Sarah Palin is regarded by some as having too much hair, while John McCain is regarded as having too little. Surely modern technology could do something, but this article is not about that. It has to do with issues of style versus substance in in the media age.
Overall, I’m not too keen on discussing hair, due to certain personal shortcomings in that department. However, the broad topic is interesting. Appearances count, and in the media age they count more than ever. James Madison was a small man with a squeaky voice. He was so poor a speaker that they wouldn’t let him give the valedictory at his own college graduation. His wife, Dolly, was a stylish Southern-babe type. That Madison wrote the Constitution would count as a plus, but he would not stand a chance at becoming president in the age of cable TV and YouTube. John Stewart and David Letterman would consider him a gift from heaven and tear him to shreds nightly.
So back to the critical issue of Governor Palin’s hairstyle. Commentators^1^ point out that this has been established as a legitimate issue by past discussions of Mitt Romney’s careful, perhaps too careful, coif and John Edward’s Breck look achieved with $500 chop jobs. So that makes it a serious non-sexist issue, right?
The claims are that (1) her hair is too long and/or too straight for her age, and (2) the up-in-a-bun style is at least twenty years out of date. In sum, the Style Police are running Code 3. Making matters worse, Palin is contemptuous. She is quoted as saying in Vogue, “A reporter once asked me about it (her appearance) during the campaign, and I assured him I was trying to be as frumpy as I could by wearing my hair on top of my head and these schoolmarm glasses.”^2^ Saying that in Vogue is like spouting heresy on the Vatican steps. Even strong independent women should be bound by common decency.
There are several possible explanations for the hair heresy: (1) she likes the style and doesn’t care what you think, (2) her husband likes it and that’s all that matters to her, (3) she believes that her religion demands it as a form of modesty, as with beekeeper suits for some Muslim women, or (4) she is adopting the style to project a certain image to voters. (See how an analytical mind can probe even the deepest of issues?) The Vogue quote acknowledges defiance of style dictates, but does not say why.
I have no idea what the real reason is, but, as you know, that never slows down modern commentary. I’m guessing that the reason is to consciously project an image to voters. Her background as a beauty contest participant suggests she is not overly modest and that she is well aware of the importance of appearances in our superficial society. If she chose to, she could easily go the route of highly-styled gorgeous babe. Doing so would bring on a whole “pretty face without a brain in her head” criticism, to which women are far more subject than men, although exceptions like Arnold come to mind. Moreover, even if a calculation suggested that a makeover would win more votes than it lost, I suspect she would not like to have garnered votes on that basis.
There is YouTube video of Palin addressing a church group of young people using a sort of lightweight Valley Girl speech pattern. The content is appropriately full of religous references; some get upset that she references religion in church. I suspect she was adopting the speech pattern to relate to her young audience. Bill Clinton goes into a Southern accent when addressing an audience in the South.
Politicians are prey to the accusation of cynical manipulation, but I suspect it is natural. Are you more likely to speak to a cute little baby with “Good morning, young person, you are looking well today.” or some variation of “Goo wa baaaaby ooey oooey.” I believe that myself and Dick Cheney are the only ones likely to use the former mode of address.
In the past age of limited coverage, politicians could treat every media encounter as a special occasion. Now it is 24/7 and both the politicians and the public are going to have to adapt. Nonetheless, future James Madisons can forget it.
1. Falcone, L. B., Stylists to passe Sarah Palin: Let your hair down, September 4, 2008
2. Falcone, op. cit.