But the coverage of Sarah’s Shopping Spree is a matter of quality as much as it’s one of quantity. Take the moralistic tones that seeped into its telling. “Sarah Palin, small-town hockey mom and everywoman? More like Sarah Palin, pampered princess,” scoffed the Los Angeles Times’s Booth Moore. “It’s hard to run as Joan of Six Pack when your wardrobe alone almost qualifies for an Obama tax increase,” Robert Schlesinger declared in U.S. News and World Report. “According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, American households spend an average of $1,874 a year on clothing. The RNC spent $150,000 on one family in seven weeks. Frankly, I’m not even sure how one family can spend that much so quickly,” The Washington Monthly’s Steve Benen echoed. Over at The American Prospect, Ezra Klein covered the irony angle when he slugged his take on WardrobeGate, “IT AIN’T CHEAP TO LOOK THIS AUTHENTIC.”
The basic implication in all this is, of course, that shopping—and, worse, excess in that endeavor—is at odds with the populist rhetoric that has been a hallmark of Palin’s candidacy. Fraulein Maria, after all, didn’t spend thousands on Valentino blazers. She didn’t spend the Captain’s precious wartime schillings on sassy knee-high boots or spunky pink suits or high-end haircuts or makeovers or what have you. She didn’t indulge in image-rehabilitative shopping sprees to the tune of $150,000 as her country crumbled around her. Nor, more importantly, would she have. Such profligacy wouldn’t befit the head of a household during a time of deprivation.
Just as Maria’s ability to economize—and to convince her charges that raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens and the like are to be treasured more than traditional luxuries—serves as a hint, to her costars and her audiences alike, at her moral goodness, Palin’s apparent inability to do so, the media have been implying, suggests a betrayal of morality. Or, at least, a betrayal of the populist pact that McCain’s Veep has, since the announcement of her nomination, been striking with the hard-working, cash-strapped denizens of the so-called “real America.” Hence, the bit of schadenfreudic glee that has seeped into the media’s dissection of Palin’s wardrobe: Gotcha, Sarah, you’re just as vain and materialistic as the rest of us! By your own definition, you don’t live in the “real” America, either!
And yet. For the media to be so moralistic about the matter is also to overlook the obvious: that politics is about image. Fraulein Maria, and the nobly humble frocks that revealed so much about her character, weren’t being photographed from all angles and described by campaign reporters and analyzed by fashion critics and snarked about by Defamer and uploaded to YouTube. The glib gotcha-ism on display when it comes to CoutureGate or what have you is, among other things, hypocritical: The media are the same people, after all, who attack politicians when they don’t live up to the standards of attractiveness that they set (see “Clinton, Bill,” and “Clinton, Hillary”)—and who take umbrage when politicians are portrayed as, you know, normal (remember that infamous Newsweek cover?). Politics is, in many ways, a beauty pageant. And it’s so because we—the public and the media—make it that way.
If anything, Sarah’s Shopping Spree is more a dark comedy than a romantic one: It’s a story about a makeover, sure, but a makeover imposed rather than chosen. One not about the empowerment of the individual, but about the tyranny of the image. Just as it’s absurd to say that the occasional $400 haircut disqualifies a politician from advocating for the poor (“Edwards, John”), it’s also absurd to suggest that to be fit for Gio Armani is therefore to be unfit for Joe the Plumber. But that’s what the media are suggesting when they treat Palin’s wardrobe “malfunction” as a malfunction in the first place. There are plenty of criticisms to be made of Palin—her cheerful culture warriorhood, her willful incuriosity about the world, her general unpreparedness to assume the office of the vice president—but let’s keep the censure focused on substance. Let’s not tear Palin apart simply for dressing a part.