Archives About Staff BagNews is dedicated to visual politics, media literacy and the analysis of news images.
February 14, 2010

Palin by Comparison


A (female) reader directed me to a site which uses a simple illustration technique to raise questions about "the cosmetics" of Sarah Palin. If you click on the photo above, you'll get a sense of how it works.

Now, click through and roll over the examples … and come back and tell us what you're seeing. 

(h/t: Lisa W.)

(photo: unattributed. Modified by Kelly Hanrahan)

  • Progressive Mom

    I’m seeing an attractive woman, with or without the touchups, and an attempt to be rather mean-spirited with no payoff.
    And I’m a dyed-in-the-wool-don’t-vote-for-Republicans Democrat.
    If the person who has time to do this is looking for work, I’m looking for a house painter. .. /snark off.

  • gubernutoreal


  • podesta

    She looks better without makeup. Still with Dick Cheney snarling lips, but better.

  • Kathryn in MA

    Sarah without makeup looks like a Democrat!

  • bystander

    Whoa… All the world’s a stage. Sarah Palin as “stage” with “sets” as opposed to being an “actor” on the stage. Interesting. I get to imagine the Sarah as she looks when she’s hanging around the house. What’s curious to me is I’m having trouble reconciling the no-nothing Sarah Palin, of Katie Couric interview fame, with these images devoid of all her signifiers. I’m also struck by how very average she seems without them. Must be that is an artifact of the degree to which I am influenced by “packaging.”
    Paging Irving Goffman… Will Irving Goffman please pick up at a white courtesy phone… Paging Irving Goffman…

  • The Tim Channel

    Sally Fields.

  • Matt Platte

    That’s the best criticism y’all can muster: she wears makeup sometimes? What a pathetic, sexist and tone-deaf personal attack. I’m surprised you’re not pointing and laughing at Trig the Tard. Sheesh! There are plenty of policy issues to play with, so why stoop to this poo-flinging exercise?

  • Maggie Jochild

    This is terrific — and the fact that folks can’t take in the obfuscation of gender-based illusion to me is reminiscent of your recent post about how the public has stopped noticing the militarization of our public spaces.
    I just wrote about this at my FB page. In part I said Palin is “stripped bare to reveal small, mean eyes (to me very reminiscent of Dubya’s hateful beady countenance), frightened belligerence, and vacant intelligence.” In short, Dubya without porcine lipstick.

  • lucaites

    I have to agree completely here. Are we surprised that (a) women use makeup or that (b) public figures seem to pay special attention
    to such matters? And is there anything particularly interesting or important about the fact that Sarah Palin does? Surely one could do the same with
    almost any public figure — man or woman. BUT HERE’s THE BIG POINT: Unless we have something particular and unique to say about
    this viz. Palin, we come across as seeming mean spirited and petty — and in fact that’s just what we are being. Aside form what that
    says about our character its not particularly productive for a progressive politics … indeed, my sense is that all it does is to reinforce
    those who support Palin’s paleolithic politics and see her as a victim. We should be better than this.

  • Serr8d

    “… and come back and tell us what you’re seeing.”
    From the Unplugger blogger, an obvious jealousy fit. Sexist too, to borrow some of your leftist terminology. Is there any purpose? Other than mean-spiritedness?
    From you, the blogger, just more of he same spin and twirl to make you feel better about having Barbara Streisand, Helen Thomas, Hillary Clinton, Teresa Kerry, Madeline Albright, Janet Reno, Janet Napolitano, Andrea Dworkin, Nancy Pelosi, Susan Estrich, Rachel Maddow and Michelle Obama (oh, and don’t forget Amy Bishop) in your party.
    You go, Andrew Sullivan.

  • bystander

    Thanks, Maggie, for the obfuscation of gender-based illusion. The image sans signifiers Michale chose to feature, and the one of Palin in the white suit at click-through were particularly striking to me. My thought at seeing them was this image could be male or female.

  • Julia Grey

    Much as I despise her, I think she actually looks GREAT in those shots. Fresh-faced and pretty. The only bad one is the last one, and that’s only because of her squinting expression.
    The only thing this shows is that she could get away with wearing a lot less makeup and be even MORE attractive to the rank and file.
    Petty, petty, petty.
    Not worthy of this site.

