Which means in turn that interpreters of those images need to distinguish in their interpretations between, essentially, sexuality and mere physicality. The line between the two can be fine—or, more accurately, blurry and wide—and thus difficult to define precisely…particularly given the fact that the one informs the other. Palin makes a particularly apt case study in that regard, being as she is, in scientific jargon, hot. She is in fact “so stunning,” Associated Content’s Mark Whittington writes, with no apparent irony, “that she seems to drive people like David Letterman and Chris Matthews quite mad.”

Palin’s appearance, in other words, has, and indeed is, its own kind of political power: it enchants those inclined to agree with her politics…and frustrates, and even confuses, those who aren’t. Her looks have become not only part of her public persona…but also a commodity unto themselves.

But they’ve done so, of course, because the media have allowed them to. By focusing so much on Palin’s prettiness, by making that such a key aspect of her political identity, they have not only not belittled her; on the contrary, they’ve served her. Palin has owned her attractiveness in a way that few Lady Pols—in the United States, at least—have done before. Our media culture, after all, has tended to demean female politicians not by mocking them to their faces, but, worse, by doing so behind their backs: by outlining impossibly narrow and arbitrary standards of sartorial expression for them to follow. That culture has punished women both for appearing too masculine (see: ‘Hillary Clinton, Proverbial Pantsuit of’) and for appearing too feminine (see: ‘Hillary Clinton, Cleavage Controversy about’). And then for trying too hard to conform to the standards it’s set. And then for not trying hard enough. It’s a game with no rules…until the rules are broken.

But Palin has managed to skirt—often quite literally—such slings and arrows. She has embraced her feminine side, as it were, and in her I’ll-wear-knee-high-leather-boots-if-I-want-to attitude, has forced the media to engage in a bit of bootstrapping of their own. In the process, she has made posing in shortish-shorts on the cover of a national newsmagazine seem not only not shocking, but rather—in every sense—natural.

The Newsweek cover, then, cheeky and ironized though it may be, is less a knock on Palin than a nod to her—a recognition of the fact that, say what else you will about her (and there is, of course, a lot of ‘else’ to say), Palin has in some sense normalized the notion of women in politics. She has had the luxury of skipping upon a path trod by others, to be sure; but she finally represents the transition from the female politician to…the feminine one. In a media culture still unsure what it wants women to be—and what it wants to be to women—Palin stands, with her running shorts and tanned legs and frozen smile, in that fraught little space where embracing sexism means also, somehow, transcending it.

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.