Archives About Staff BagNews is dedicated to visual politics, media literacy and the analysis of news images.
September 8, 2008

The Palin Nerve

Time Palin Cover-1

This idea that she’s some sort of fragile, know-nothing amateur who is going to quiver and collapse when subjected to the rough and tumble world of American journalism is painfully ludicrous….



Moreover, Sarah Palin isn’t Dan Quayle. She is extremely smart — much smarter than the average media star who will eventually be interviewing her — and she is very politically skilled as well. She didn’t go from obscure small-town city council member to Governor to Vice Presidential nominee by accident. She’ll be more than adequately prepared for the shallow, 30-second, rote exchanges that pass for political interviews in our serious mainstream discourse. Anyone expecting her to fall on her face or be exposed as some drooling simpleton is going to be extremely disappointed. That might (or might not) happen with real questioning, but she’s not going to face that.

–  from: The mighty, scary press corps / Glenn Greenwald

Even without the larger media sensationalizing and the echoing of GOP spin about Sarah Palin, this would still represent a very fine cover.  You don’t get this kind of portrait without a photographer daring to look at a not-so-passive subject — and requiring the subject to have to deal with it.

… But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Just what is so impressive about this image?

First, you have to appreciate we are looking at someone completely new to the national stage being asked to present herself for the first time to potentially hundreds of millions of Americans.  In response, Palin is not only not daunted or nervous (or even flattered or honored).  Instead, in her fixed gaze back at us, she chooses to defy the task.  In other words, she is not offering herself up to be looked at or studied in the way a portrait requires some submission or buy-in.  Rather, Palin exercises the authority to defy the exercise and examine the photographer (and us) back.


But, brilliantly, that’s already built into the editorial context, as TIME acknowledges Palin’s skill, political intelligence and nerve in a completely matter-of-fact way, alluding to a political education and (in the title of the cover story“How Sarah Palin Mastered Politics”) the mastery that, in a national debut, could produce a maverick (read: defiant) stance and a gaze like this.

The other telling thing about this image is Palin’s complete subversion of the color pink.  In her acceptance speech last week, Palin went out of her way to blatantly recode the way the public is to understand her lipstick.  What it is to signify instead — completely bastardizing the more typical feminine, softening and peace-loving associations to the pink of her lips, and by extension, her clothing — is the violence and intimidation of the pit bull.

Two more features here, one of which is probably a bit of a commentary by the photographer.  It’s interesting how Palin, so fixed as she is, is captured off-center.  The feeling I get, although it’s subjective territory, is that placing her at the edge or the margin was how the shooter used the frame to speak to her underlying temperament and carriage.  Finally, an astute reader alerted me to one other “off-kilter” element here.  If you follow the line of Palin’s glasses using the bottom of the TIME letters as a level, you’ll notice her head is frames are tilted to the right.  I don’t know how to interpret this except to say that, in the portrait, it’s another element that lends tension and contradiction to a person who, in the rest of her presentation — her hair, her makeup and her designer glasses (which are creating so much sensation) — is otherwise so carefully composed.

Either tomorrow or Tuesday, I’m going to touch on the new Newsweek cover, which I see as little more than blatant Palin PR.  Beyond the TIME cover, however, what the public needs is a more uncomplicated view of the Alaskan governor, in the vein of Sarah Palin buddy-buddy with Senator Stevens; or Sarah Palin addressing the secessionist Alaska Independence Party; or the glorified hunter with the bloody animals; or Sara Palin — with a smug expression, surrounded by smug-looking aides, Sarah Palin bumper stickers and a soda can with a Superman emblem on it — touting The Bridge To Nowhere.

Palin-Stevens Palin-Independence-Party Palin Caribou

Nowhere-Alaska

h/t: Eric



(image 1: Richard Fleischman/Time.  September 3, 2008. Minneapolis.  image 2: TPM.  image 3: Alaskan Independence Party website. image 4: Associated Press. caption: A HUNTING TROPHY: In this undated photo, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and one of her daughters pose with a caribou she shot. A woman in an exceedingly macho state, Palin has not always been taken seriously. But opponents cross her at their peril.image 4: Obama Campaign via washingtonidependent.com)

  • http://profile.typekey.com/EvilPoet/ EvilPoet

    That face isn’t unfamiliar to me. That face represents a face that has stared back at me in judgment all my life. Mocking mean spirited judgment wrapped up in a blanket of hypocritical piousness.

  • UMC

    Great analysis of this photo. Sarah Palin IS someone to be reckoned with, even if it’s still in the Republican vein of extreme negativity. As stated, “She’ll be more than adequately prepared for the shallow, 30-second, rote exchanges that pass for political interviews in our serious mainstream discourse.” When I force myself to look at her up close and personal like this (ick), I feel that her middle finger is defiantly wagged at me below the screen and out of sight and her cocked head punctuates that attitude….”You all just watch me”…..”I ALWAYS get what i want.”
    I first observed this “in your face” energy when she spoke at the RNC and wanted to make a determined point….she scrunced up her nose as she delivered her most potent lines.
    She’s a pitbull with lipstick; a Dick Cheney with heels. More of the same but this time in a deceptively seductive and deadly package. It’s a typical Rovian/Machevellian move by the Republicans.