  • MMF

    She looks like a person who wants to be taken seriously when the makeup and hair are removed.
    Of course once she started talking that illusion would be smashed…

  • Crabby

    I think the point is she isn’t some “real american” … she is as fake as the rest. Putting up a phoney front for acceptance. That is what I got from it. Many repub men wouldn’t be gaga for a plain palin.
    Disclosure: I am anti makeup, because it is madeup and unreal fakery.

  • Crabby

    nicely said. Or like a soccer mom that is busy raising her kids.

  • Crabby

    sexist wear makeup, don’t you know.

  • CF2K

    Very interesting contrast. Sarah’s helmet–hair, glasses, earrings, and ominpresent Alaska lapel pins–girds her for battle. Glasses, in particular, act like a visor/eye protectors. Also, a number of the visible earrings consist of Native American (Inuit?) beadwork. Most frequent lapel pin is the blue star with red border(stripped down version of the Alaska flag?). Would be interesting to get the dates on these pictures, to see if she’s still using the “Alaska” brand to define herself since resigning the Governorship.

  • CF2K

    I must say, I don’t really get the meta-discussion about the “inappropriateness” on including this on BAGnewsNotes. Sarah Palin trades shamelessly in her purported sexual appeal, and to protest that we’re not supposed to hold it up to scrutiny lets her get away with having it both ways.

  • Crabby

    well said, the democrats are not beautiful like the republicans (when they have make up on). Vote for beauty and make up yeah!

  • g

    I actually feel great about having some of the women you mention in my party. They’re excellent stateswomen and accomplished people, and many are quite attractive women.
    Not all the women your list are Democratic party figures, of course. Wonder what criteria you used to include them?
    And “Amy Bishop”? nice one, Serr8d. Was it your first reaction upon hearing the news to find out what political party this poor disturbed person might have belonged to, just so you could employ it in your mean-spirited reductive argument? You betray the utterly bankrupt pettiness of your thinking.

  • Blue Shark

    This is newsworthy … Because?

  • g

    It’s always interesting to see celebrities without makeup – weren’t the tabloids featuring similar shots of movie and tv stars?
    I don’t like as much makeup as Palin uses, but she is well within the bounds of mainstream, and almost every professional woman has similar grooming norms. And because these photos are all taken from appearances where she would naturally be as professionally made up as possible – major speeches and TV appearances – it doesn’t really give us a picture of her grooming choices when not on camera.
    I think it’s a bit unfair to single her out for this treatment.
    And I am not a Palin fan by any means. I’d rather expose her lazy thinking, her double standard, her dishonesty and her demagoguery than slam her for what most professional women use during public appearances.

  • Anonymous

    I think some of us have forgotten that this is a blog about visual politics.
    HRC, and Pelosi always, ALWAYS had unflattering photographs published on right wing blogs, and some left wing blogs for that matter.
    Palin doesn’t have as many unflattering shots. She always has a preening smile and hair done up and makeup. A lot of her appeal does come from her looks. I don’t mean just physically. I mean she looks like what the Republicans want to see in their view of women. Pretty, made up, with the right kind of jewelry and on the right side.
    What we’re seeing here is an attempt to look at someone underneath that exterior. A graphic artist has to resort to using Photoshop because there aren’t any pictures of Palin sans her Palin personality.

  • Scarabus

    I expected to hear more about her glasses. Glasses can help the wearer see out, but can also help prevent others from seeing in. The woman I see without the glasses seems squinty-eyed, lost, directionless.

  • g

    I just learned where the “oh and don’t forget Amy Bishop” talking point came from! Apparently an anonymous student on says “she’s a socialist” about Amy Bishop, which was touted by Glenn Reynolds as undeniable truth that Amy Bishop is officially a Democrat!
    Isn’t it nice to see how the right wing works?

  • lq

    Blue star on white background with red border = Blue Star Mom/Family; family member on active duty. Gold star = killed on active duty. There is a banner you can display in your window (memorialized in ’40’s film of the Sullivan family, who lost five sons during WWII). I think this was started after WWI; ties to military are loose, it tries to be family centered.

  • Serr8d

    g, Thanks! for the info; I had no idea that Amy Bishop was actually a leftist, other than her Harvard grad status, and originally being from Massachusetts (home of Scot Brown, (R, Kennedy)).
    Otherwise, nice pot-kettle argument you’ve got going, you left-wing tea baggee you.

  • Boomeransgt

    Once the artificial cosmetic disguise (including the glasses) is removed, I see a puritanical woman who is fearful and judging.
    (What I don’t understand is why so many comments had to beat up on bagnewsnotes for asking us what we saw.)

