Is Liberal Disdain for Sarah Palin a Victorian Holdover?

By
Palin at the Republican National Convention in a $2,500 Valentino jacket. Photo: Getty Images

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.