March 8, 2012 / Media - Entertainment, Media - News Reporting & Analysis, Opportunity, Politics, The New Agenda, women

Negative Stereotypes Women Perpetuate on Women: Sarah Palin Fights Back at HBO


The opinions expressed herein are those of the author, and not necessarily those of The New Agenda.

This weekend, HBO will debut Game Change, a film supposedly depicting former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin’s experience as the Vice Presidential nominee during the 2008 campaign. Whitney recently wrote an article sourcing possible reasons for HBO’s investment into such fiction, and the demeaning portrayal of Palin.

Even though over half a dozen of Palin’s staff, past and present, have come to her defense, a new stream of articles–many by women–continues to scoff and dismiss not only the former Governor and her accomplishments, but also anyone who steps up to defend her and set the record straight. They seem loathe to write anything positive. The result: a stack of articles that smacks of cattiness, perpetuating negative stereotypes about a woman’s ability to govern.

Three such articles are from women: two at The Washington Post written by Suzi Parker and Rachel Weiner, and one at The Washingtonian by Carol Ross Joynt.

The first sentence in Parker’s article lumps words together like:  “Palin…mocked…too dumb…trash…” And anyone who supports or defends Palin against the movie’s portrayal is guilty of “faux anger” for a “diva” who “continually crave(s) attention.”  After stating that Palin wore “heavy makeup…ready for a close-up, and her long mane was styled to perfection” during a rally in 2010, Parker does admit Palin is “beautiful.” How generous of her.  She then snipes that Palin looked “more appropriate for the red carpet than the corridors of power.”

This constant dismissal of a woman who rose to the level of Chief Executive of the state of Alaska only damages the reality that women are not only capable, but also successful when serving in positions previously held only by men. Palin was the first female Governor of Alaska. She consistently fought corruption within her own party and “Big Oil”, all without the cronyism prevalent in “the good old boys network.”

But this sort of cattiness did not end with Parker. Her colleague at The Washington Post, Rachel Weiner, picked up the baton a few days later with this:

“According to news reports, the film depicts Palin as unstable, unprepared and under-informed on world affairs.”

The “news reports” link will take you to the Los Angeles Times’ James Rainey, whose headline reads in part: “HBO portrays her as woefully misinformed and emotional.”

By these accounts, an alien from Mars would have to conclude this must be a pathetic creature that governed Alaska. How, then, could anyone ever trust a woman to govern the USA?

All of this got me asking: why are women in the media loathe to present an accurate account of other women?  We could point to the strident differences in political philosophies for the disparaging portrayal of Palin. But as Whitney’s previous and well-sourced post pointed out, persuasive evidence exists to demonstrate that a fictional narrative is being peddled by HBO, Producer-Actor Tom Hanks and the rest of the film crew. So why would women in media outlets not highlight that?

A (male) friend from college, who is a Democratic consultant in DC, contacted me with a glimmer of hope.  “It may not be so bad as feared,”  he said, and he gave me a link to yet another article: “A Sympathetic Portrayal of Palin in HBO’s Game Change”, by Carol Ross Joynt.

I began reading it and was encouraged:

“In the capable hands of Julianne Moore, Palin becomes more than the caricature often painted of her; she is given flesh and bone dimension. Whether it’s flattering is not the issue, really, but it is sympathetic in the context of an altogether engaging political film about a landmark race for the White House.”

Good! Even Carol Ross Joynt recognizes that media outlets paint a caricature.

Unfortunately, that’s as positive as it gets. It morphs into this:

“She is surrounded by men most of the time, telling her what to do—with the exception of one woman, her campaign-appointed chief of staff, Nicolle Wallace, with whom she has an epic dysfunctional relationship.” Schmidt and Davis inundate her with briefs and drills, struggling to remake her into a seasoned pro. The tension of the film rides on this, and on the mounting disconnect between the McCain camp and the struggling candidate. Palin’s anger and dismay are appealing. “I’m trying to trust you people, but you’re making it hard for me,” she says.”

Over at the Chicago Sun-Times, it seems Richard Roeper wrote his article based on the LA Times and Joynt’s article. He picks up the “woeful” and “sympathetic” narrative. That word –sympathetic–kept getting recycled.  After seeing it repeatedly, I was struck by what stood out: (sym) pathetic.

You repeat it enough, and people begin to believe it: Sarah Palin was nothing more than….well, you get the picture. The narrative this propels is negative and condescending.

