Saturday, October 25, 2008

Gender (and Class) Bias in Media's Blasting of Palin's Wardrobe Costs

The typical article or news story in the last week covering the scoop that the Republican campaign spent $150,000 on outfitting her and her family condemns the expenditures as hypocrisy. Here she is pitching herself "as as an average American working mother," stated a CNN piece yesterday, for example, "But how many typical moms get $150,000 worth of merchandise from stylish stores and have strangers pay for it?"

Actually, what no one has mentioned, is that the very fact that Palin truly does come from the middle class, and not the wealthy, upper class, means that she needed some major clothing purchases so that she could look respectable in the harsh spotlight of the media. Though Hillary Clinton's wardrobe was constantly scrutinized, we never were privy to how much her purchases cost, because she probably bought the clothes herself. Similary, Cindy McCain's lavish wardrobe is purchased with her own plush funds. The only reason we know how much Palin's new duds cost is because Palin couldn't afford the clothes on her own personal budget. Palin was suddenly called onto the national stage, to travel to different states, in varying climates, and under the scrutinizing media glare--so a new wardrobe was called for. If she were a wealthy woman, she could have just gone on a personal shopping spree. So, in effect, her lack of personal wealth is a handicap here. As is her gender, which has been remarked upon by others: it's much easier for a male candidate to just purchase a few suits and vary the look with a few different shirts and ties and call it a day.

What's also interesting in all this condemnation of the money spent on Palin's clothes, is how little flak Obama has received for how much the Democratic campaign has spent on his rallies. The money spent on his external image, while not on the clothes he wears on his body, is part of a large effort to create a persuasive presidential image--the same reason Palin's new clothes were purchased.

Remember the backdrop of Obama's speech in Denver's Invesco field in August? As the LA Times architectural critic Christopher Hawthorne wrote right after the speech, "Not content with a basic combination of video screens and slogans, Obama's campaign produced a full-on neoclassical temple facade: four imposing Doric columns and 10 sizable pilasters, all connected by a frieze and arranged in a gently curving arc. From the center of this colonnaded contraption extended a long peninsular walkway, lined with blue carpeting and capped by a circular stage and wedding-cake steps."

The Obama campaign spent much moolah on constructing this neoclassical backdrop in order to project certain imagery. As the LA Times Hawthorne wrote, "Obama clearly wanted to forge a link to the 1960 Kennedy appearance, which conveniently enough took place inside a neoclassical stadium. Even more obvious was the way the four big columns -- two on either side of the stage, framing a pair of video screens -- and the frieze suggested the imposing facade of Henry Bacon's Lincoln Memorial, where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech 45 years to the day before Obama's address. Nearly as impossible to miss were the set's visual connections to the White House." So the columns were strategically created and placed in order to lend a neoclassical grandeur to Obama's appearance, and to connect him in viewers' minds with the leadership of Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr.

So just as thousands were spent on creating a certain respectable look for Palin, even more was spent on creating the "right look" for Obama to deliver this speech, to look "presidential." But Palin's wardrobe purchases were condemned much more harshly than were Obama's purchases of the columns, and the extra security required to have him deliver his speech in an outdoor stadium.

Similarly, the Chicago Tribune reported on Friday that the "City of Chicago is planning for more than 70,000 people to mob an Election Night rally in Grant Park for Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, an event that will involve police and firefighters working overtime, blocked streets and at least $2 million in extra costs. The Obama campaign has vowed to foot the bill..." The Tribune reported that Mayor Daley said "he would prefer to see the event held at an indoor venue the (already booked) United Center and lamented it would cost $2 million to pull off the Grant Park event.

But the Obama campaign prefers outdoor events, it seems, despite the high extra costs. I didn't see mention of this extra $2 million expenditure, a figure far greater than the $150,000 wardrobe expense, in the national media.

It's all, to an extent, simulacra, isn't it? Political stagecraft of one kind or another.

Both candidates, by necessity, are required to consciously create a certain external image. By virtue of how women are judged more harshly on their appearance, Palin's purchases were of clothes, Obama's were of Greek columns and fireworks and extra security so he can have outdoor rallies that strike an historic, celebratory note, a note that he heralds a new politics.

The unequal response of the media and pundits, the quick universal condemnation of the $150,000 wardrobe charges is reflective of our intrinsic societal gender bias--how we are more prepared to give larger leeway to a male candidate to spend money on manufacturing a presidential image.

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