  • rchsod

    the face of a mother who threw her 17 year old daughter to the wolves to save her quest for the presidency.
    yes evilpoet, i`ve seen faces like her`s in my life too.

  • KansasKowboy

    Palin is a religeous zealot who is on her way to power so that she can start a religeous war and weed out the non-believers. Then she and her whakko religeous buddies can use their magical powers given to them by god to rule the world. This is not the gaze of a strong powerful leader, it is the gaze of a psychotic religeous zealot.

  • KansasKowboy

    I am sorry, I am angry and when I am angry my spelling goes out the window “religious”

  • http://www.agrippinaminor.com/wp/ Scarabus

    FWIW, I opened the photo in Photoshop and checked using the rectangular selection tool. The marquee ran right through the center of her pupils. It’s the designer glasses that are tilted, not the head. Doesn’t alter what you said about the effect, of course.

  • http://www.woodka.com donna

    Hitting nearly every liberal hot button in one choice as well as pointing up so many of the hypocrisies of the right so well. Palin is indeed a brilliant choice for the modern Republican party.
    I think the fates have something interesting in mind for her, indeed.

  • marysz

    She was made up by a professional make-up artist for this photo, of course. It would have been more revealing if she had been photographed wearing make-up she applied herself. The cover makes her look smarter and more sophisticated than she really is. Still, the image of a woman looking straight at us and not averting her eyes is a powerful one. It reminds me of the image of the woman’s face from the opening credits of Hitchcock’s Vertigo:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rkHn8PNGYaA
    Just like the Kim Novak character in Vertigo, she’s someone whose identity is uncertain (and potentially destructive).

  • http://www.jaxxattaxx.com/ black dog barking

    Let’s say, hypothetically, you were running for President of the United States backed by a political party that has left a trail of ruin in its administration of government. So ruinous that you had zero areas of public policy to which you could direct attention in an effort to convince the electorate their future should be in your hands. Foreign policy: failure. Domestic policy: failure. Economic policy: failure. At this junction you have limited choices. You could quit, an honorable choice. You could put forth a set of policies recognizing past failure and projecting reasonable counter measures. You’d sound a lot like your opponent. Or you could change the subject.
    Well, the subject has changed. All of a sudden it’s back to the shouting, the he-said she-said (with a real she!!), the Bloods vs the Crips 2008. We don’t have time to talk about anything else. Besides, what else is really important?
    The reporting I’d really really love to see — send reporters out to track down Osama bin Laden and get his take on Senator McCain’s bold choice.

  • Neal

    She has been pre-emptively protected by the rumor as to who was the mother of Trig. Anything that has to do with her or her family are now off-limits because there will be immediate cries of “foul”.
    The proper “deferential” reporter (Gibson, ABC) has been chosen for the first Teevee intereviewer. Mr. Sanctimony meet Mrs. Sanctimony.
    My guess is that only two to four interviews will be permitted between now and the election-that keeps the issues to a minimum. The reasons for limted number of interviews will be lack of camapigning and family time. And, if the interviews become like rare prizez, who wants to upset the applecart by non-deferential reporters.
    I wonder what conditions have been placed on the interviews. Talk about the mystery candidate.

  • jbmom

    I agree with the stare at us assessment but don’t you think that there is a slight suggestion by the flared nostils and tightness of her mouth that she is reacting to a bad smell – I would guess more than the “liberal stink” perhaps the slight stench of those who would defie her her will?

  • http://profile.typekey.com/[email protected]/ DennisQ

    The Republicans are going with a high-risk strategy because they can’t afford to play it safe. McCain is not all that attractive a candidate, and Palin adds very little to his appeal. Republicans are hoping to coast into November, without either of their nominees showing the ability to respond quickly to changing events.
    Palin can hit the ball if it’s teed up for her. But that’s not how events come at the President of the United States. If she can’t think on her feet, she shouldn’t be running for vice president. But I suspect the real issue is keeping her on message – not as easy as it seems, given some of the quixotic positions McCain has taken just this year alone. For instance, McCain called Social Security a “disgrace” because taxes from working people pay for the benefits of retirees. Apparently he just found out about it! More recently, McCain defined middle class as anyone making less than five million dollars a year.
    Elder statesman John McCain gets away with zany statements like these possibly because of the perception that he is a hero. However, newcomer Palin can’t defend McCain’s gaffes without sounding like a ditso. She apparently hopes to avoid reporters for the next eight weeks. It might work; who knows?

