Sarah Palin is back, much to the chagrin of the nation’s liberal cosmopolitans. In less than 30 minutes last week, at a dinner party in a plush Upper West Side apartment, several members of what Palin calls the “liberal media elite” — book editors, magazine writers, and Hollywood filmmakers — were raging at the wave of publicity for the Alaskan rogue’s book. “She can barely construct a complete sentence, and it’ll be a best-seller,” fumed one. Another remarked that Palin’s “trailer-park accent” sounded like “fingernails on a chalkboard.” Her style and profligacy were major topics: “She spent all that campaign money on clothes and she still looks cheap”; her recent hairdo “makes her look like a school principal trying to be sexy”; and “that lip gloss is so whorish.” Summing it up, the wife of a film producer firmly placed her wine glass on the table, paused to gather attention, and declared, “She just has no class.”
It’s ironic that many of Palin’s critics on the left rely on Victorian arguments to attack the self-styled maverick. They complain of her brashness and lack of humility, seemingly unaware that these were the very charges made against women who fought for suffrage. Suggestions that Palin’s inability to speak proper English disqualifies her from holding public office echo charges made by nineteenth-century politicians who wished to disenfranchise blacks and immigrants on the grounds that their “ignorance” of genteel customs would degrade democracy. Just as Palin’s detractors delight in exposing her shopping sprees, Victorians routinely chastised the lower classes for their spending on “frivolities,” especially clothing styles above their station.
Francis Wayland, a prominent nineteenth-century theologian and purveyor of Victorian norms in the United States, attacked “reckless expense” for objects and garments “which yield no other utility than the mere gratification of the senses, or, which are rendered necessary by command of fashion, or the love of ostentation.” Mary Augusta LaSelle, the author of moral primers for young women in the early twentieth century, condemned “the flashily dressed” working-class woman “in her attempts at finery.” According to LaSelle, such a woman “lacks sufficient judgment to discriminate concerning a style of dress suitable to a woman of wealth to that suited to a girl in an office on a salary of possibly $12 per week.”
That contemporary liberals’ distaste for Palin’s brazen and unrefined sexuality unites them with nineteenth-century conservatives is demonstrated by the title of a forthcoming book edited by Nation editors Richard Kim and Betsy Reed: Going Rouge: Sarah Palin — An American Nightmare. The book, featuring an all-star liberal lineup of authors including Naomi Klein, Gloria Steinem, Katha Pollitt, Jim Hightower, Katrina Vanden Heuvel, Thomas Frank, Frank Rich, and Robert Reich, includes numerous references to the makeup worn by the “Affirmative Action Babe” who is “Flirting Her Way to Victory.” Similarly, the Huffington Post revealed during the campaign that Palin’s makeup artist was “McCain’s highest paid staffer.” Puritans were the first to attack the wearing of makeup. Clergyman Thomas Tuke’s 1616 “Discourse Against Painting and Tincturing” warned that cosmetics were “brought into use by the devil” to make women worship themselves. During the Victorian era, according to the historian Kathy Peiss, makeup was commonly viewed as “the aesthetic side of vice.” Lipstick and rouge were known as “the scarlet shame” and were associated not just with prostitutes but also with women who dared to appear in public unescorted by men. Of course, Palin herself has declared her devotion to “good, old” American values. But just as the right has long delighted in coded sexist attacks on Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi, the left can often sink into a surprisingly offhand Victorianism.