Sexuality is as important to politics as it is to the entertainment industry. The 2008 presidential campaign was a testament to the power of charismatic, highly sexualized candidates capturing national media attention and driving the election.
Barach Obama and Sarah Palin represented the future of the American political candidate: sexy, articulate, a saleable commodity. The 2010 election is a replay of 2008, but with a likely very different outcome due in small part to the presence of the sexy sisters, the “new” Republican woman represented by Sarah Palin, Christine O’Donnell, Nikki Haley and Michele Bachmann, among others.
In 2008, it was Obama vs. McCain. The election was, symbolically, a showdown between a youthful, erotically-empowered vision of a new, 21st century America and a Viagra-infused image of the flaccid cock’s-man of the old order. The sexualized future beat out the erectile-dysfunctional past.
The 2010 Republican campaign is an attempt by the old order to reinstall its rejected program. Key to this effort is the promotion of “sexy” female candidates, the “new” Republican woman. She is a showpiece, a fig leaf, covering the impotence at the heart of the Tea Party’s politics of rage.
As polling data reveals, this woman temps the predominately white male electoral (erectile) base while preserving traditional values. Her temptation serves only to re-enforce conventional patriarchal values, the dominant role of the male in a post-feminist era. Ironically, this is an era in which not only the two-income family is essential but all-too-many white, Christian, Republican working families are absolutely dependent on the wife’s income.
In the face of this new socio-economic condition, the sexy Republican sisters — Palin clones all — have captured the political center-stage. They seek to overcome a fundamental contradiction at the heart of Christian, conservative, Tea Party morality: growing male socio-economic impotence and increasing female sexual empowerment.
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One of the most popular campaign buttons at the ’08 Republican National Convention read: “Hottest V.P. from the Coolest State.” And Alaska’s governor, Sarah Palin, was hot. Like an electric jolt, she reinvigorated a comatose candidate, rejuvenated a frumpy granddad into a barnstorming populist. She gave McCain’s faltering presidential campaign new life, especially among dedicated “values voters” who were long suspicious of his true beliefs.
Palin began her political career in 1984 winning the “Miss Wasilla” contest and coming in third in the “Miss Alaska” contest, where she was awarded the Miss Congeniality prize. And there’s nothing like being Miss Congeniality to lubricate a political career. Hopping from the Wasilla city council to mayor to Alaska governor in 2006, Palin presented herself as a former beauty contestant with grit, an attractive but shoot-from-the-hip wholesome woman. However, after being anointed by the floundering McCain campaign, she was remade (at an estimated cost of $150,000) into a glamorous, commodified sex symbol.
Palin and her “new” Republican sisters share qualities with their progressive sisters; being self-assured, college educated, with professional careers and often married with children. However, in distinction to more progressive feminists, these women embrace “traditional” (and often fundamentalist religious) values. These values seek to preserve the fading myth of the patriarchal family and the economic and sexual prowess of the husband.
This contradiction is expressed most acutely by Delaware candidate Christine O’Donnell. She has come under much media ridicule for what she proposed on a 1996 MTV program and again in a 1998 article, “The Case for Chastity,” that masturbation is sinful and that looking at pornography while married is equivalent to cheating on one’s spouse.
This ridicule intensified when her youthful indiscretions became public. First, it was her attraction to witchcraft. Then it was revealed that, while a student at Fairleigh Dickinson University, she told the Delaware News Journal in April 2004 that she regretted things she did like “drinking too much and having sex with guys with whom there wasn’t a strong emotional connection.” She claims to have ultimately rejected these indiscretions, finding God and adopting a chaste, anti-masturbation, anti-condom use, abstinence-only sex ed and anti-porn life.
Another “new” Republican woman is Nikki Haley, currently running for the South Carolina governorship. Following the well-worn steps of SC governor Mark Sanford, her campaign seems not to have been threatened by the claims of two men that she had out-of-wedlock affairs. Haley is a state representative and one of her accusers is a former assistant, Will Folks. As he insists, “the truth in this case is what it is. Several years ago, prior to my marriage, I had an inappropriate physical relationship with Nikki.”
