The meteoric rise of Sarah Palin from that of a little-known governor of Alaska to Republican vice-presidential candidate in the 2008 election has been marked by a lot of attention, controversy and not a little ideology. Although her post-election future in high-level American politics remains as yes undetermined—there is but little doubt that from the day John McCain announced that she would be his running mate (August 29)—Sarah Palin has been featured among the top campaign-oriented news stories—both positive and negative (Holcomb, 2008).
Palin’s conservative charms enthused and “fired-up” John McCain’s rather tired and artless campaign—at least for a time. It is both inarguable and well known that among the incentives for McCain’s choice of Palin was the fact that her extreme right-wing ideas balanced his more centrist views, thereby bringing the more conservative members of the Republican party back into the fold, as it were. As the prominent party of the past eight years, the Republicans have maintained the quintessential, dominant ideological voice in America. At its base, it is the party of the older, white-European-based and fiscally endowed male. Some of its core beliefs include those of small-government, importance of “fire power” both (literally) at home and abroad, Christianity, the nuclear family structure, rugged individualism and the spread of the “American Way” of life and a pro-life-anti-abortion stance. Although it is the party of “Big Business” and the financially elite—it’s morally conservative, Christian value-base, along with its strong work ethic—make it the party of choice for many Americans of the middle and lower classes.
Sarah Palin’s appeal to the Republican base was determined by its interpretation of the many ideological codes (Chandler, 1994-2008) she carried. Some of the codes were more obvious—such as the Palin family’s love and endorsement of hunting—not to mention her defense of the NRA (National Rifle Association). Also, Palin’s decision to give birth to and raise her son–after it was discovered (in utero) that he has Down’s syndrome–displayed a strong pro-life code.
Palin’s evangelical roots, although surprisingly downplayed by the media, are also reflected via code. The hairstyle most identifiable with Palin—a mass of hair stylishly piled on top of her head—is the preferred ‘do’ of many women of the Pentecostal faith—which in its extreme form forbids the cutting of women’s hair. Further, Palin’s stated support for a “creationism curriculum in public schools” is a rather apparent code of Palin’s often radical Republican notions—along side a faith in prayer and “god’s will” when handling affairs of state (Holcomb, 2008).
Although Palin seemed to prefer pants suits while still a relatively unknown Alaska governor—once in the national spotlight she is seen (more often than not) in dresses or skirts and blouses. This is a two-fold visual/ideological code of both her evangelical beliefs and an affirmation of her ‘femaleness’—which is an important ingredient of her appeal. Another code establishing Palin’s femaleness (which is necessary for her hegemonic attractiveness) is her winking. Winking, as a gesture, is a well-known code containing several connotations—including an implicit, shared understanding, and ‘inside joke’ or (and perhaps most tellingly) sexual attraction. By winking Palin manages to convey all three meanings; however, with the sexual connation, she once again emphasizes and relays her femaleness—a quality associated in the dominant Western mind with home, family and “traditional” values.
There are also those eyeglasses. The popular (read hegemonic) association of glasses (particularly on women) is that of intelligence, serious intent, and a readiness to go to work; however, there remains another key association—the allurement of the ‘beauty in glasses’—smart, powerful, effective by day (with glasses)—by night (without glasses)—sexually compliant, passive, a figure of submissiveness to male dominance. The ideal Republican woman who can—like the song from an old TV perfume commercial says—“Bring home the bacon, fry it up in the pan; and never let you forget you’re a man—cause I’m a woman…”
On a more serious note, a video surfaced during the campaign of a speaker at Palin’s church espousing anti-Semitic views (Holcomb, 2008)—something that although Palin never endorsed—the video reveals that Palin did nothing to contradict the speaker—including leaving the church. The mere fact that Palin belongs to a church that allows such extreme views serves as a code for the truly radical right.
In this vein, the McCain team seemed to utilize (use?) Palin as the self-described “pit bull with lipstick” in the smearing campaign against Barack Obama. On the campaign trail, Palin was seen connecting Obama to terrorists—which often elicited racist, violent remarks from the crowd. These obvious codes fed were well received by certain right-wing extremist types—where they validated their cynicism and racist fears. In Palin’s words—Obama was code for anti-Americanism, left-wing radicalism, jihad-ism and terrorism—while the term ‘liberal’ continued its position as a well-known dominant Republican code word for moral lassitude, lawlessness, the welfare-state, unwed mothers and the unwanted empowerment of the various American subcultures—i.e. Blacks, Latinos, feminists, gays and lesbians.
On a lesser note, there is the well-coded and now familiar Palin vernacular—all of the “You betchas,” “Gosh-darns,” “Bless his hearts…” They are words often recited by a populist ideologue—which is another component of the modern American Republican party. Palin drops colloquialisms in the manner not unlike that of a Will Rogers or a Huey Long—but while her words maintain the necessary dominant, hegemonic code—they lack the ‘street-cred’ of authentic populism. There is no true history of Palin as ‘voice of the people’—no witty, in-depth challenge to the powers that be; this is because Palin is the powers-that-be—and therefore, although her code of populism works for her Republican base supporters on some level—it lacks the needed substance and quality in order to be identifiable and applicable to any other American cultural experience.
Finally, with the election over and Palin back home in Alaska, we are given two final codes from Sarah of Alaska—busy “hockey mom” and typical woman of the (both geographically and ideologically) West: Palin reiterating to reporters that the clothes she is currently wearing are “Sarah Palin’s—from my favorite consignment store in Anchorage” (Licht, 2008), and the image of Palin in her kitchen whipping up dinner for The Today show’s Matt Lauer, surrounded by her husband and kids, looking very domesticated—yet very attractive in her black dress, well-coiffed hair-do, heels and earrings…(Celizic, 2008).
Celizic, M. (2008, November 11). In Her Kitchen, Sarah Palin Discusses Campaign
Heat. TODAYSHOW.com. Retrieved November 11, 2008 from
Chandler, D. (1994-2008). Semiotics for Beginners. Retrieved September 25, 2008 from http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/S4B/index.html.
Holcomb, J. (2008, September 22). How the Media has Handled Palin’s Faith. Pew
Research Center Publications. Retrieved September 29, 2008 from
Licht, C. (Executive Producer). (2008, November 11). Morning Joe. [Televison
Broadcast]. New York: NBC News.