Says Roeper:

“When Palin is stung by criticism, when she’s roaring in anger when her kids are attacked in the media or when she’s falling into a funk when things go horribly wrong, Moore is giving us a multi-dimensional, largely sympathetic portrayal…. But Palin’s grabs for power, her egotistical rants, her shocking gaps of knowledge, her crass effort to give a speech on Election Night — that rings true.”

Ring true? Some of this sounds like downright bullying, if not cattiness. It seems Roeper didn’t get the memo from over half a dozen campaign staffers who saw a vastly different history unfold. The producers of Game Change used primarily the viewpoints of just two people from McCain’s campaign, Steve Schmidt and Nicolle Wallace, whose own reputations were on the line as they were the ones who led the unsuccessful campaign strategy. Perhaps this is where the cattiness comes into play: could  jealousy, fear of losing credibility and reputation infect even those in the media?

I grew up in a household dominated by women: I have 6 siblings, 4 of them sisters. My Mom was a “single-mom” who basically raised us on her own.  When we weren’t babysitting and cutting lawns for money, we began working as soon as were legally able. We were each other’s biggest defenders, protectors and promoters. Even during the times we didn’t get along, we were still able to help each other with “constructive criticism.” It allowed us to help each other be our best.

Unfortunately, that sort of constructive criticism has not been prevalent recently among women in the public eye. What my sisters and I regarded as constructive has devolved into downright catty.

The New Agenda has shined a light on condescending caricatures of women in the past. It’s disturbing to see the amount of ink, money and effort that continues to be used in the media, perpetuating this type of distortion and stereotype.  Thankfully, with The New Agenda and alternative and new media outlets acting as watchdogs, the negative stereotypes can be called out and squashed.

Two writers in particular are helping do this: social-political commentator Jedidiah Bila (here with KABC’s Steve Bannon) and John Nolte at Breitbart Media. They peel back the layers of where the negative stereotypes originated with HBO’s Game Change, and offer possible ulterior motives. Writes Nolte:

“To understand just what a heinous piece of propaganda HBO has produced on behalf of President Obama, we have to go back in time to paint a complete contextual picture. HBO announced “Game Change” in early March of last year. This was after a difficult year for the president, when his approval ratings were in worse shape than they are now. This was also a time when many believed, including myself, that Governor Palin would enter the 2012 race to challenge Obama.

In other words, it’s just a fact that when HBO decided to pull the trigger, the possibility was very real that Palin could become president of the United States. So what did HBO choose to do as a response? Here are the facts:

1. HBO chose to adapt into a feature film the 10 percent of a 350-plus page book that focused on a vice presidential candidate.

2. HBO chose not to adapt into a feature film that portion of the book focusing on what might have given us some insight into the man currently residing in the Oval Office.

3. HBO chose a book written by two men who were not on the campaign trail with Governor Palin, who made a conscious choice of their own to tell only the side of the story coming from those who refused to go on the record. Those willing to go on the record, those willing to stake their reputations on their side of the story, were all but ignored by these authors.”

Jedediah Bila: “They figured…let’s make her look completely unelectable…They are trying to paint her as a crazy person, as a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. As someone who hated Alaska. We all know that what we value about her is her record in Alaska…So they had to tear that down…”

Bannon: “She had 90% approval ratings. Both houses of the Alaska legislature said it was the best legislative session they had in the history of Alaska. She had passed the most complicated  legislation regarding taxes, oil and gas…bipartisan..with unanimous decisions.”

Bila further highlights in Newsmax “the glowing commentary of McCain staffers Nicole Wallace and Steve Schmidt” during the campaign as opposed to after the campaign when their own reputations were on the line.

And Sarah Palin herself took bold and smart action to fight back against the stereotype and fiction. Her federally registered political action committee, SarahPAC, produced the following video, “Game Change We Can Believe In”.

After seeing the entire film, seven of Palin’s former and current staff issued this statement:

“Despite HBO’s best efforts, we have all seen the movie Game Change. We stand by everything we previously said on the record. The movie is at best “historical fiction” – historical only in that Sarah Palin was nominated and campaigned for the office of Vice President. The movie is a series of scenes where the dialogue, locations and participants are invented or rendered unrecognizable for dramatic effect. HBO and its surrogates continue to argue that they spoke to 25 sources. None of them are on the record nor is their level of “involvement” in the campaign disclosed. Not one source is on the record in either the book or in the movie and it is clear why. The authors of the book never even traveled on the campaign with Governor Palin. We call on HBO to add the fiction disclaimer.