Most recently, a SC lobbyist, Larry Marchant, claimed to have had an one-night affair with Haley. As he declared: “I had to ask myself the question, when I was watching the press statements going back and forth between Ms. Haley and Mr. Folks, I had to ask myself whether I would be able to look at myself in the mirror every day knowing what I know. If I did not say anything, if I stood on the sideline and watched this happen, could I face myself in the mirror every day? And the answer was no.”
Michele Bachmann is another “sexy sister.” This Minnesota Representative has repeatedly railed against the Obama health care plan, charging that it would set up school-based clinics encouraging promiscuous sexual behavior. One of her questions: “Does that mean that someone’s 13 year-old daughter could walk into a sex clinic, have a pregnancy test done, be taken away to the local Planned Parenthood abortion clinic, have their abortion, be back and go home on the school bus that night? Mom and dad are never the wiser.”
Although not a “sexy sister,” Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle is a Republican “new” woman and staunch Tea Party advocate. She’s come out against support for day care and accused Harry Reid of voting to use taxpayer dollars to pay for Viagra for convicted child molesters and sex offenders. Revealing the deeper ties between the Tea Party and Christian right, she opposes abortion even for a girl or woman subject of rape or incest: “You know, I’m a Christian and I believe that God has a plan and a purpose for each one of our lives and that he can intercede in all kinds of situations and we need to have a little faith in many things.”
Another Tea Party “new” woman is Arizona governor Jan Brewer who, while decidedly not the least bit sexy, assumes the role of an independent-appearing woman, a hard-working official. This is the picture she promotes even though some accuser her of being a puppet for lobbyists, a historically male-dominated field.
Other non-elected “sexy sisters” who are seen as typifying the “new” Republican woman are: the blogger and radio show host, Jenny Erikson; the actress, Angie Harmon; the radio/video host and blogger, Dana Loesch; the writer/blogger, Michelle Malking; the politician Star Parker; and the author and beauty queen, Carrie Prejean.
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Betsy Reed recently pointed out in the Nation that the “sexy sisters” have greater appeal among white conservative men than among conservative women. Looking specifically at Sarah Palin, she noted: “Palin has a much larger gender gap than her ideological persuasion would predict: men are split 44 to 45 between those who hold favorable and unfavorable views of her; for women, the split is 35 to 58, according to a National Journal poll.”
Reed noted a report by political scientist Eric Ostermeier that in the 2008 campaign, Michele Bachmann “received support from 49 percent of men and 42 percent of women” and, this year, “she got the support of 56 percent of men versus just 39 percent of women against her new rival, Democrat Tarryl Clark.” In addition, Sharron Angle has a 64 percent unfavorable rating among women. [Nation, September 29, 2010]
The question that neither Reed nor most commentators discussing the “new” Republican woman have asked is why this “new” woman has stronger appeal among men than woman? Part of the answer may be found in the message of the pro-sex advocates within the Christian right. In her 2008 book, “Sex in Crisis,” Dagmar Herzog offers invaluable insight into how this strand of the evangelical movement seeks to subvert the dominant secular sex culture to reaffirm patriarchal values.
These advocates seek to harness the tools of the secular sex to fortify traditional marriage. While insisting on abstinence and opposing masturbation among non-married people, almost nothing is off-limits when sex serves Jesus in marriage.
Their efforts include sex advice columns and marriage counseling services. Some encourage women to wear revealing clothing and provocative lingerie, to use of sex toys and body ointments. Some even promote sexual foreplay and oral and anal sex as well as spanking and light S&M play. For these advocates, the woman is charged with the task of sexualizing themselves so that they can please and empower their husband.
For the Christian right, and one can assume for the Tea Party movement as well, the role of sex, like that of the “sexy sisters” in politics, is to help restore old-style masculinity to marriage and the nation. Post-modern society has made traditional masculinity a vestigial social organ.
Men are not what they were a generation ago, let alone at the time of Jesus. Good husbands and fathers contribute (with the wife) to the family income and also cook, diaper their kids and have emotional lives. Modern history has made the man of the family an equal to the woman, not the king of his castle.
The Tea Party movement, like the Christian right, champions the “sexy sisters” as a may to restore the old-fashioned man on his long-lost throne. So long as women do not demand abortion rights, maternity leave, equal pay and equal sexual pleasure, they are welcomed into the movement. God forbid they should demand more.
DAVID ROSEN is the author of “Sex Scandals America: Politics & the Ritual of Public Shaming” (Key, 2009). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.