Strike a Pose—Rogue (Rogue, Rogue…)

Sarah Palin’s Newsweek cover isn’t sexist. It’s actually kind of empowering.

Move over, third-wave feminism. Second-wave Palinism is upon us.

Yep: Sarah Barracuda is back. (Or, to be more accurate: she’s baaaaaaaaa-ack….) And with her, as always, comes the attendant entourage of excitement and frustration and hand-wringing and controversy: in this case, the dubiously factual memoir. The semi-awkward Oprah appearance. The Playgirl debut of Levi Johnston and a certain high-profile hockey stick.

And to mark the Palinian Renaissance now underway in politics and the culture at large, the current issue of Newsweek fronts a photo, left over from Palin’s (in)famous Runner’s World shoot, that depicts the former Veep candidate and marathon enthusiast wearing—hold onto your Delicate Sensibilities, America!—shorts.

But not just any old shorts, mind you. Tight ones. And short ones! (Even for shorts!)

The image in question is, it should be said, delightfully absurd. But, then, in politics, absurdity and gravity often go hand-in-hand. And perhaps unsurprisingly, the photo has been met with, rather than chuckles…some serious consternation. The key question about the Newsweek cover being—as the question, it seems, so often must be when it comes to Sarah Palin—is it sexist?

Meghan McCain, for one, thinks so. (Per the Blogette—having recently reinvented herself as our resident defender of socio-sexual propriety—the Newsweek cover is, in fact, “the most sexist thing I have ever seen.”) So does Mediaite’s Glynnis MacNicol, who points out the cover’s headline (“HOW DO YOU SOLVE A PROBLEM LIKE SARAH? SHE’S BAD NEWS FOR THE GOP—AND FOR EVERYBODY ELSE, TOO”) and argues that

resorting to a photo like this (and yes I realize she posed for it, though in an entirely different context) to illustrate such a condescending headline forces me conclude that Newsweek thinks Palin is an annoying little problem because she looks good in runner’s shorts, and not a problem because, as both the magazine’s articles suggest, she is the 21st century’s version of Barry Goldwater, and has broad national appeal for a whole slew of reasons, very few of which having to do with how she looks in runner’s shorts.

I take a different reading of the photo, though. Sure, there’s much media coverage of Palin out there that can fairly be deemed ‘sexist.’ But the Newsweek cover isn’t one of them.

First of all, as MacNicol notes, Palin posed willingly—and therefore, ostensibly, knowingly—for the photo. And ownership, to an extent, obviates sexism. While, sure, the cover de- (and then re-)contextualizes the image in question—and, yes, Palin in running shorts in the pages of Runner’s World makes sense in a way that Palin in running shorts on the cover of Newsweek does not—the irony of the latter context works, if anything, to diminish Palin as a politician, not as a woman. There’s a big difference, after all, between sexism and satire.

But there’s also the far more basic—and far more significant—fact in all of this: that depicting a woman’s legs, bare and clad though they may be in shorts of the verging-on-Daisy-Dukes variety, is simply not inherently sexist. Indeed, to suggest that it’s so is also to suggest that women, aesthetically, are inherently sexualized. Which, to my mind, is a far more insidious proposition than showing a woman who’s showing a little leg.

After all: are pictures of male politicians’ legs inherently chauvinistic? Of course not. Is depicting the current president sans shirt, clad only in a bathing suit, demeaning? No, not really. Not, anyway, if he—and we—don’t allow it to be. When we maintain double standards for politicians’ images based on their gender, we’re implicitly permitting parallel discrepancies in the culture at large. Male politician in shorts = athleticism; female politician in shorts = sexism is, after all, only one small step removed from Male politician as president = natural; female politician as president = unnatural. Equality means equality regardless of context or platform, and that has to be true for images as well as the society they’re meant to depict.

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.

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