I’m not taking the time to document this right now (would welcome it if someone wants to), but I have the impression the great majority of commentators, including (even especially) conservative commentators, who called Sarah Palin a “quitter,” and predicted that her premature resignation would kill her political career (which it clearly hasn’t), were men.
Why is this? Some possibilities:
- Payback, or the freedom of the despised. I speculated on Twitter at the time that maybe “women take the rules less seriously” because until a historical blink of an eye ago, “the rules never took US seriously.”
- Women have fallback role options men don’t have. Women often don’t stake all on their career or profession. Motherhood (or even just the potential for it) gives them an alternative purpose and identity that can be as defining and satisfying, or at times more so, than the competitive, driven, abstract career world. Some men are beginning to avail themselves of this role flexibility, but it is still a fraught new frontier and arguably a higher risk, professionally, for a man.
- Women think different. This would be the contention of the “difference feminists,” notably Carol Gilligan, who wrote in 1982’s In a Different Voice, “Piaget in his study of the rules of the game . . . finds boys becoming through childhood increasingly fascinated with the legal elaboration of rules . . . Piaget’s observation [was] that boys in their games are more concerned with rules while girls are more concerned with relationships, often at the expense of the game itself.” [pp. 10 and 16]
That last would certainly explain Palin’s decision to elevate family over career, as well as her successful bid to sustain her emotional relationship with her supporters by making a direct appeal to them rather than by “playing by the rules” of the old-boy network.
There’s another possibility, though, and that’s that “the rules” are dissolving and changing — and not primarily because women are now in the game, but because of the death of print civilization with its structured and deferred ways of thinking. As I’ve written in noting similarities in the roles that Sarah Palin and Barack Obama play for their respective constituencies of “people like them” (and in which the femaleness of one and the blackness of the other is not at all the heart of the matter, only a superficial bonus), symbolism is now more important than substance. Camille Paglia started out celebrating this return to paganism and the primacy of the instantaneous image as an explosive liberation of the print-shackled mind, but she’s becoming increasingly concerned:
Interest in and patience with long, complex books and poems have alarmingly diminished not only among college students but college faculty in the U.S. It is difficult to imagine American students today, even at elite universities, gathering impromptu at midnight for a passionate discussion of big, challenging literary works like Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov—a scene I witnessed in a recreation room strewn with rock albums at my college dormitory in upstate New York in 1965. As a classroom teacher for over thirty years, I have become increasingly concerned about evidence of, if not cultural decline, then cultural dissipation since the 1960s, a decade that seemed to hold such heady promise of artistic and intellectual innovation. Young people today are flooded with disconnected images but lack a sympathetic instrument to analyze them as well as a historical frame of reference in which to situate them. . . . Today’s students require not subversion of rationalist assumptions—the childhood legacy of intellectuals born in Europe between the two World Wars—but the most basic introduction to structure and chronology. Without that, they are riding the tail of a comet in a media starscape of explosive but evanescent images.
Chris Hedges wrote a lament about the same development in its political aspect last November:
Political leaders in our post-literate society no longer need to be competent, sincere or honest. They only need to appear to have these qualities. Most of all they need a story, a narrative. The reality of the narrative is irrelevant. It can be completely at odds with the facts. The consistency and emotional appeal of the story are paramount.
The gender of these critics probably has far less impact on what they’re saying than their generation (Paglia was born in 1947, Hedges in 1956) — although in her first hit book, Sexual Personae, Paglia asserted women’s affinity with paganism versus the essential masculinity of Western culture (pretty well summed up here).
So do women take the rules less seriously, giving Sarah Palin a freedom to quit that a male politician wouldn’t have had? Or are the rules just melting like Dali watches in the blaze of the camera’s gaze? Or both? And if the latter, does the former give women an advantage in navigating this fluid new world? Women and male opportunists . . . because playing by the rules is too slow and clunky to be the fittest survival strategy any more.
UPDATE: And that’s precisely the sense in which Sarah being female and Barack being black IS of the essence. Coming from outside the old-boy power structure — even if the inclusive new rules have allowed them to get inside — they are far less bound by and loyal to the old-boy rules, and therefore much more mobile, maneuverable, and free to play the new game of symbolism and short-circuit straight to the emotions.