving that
even women can make calamitous gaffes.
And, to be fair, those gaffes have not been confined to the right. If US
voters are having difficulty in rejecting President Bush’s politics out of
hand, it’s at least partly because the fledgling Democratic Congress, led by
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, has failed to capitalise on their opponents’ errors,
adding to the traditional view of the Democrats as a party of prevaricators
who remain out of touch with ordinary Americans.
Hillary Clinton famously referred to the 18 million women who voted for her in
the Democratic primaries as “18 million cracks in the glass ceiling”.
Sarah Palin’s acceptance speech claimed that, on 4 November, “we will
shatter that glass ceiling once and for all”.
Even if that does not occur, it is clear that if anything sums up this
election, it is that it’s been all about women, from the pundits
pontificating to the protesters demanding their say. It has been about those
who flock to support Palin, claiming that they relate to her ? but also
those who look at her and say “not in my name”. It has been about
the Rachel Maddows, the pundits who inspire women of all ages to think: “Yes,
what I say is important,” and about the Samantha Bees and the Tina
Feys, who give the lie to the argument that women just aren’t funny. It’s
about the Hillary Clintons who have fought long and hard for the women’s
rights movement ? and, yes, it is also about the Sarah Palins, whose brand
of feminism might not be for all, but means everything to some.
Most of all, it is about the fact that this election remains the first in
which women’s voices in all their harmony and their discord have been
allowed to be heard, to be seen as a power in their own right rather than
dismissed as an electoral tool.
Yet, once those women’s votes have been counted and the President, whoever he
is, has finally been sworn in, what, if anything, will really have changed?
For Megan Carpentier, the importance lies in ensuring that the events of
this election do not become lost in apathy once the cameras roll out of
town. “People, and women in particular, are very engaged in this
election,” she says. “But that engagement means nothing if it only
happens once every two or four years. I would say to everyone: stay involved
in the political process, find out who your state representative is,
continue to be aware of issues and how they might affect you as a woman. The
political process shouldn’t just be something women drop in and out of every
Girl talk: quotes from the campaign trail
“As NFL season picks up and their husbands are watching ‘Monday Night
Football’, we thought it would be a good time to reach out to women”
McCain spokeswoman Crystal Benton, on Sarah Palin’s nomination
“There remains [the sense] from the McCain-Palin campaign, that if you
ask [Palin] any hard questions, really on anything, it’s because you are out
to get her and it’s because you don’t think she’ll know the answer… That’s
not a long-term strategy for marketing your vice-president”
“She may bring many qualities to the ticket… but a long wealth of
experience probably isn’t one of them ? if you can be honest with me, you’ve
got to concede that point, right? Can you concede that point and just be
honest with me?”
CNN’s Campbell Brown talking to McCain’s political director, on what Sarah
Palin brings to the electoral campaign
“I don’t think John McCain could run a major corporation”
Carly Fiorina, businesswoman and Republican economic adviser
“My mother was born before women could vote. But in this election my
daughter got to vote for her mother for president”
Hillary Clinton at the Denver Convention
“You’re caught between a rock and a hard place, because if you describe
her accurately… there’s no way you can do that and not sound condescending.”
HBO’s political commentator Bill Maher
“Our leaders are sending [the military] out on a task that is from God”
Sarah Palin on the US mission in Iraq
“I think there’s a really good chance that Sarah Palin could be
president; and I think that’s a really scary thing. It’s like a really bad
I need to know if she really thinks dinosaurs were here 4000 years ago ? I
want to know that, I really do. Because she’s going to have the nuclear codes”
Actor Matt Damon last week
“McCain found a genuine soulmate in Governor Palin”
Former House Speaker, Republican Newt Gingrich.
“I believe global warming is caused by man”
Amy Poehler, as Hillary Clinton
“…And I believe it’s just God hugging us closer”
Tina Fey, as Sarah Palin ‘Saturday Night Live’ sketch
“We have the opportunity to make change. Women’s votes will make the
difference in this race”
Michelle Obama, at a women’s economic debate in Richmond, Virginia
“I’ll see you at the debates, bitches. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have
to go and pick out a vice-president ? I’m thinking Rihanna”
Paris Hilton’s spoof presidential campaign ad, in response to John McCain
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