  • 14All

    That’s funny, I think she looks much more lovely without all the “armor” of “traditional womanhood.” Much more likeable, too. But I’m sure that’s because I’m a liberal.

  • happyfungirl

    I see the same woman in either case. She is physically attractive, with or without the enhancements. Intellectually, she is a lightweight and relies on slogans and a charming presence to spew hateful idealogy. The make-up/hair styles/jewelry doesn’t really mask that for me…but it may for many of her fans. Probably gets a few more men paying attention, who would typically not listen to any woman.
    But attractiveness is not a prerequisite for most of these teabaggers – they listen to rush limba and glen beck, two aggressively unattractive people by any objective standards.

  • Inigo Montoya

    I see huge gender differences (not): what female politicians do to their appearance on TV with make-up and hair-styling and clothes, male politicians do with, uh, make-up and, uh, hair-styling and, uh, clothes.
    Show me some pictures of major male politicians speechifying with blotchy skin, badly-cut hair and dumpy clothes so I can compare the effect. You could start with W or Obama, both of whom have relied a great deal on their own particular forms sex-appeal.

  • mcmama

    Who is Amy Bishop and why do we care?

  • mcmama

    Without the makeup, she looks like a real person – someone I could take seriously. With the makeup she looks like a product – it’s all about the outside, the flash, the camera appeal. What goes on the inside isn’t the point since, in the unlikely event that she’s elected to office ever again, she’s going to do what she’s told by the money men anyway.

  • matt

    isn’t the point to all of this that palin – hot babe – makes a pretty package for the inane policy positions she espouses?
    most of us here are not the “target audience.”
    bush was the pretty face for cheney (with or without makeup).

  • donna

    I think the point is more how over madeup Palin is in comparison to most political women and celebrities, and points out there is no reason for her to be over madeup. It suggests that “Sarah Palin” is actually a characterization of the real person. It would be very interesting to get some idea of who the “real” Sarah Palin is, underneath the facade.

  • Progressive Mom

    ” Sexist too, to borrow some of your leftist terminology…. same spin and twirl to make you feel better about having Barbara Streisand….”
    Yes, the photo spread is sexist. You don’t have to borrow the terminology. “Leftists” are inclusive, and we share well with others.
    You, apparently, only like women who fit your definition of, ah, “purty”. Streisand, the first lady, Maddow, et al apparently don’t fit your definition. You are not inclusive.
    You are sexist.
    Happy Valentine’s Day.

  • LarryInNoVA

    I see the celebration of the last remaining cruelty of our culture: sexism.
    I see insecure “progressive” men and women seeking to mollify their anxieties about Sarah Palin through the nihilistic degradation of her humanity. No man would’ve been subjected to the sexist indignity of this faux realism for simply exercising his birth-right to participate in American politics. If you’re a woman who happens to be Sarah Palin or Hillary Clinton, however, then it’s gonzo time–anything goes.
    I see the conclusive message of 2008 to our daughters who may wish to seek the highest office in the nation: Proceed if you dare. We will strip you bare of your dignity and self-respect for public ridicule, and traumatize what remains of your pathetic humanity for our auto-erotic fulfillment.
    The person(s) who created this, and those who trade in it, are disgusting.

  • Amy

    I have had many online debates with Palin supporters and I have discovered one interesting thing: You can accuse Palin of being a bold-faced liar and they don’t care. But imply that she is anything less than the perfect encapsulation of physicalfeminine beauty, and they come out fighting.
    I become more and more convinced that her supporters’ love of her is rooted almost entirely in her looks.

  • KarenZ

    I can’t stand Sarah Palin, but this is a pointless exercise. Lots of women wear make-up. Most women style their hair in some flattering manner. Most women would dress up a bit when appearing before a crowd.
    There’s nothing to see here, except how adept the illustrator is with Photoshop.
    And BTW, this post is entirely appropriate for BNN, which is, after all, a blog about visual politics.

  • [email protected]

    Until you show us John McCain unplugged and Barack Obama unplugged, etc., this will be a terribly sexist excercise not worthy of this very good blog.

  • Withnail

    Quite a simple, yet stunning realization about Sarah Palin: When realizing that all her acoutrements that she puts on her face – the bright red lipstick, the flag earings and pins, the lenscrafter glasses, the giant hair and everything else she put on in an effort not to appear PLAIN -
    This woman wears America on her face.
    It’s a simple fact that someone designed this woman for the national stage as a character two steps away from painting her face with an American Flag.
    She might as well have “USA! USA! USA” tattooed on her forehead.