Tim Crawford
Jason Recher
Randy Scheunemann
Meg Stapleton
Tom Van Flein
Doug McMarlin
Andy Davis”

Now that I have daughters of my own, I try to instill in them a sense of “constructive criticism” to combat the cattiness that can surface.   I share a favorite Scripture that touches on this: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” (Ephesians 4:29)

Women and men in the old media and public service would do well to do likewise.

Join Our Email List

Be the first to know the latest initiatives from The New Agenda to improve the lives of women and girls.

Thank you for joining our list! Check your inbox to confirm your subscription.

  • Kali

    There is a very deep-seated fear in the public psyche of a woman becoming the most powerful person in the world. I don’t understand this fear at all, but I see evidence of it all around. Obama won because of this fear. When the possibility of Hillary Clinton becoming president was too real for comfort, the public whipped itself into a frenzy to bring her down in any way, by hook or crook. Just when they had achieved their purpose and began to relax, another threat came up on the horizon when McCain chose Palin. I remember my male office mate loudly exclaiming “Oh, No!” on that day and when I looked over to see what had horrified him, I saw McCain’s announcement on his computer. It is a primal fear, completely without rational basis, of a woman getting too close to power. Remember all the talk about McCain being old and what if he dies and Palin takes his place? Horror!! It has nothing to do with her ideology, her accomplishments, her capability, her character. It has everything to do with her gender. That is why the truth does not matter and will be repeatedly ignored. There will be lies and spin to cover up the fact that the real fear is of a woman, any woman, getting real power.

  • hrh

    Thanks so much for a fantastic, well-researched, and well-reasoned article. I, too, try to live up that verse, but boy is it hard.

    James 3: 1-10 is also very accurate about the dangers of our words:

  • Bes

    I am just stunned by the magnitude of bigotry and slander coming from the Democrats toward women candidates. This movie says much more about their collective hysteria surrounding Palin than it does about Palin. They took a real woman with a proud history and imagined a negative alternative persona then grafted it onto her and they seem to think that is OK. It is like they are completely out of touch with reality. I am taking note of who attends the “premier” and seems to push the movie in old media but the truth is I don’t watch TV much and usually only PBS so if anyone wants to write about who hypes this POS I would appreciate it and make sure to miss their future projects. I would cancel HBO but I don’t subscribe.

  • Rabble Rouser Reverend Amy

    Outstanding post, Jasmine – thank you so much. And Bes, you are spot on.

    Honestly, it is staggering the level of vitriol directed at Palin (and Clinton before her) by WOMEN. I never dreamed, all those years I was marching and protesting for women’s rights, that it was supposed to be for women who only thought like I did. For some reason, I thought I was marching for ALL women to be self-actualized whatever that meant to them. So when Palin comes along, a woman who gets herself through college, has a true partner for a husband, and ascends to one of only 50 positions in the entire nation, all while having a family, she is someone to be celebrated, even if one disagrees with her politics.

    But, no.

    So thank you, Jasmine, for this excellent post. And The New Agenda for providing us this forum.

    As for me, I’ll be watching “The Undefeated” on Reelz instead…

  • Georgia Eliot

    No matter what I think of Palin’s political views, these facts remain: she quit the oil & gas commission and she quit as governor. While gov, she worked with democratic state legislators to raise taxes on oil companies and redistribute the money to Alaska’s citizens. She was found guilty of ethics violations while in office, and has repeatedly misrepresented the facts about that, and about the filings of ethics violations against her and the financial cost to her personally.
    There is no doubt she was in 2008 not well prepared, not well informed, and not vetted. The mainstream media totally failed to investigate the most puzzling and compelling story in her resume: how a woman in her 40s who has given birth four times and knows she is facing a high risk birth and a high risk infant could fail to seek medical attention when she had reason to believe she was entering labor. If this story of Trig’s birth is true, how can she explain such an appalling example of bad (some would say criminal) judgement?
    Game Change apparently fails to ask this question as well. The spin – what a tough grizzly mom! – is an insult to mothers. Tough grizzly moms blink – and think – and blink – and think again – and then do what’s best for their families. Is it sexist to hold Palin to the political persona she herself chooses to sell?