  • marysz

    I agree with jbmom that Palin’s stare out at the viewer contains a barely contained sneer. And in the weeks to come, we’ll not only see the sneer, we’ll hear it in her unpleasant and eerily unmodulated voice.

  • Sage

    I don’t see this candidate as a “pit bull in lipstick” or “Cheney in lipstick”. Instead I see the current GOP ticket as Bush in lipstick and Cheney in a hero’s garb. She, like Bush, is window dressing for the ticket. Like him she fulfills the expectations of the religious right and will be undaunted by facts. She’ll be dependent on others when it comes to the national & international issues that are most important like the economy, the financial & housing crises, global warming, war and peace, energy policy (other than “drill, drill, drill”)the further division of our country between rich and poor, etc. Her statement at the GOP convention which derided Obama for “worrying” about terrorists “having their rights read to them” should send familiar chills up & down our spines.
    McCain, like Cheney, is all about warriors and fighting and terror and fighting and fear, fear, fear, and fighting, fighting, fighting. He’s just a little more palatable and untouchable than Cheney because he wraps himself in the POW mantle. It will truly be 4 more years..only this time it will be Cheney/Bush. I am fearful for our country if these two are elected.

  • margaret

    Folks, that look is nothing but what she learned from appearing on TV: focus on the lens and pretend it is one person you are looking at.
    You all give her too much credit. She got where she is because of who paid her way.

  • http://politickybitch.blogspot.com/ nunya

    Bah. Why do we even bother with the mainstream newz?
    FacktCheck.org
    I’m tired of the Molly McMooseturd show. I ain’t getting neo-con-jobbed this time.

  • BlakeIncarnate

    Photo of a neocon warrior.
    But in this case, not really a warrior enlisted for duty but of trained religious zealot. Compare this to every photo you’ve seen of a fanatic from Iraq, Afganistan, Iran for example in Christianne Amenpour’s God’s Warrior’s. There is no pretense, just certainty and committment. You look like this once you become convinced. Hagee, Ralph Reed, Dobson all look like this. I am surprised to see this, but very enlightened by it and alarmed.
    As McCain is to Bush, Palin is to Cheney.

  • zzyzx

    It has been said that men with power, such as politicians in Washington, like to be dominated by women in the bedroom. Without getting too graphic, I think anyone over 50 can remember some very colorful episodes from the past. Perhaps even some more recent. What I see in Palin’s ‘right back atcha’ gaze is just that. She will take you down and make you whimper like a baby in diapers. Is it wrong to suppose that attitude is the attraction to the republican male? Most of them, apparently, are incapable of seeing a woman in any other than sexual terms.
    Also, something I wasn’t aware of until a few years ago when I started to wear glasses. They can serve as an aid to a certain kind of anonymity. They can shield your eyes from penetration by a viewer, or at least obfuscate them. At least that is how it seems from the inside. However, I have heard that she doesn’t need glasses, but wears clear lenses to make her look less like a beauty queen. As if…..
    As others have commented, her gaze is less a challenge than a dare. Take her on at your peril, indeed! I’ve worked with women like that. A friend to your face and the minute your back is turned, the knife drops out of her sleeve to slash at your back. If she becomes president, and it increasingly looks like she will, the entire country will be running for cover.
    I have an idea how Obama/Biden can counter this……Shot like this one “She’s pretty” Shot of the deer/moose killing “She’s fierce” “But does any of this get you a decent job?” Shot of closed factories. “Lower your taxes? Protect your retirement?” Shot of couple at a table with bills. “Rebuild New Orleans?” Shot of flooding of NOLA. “Repair our bridges?” Shot of Minneapolis bridge collapse. “I’m Barrack Obama and I approved this message.”
    Well, anyway, I tried. The democrats have to fight image with image. Otherwise it’s, “John Sidney McCain III, do you swear……..”

  • http://roschellenelson.blogspot.com Roschelle
  • Mayson Lancaster

    Re: the tilt
    The glasses are tilted, but the head is also, though much less.

  • http://home.comcast.net/~sfs73/images/WordyGrrrl.jpg MadameGonzo

    fwiw, overheard in The Castro : “Oh, she’s such a little Christian Drag Queen, honey! a female female impersonator ;-)

  • Jackie Bell

    A person can have a high IQ, which only supplies that person with “potential”. There are myriad reasons why great potential can never be realized. When Palin speaks, she sounds like a person who never made it out of middle school, and she obviously has not aimed at great intellectual pursuits. She has managed to understand how to present herself with confidence. Yet all of that aside, as the real Palin surfaces, we see that something is amiss. There is something strange about her. I wouldn’t say that she is a sociopath, but definitely detached from the reality around her–self serving and lacking in understanding of ethical behavior. She lacks a sense of responsibility regarding Alaska’s natural resources and is inhumane in the extreme. Personally, I cannot imagine a person like this in charge of anything. Sarah and Joe are simply abnormalities–like the freak shows of the past. Please, no more.

Refresh Archives

Random Notes