  • Tardigrade

    I clicked back and forth and was impressed with the person’s careful extraction of shadows and eye shading from the make-up. Why is it that without the careful shading and color streaked hair, as someone before said, she looked like a Democrat? No, not a Dem but someone with less time for artifacts. The hair styles helped add size to her head and framed a rather plain face. She does not have the talent to just ‘go’ with what she was born with.

  • pragmatic realist

    In the pictures without the makeup, I see and feel someone who is more open and vulnerable, more “human”. The made-up face and hair seem to act as war-paint making a mask to cover the vulnerability and make people respect her.
    I have always felt very sorry for this woman. I can’t really say why.

  • g

    I really must apologize to you, serr8d. I assumed that you were parroting right-wing talking points distributed to you by right wing bloggers such as Glenn Reynolds, who today irresponsibly asserted that an anonymous post in was evidence that Amy Bishop was a socialist, and from that inferred that she was a Democrat – stemming from the right wing’s erroneous talking point that “socialist”=Democrat.
    I was wrong in that assumption.
    Instead, from your reply to me, it appears that you asserted that Amy Bishop was a Democrat with absolutely no evidence whatsoever – not even the false and erroneous link that Glenn Reynolds latched onto. In fact, you simply made something up without even a shred, even a whiff of fact to support it.
    I stand corrected. Thank you for clearing that up for me.

  • Katie

    (And backing up your observations on every point is Serr8d’s post, below.)

  • ti molo

    Can we get one of Richard Shelby w/o the dye-job? Bob Dole or, and I have nothing to back this up, John Edwards? I was a supporter early on in the 08′ primaries, but he is a little too into his looks to be all natural. How about Boehner and THE Buckeye Tan.
    Keeping it simple, whats the point of this exercise?

  • Withnail

    This woman has America painted on her face.

  • Megan

    That’s what I thought too! I hadn’t realized how many of my cues come from make-up. Without it, she could be anyone addressing a city council on behalf of the neighborhood.

  • tinwoman

    I have to point out in both the “before” and “after” pictures, she is wearing makeup, quite a lot of it. The difference is only that the lipstick and the glasses have been photoshopped out. The foundation and contour blush, etc. are all still visible. We have no idea what she would actually look like entirely without any makeup.

  • Ursula L

    I noticed that the “without makeup” pictures still show a lot of makeup. There is pretty clearly lipstick or lipgloss, only in a lighter color. Still foundation and blush, almost identical to what was in the original. Still some eye makeup. Eyebrows are still tweezed. Hair is still colored and highlighted, just in different tones. The hair is shorter in the back, but the front/bangs is still the same.
    Which shows just how hard it is to get away from makeup, as a woman. Even a “natural” look, allegedly without artifice, still involves a lot of work, and extensive use of cosmetics.
    It would be interesting to see images intended to look genuinely un-made-up. No cosmetics. Hair without coloring, highlights, or fancy styles (just let it grow or keep it in a simple style, keep it clean and perhaps held back in some way.) In short, the same level of maintenance as is appropriate for a professional man.

  • Yg Bluig

    Gosh, that is one great, big, tacky “ALASKA” broach she is wearing. Looks like her kid made it in summer camp.
    It’s hard for me to say what the point of this photo essay is. Yes, Palin when all gussied up is very pretty, and when she isn’t, she is less so. The same holds for just about anyone else on earth. I’ve always thought the National Enquirer’s periodic ’stars without makeup’ exclusive is pointless; I want my stars with makeup, frankly.
    If the point is to show that once you take away the lipstick and the designer eye glasses, there is no ‘there’ there with Palin, I don’t think it accomplishes it. I’ve thought there was no ‘there’ there from the first time I heard her speak.

  • Wordsmith

    Maybe the question is this: What were you expecting us to say, Michael?

  • Dr. Mike

    No Kathryn, its called a Pit Bull (without lipstick).

  • BrickSykes

    Well, there’s always this notion regarding women in politics: Generally speaking, aren’t ALL forms of “Make-Up” a usually mild form of deception? Honestly, when concerning other women in politics, is Sarah Palin’s presentation of her self the same as Hillary Clinton, or the German lady, or Queen Elizabeth, for Christ’s sake! No, friends, Sarah Palin is as much ‘over the top’ as Katherine Harris was, or Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee is, or any other inordinately over-Bondo’d woman in an official Public capacity. Much of some people’s ‘Make-Up’ is simply a ‘disguise’ that could be used to mask a person’s real demeanor, or state of mind. It must be limited in some reasonable fashion or any attempt at sincerity or one’s other emotions will be misrepresented and therefore unfair to any co-conversant. In my opinion, that is.
    Ms. Palin needs to approach public matters as ‘bald-faced’ and genuinely serious about public matters as she can. She disserves the public otherwise.

  • moebius

    Mean-spirited in comparison to what? Extreme right-wing nuts (Coulter, Rush, Beck et al), and their corporate media enablers, make tons of money cranking out mean-spirited innuendo every day. But, apparently, those on the far right are emotionally fragile and must be protected from the real world. All the rage and bluster is just one defense mechanism for these delicate spirits. Presumably, the need to oversimplify the world and the craving for a all-controlling Daddy State are just other defense mechanisms.

  • scarshapedstar

    Wow, people are really going out of their way to avoid accepting the obvious:
    If she didn’t have the makeup, she wouldn’t have a cult. You can say that this is true of many women, and I certainly won’t argue, but it makes the Teabaggers look just a teensy bit vapid; after all, they’re pledging allegiance to a dress-up doll.

  • djjl

    I agree.

  • PS: Public Square

    I think it would be pointless endeavor to have a discussion about visual politics and ignore the fact that for women, dress, make-up (and the undercurrent of sexuality they imply) must be part of the conversation. Nor do I find the analytical exercise of discussing it on this site in anyway sexist.
    In fact, the topic of image construction becomes particularly interesting when it intersects with political power. Examples like Hatshepsut (a female Pharaoh of Egypt who clothed herself in the male dress of the title), or Queen Elizabeth of England, (literally painted as the virgin married the nation), reveal how long women have been utilizing dress as political tool.
    Of course, these aforementioned women actually held power; and while Sarah Palin certainly has a following, she has yet only aspired to power. The images on Sarah Palin Unplugged appear to remove hairstyle and highlights, glasses and eye makeup, lipstick color and all jewelry. It does not appear to alter facial tone or shape, clothing or background. The first thing that strikes me is that she looks older, in some images considerably so; without the highlights or lipstick, her face drains of color. (of course I should note that this would hold true for most women, given the double standard that exists regarding looks in our youth obsessed society). Sarah Palin uses the 1950’s librarian updo with glasses as her classic look to cultivate the responsible conservative, but lets her hair down sometimes, pushing the kind of under the surface sexuality that seems to drive the middle aged men wild. Mainly through the pins, she uses jewelry as a community identifier (she family of a solider, an Alaskan, an American).
    As Sarah Palin attempts to embody the angry tea party movement, it may be more interesting to look at her through the lens of Marie Antoinette, particularly given the fractured nature of Palin’s reception among Republicans and the politics of her 2008 election wardrobe. In “Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution”, Caroline Weber chronicles the disastrous political ramifications of Marie Antoinette’s fashion choices and Antoine de Baeque’s “The Body Politic: Corporeal Metaphor in Revolutionary France, 1770-1800″ details the violent societal reaction and the ideas they projected onto the body of the queen. Both perhaps serve as warning to women who too closely link their physical image with a political point of view during periods of great political division.
    Ultimately, a far more interesting meta-discussion would look at how society projects meaning onto female bodies and the role woman like Sarah Palin play in reacting/reinforcing/reshaping that meaning.

  • acm

    I note that they do more than remove her make-up and glasses — they also dull the color of her hair, make bland assumptions about her underlying coloring, and generally turn her into a bit of a parody of a 1940s hausfrau. Of course, without the make-up and glitz, I’m struck by how martial some of her outfits appear. But beyond that, I sort of like the glimpse into a real person (a bit older looking, plainer, with some character peeping through) underlying the media creation. She looks like somebody who might actually have thoughts and concerns, not just talking points.
    or is that just an illusion??

  • Victor F

    this. Both faces, pre- and post-Photoshop, are put-ons and neither add up to substance. We readers of this blog would like to believe that without the makeup, Palin could appear more “genuine” to our own aesthetic tastes. Even stripped down, though, there’d be no changing the person beneath. Both sets of photos seek to play with a reader’s aesthetic bias.

  • Anonymous

    Why would anyone need to “feel better about having Barbara Streisand, Helen Thomas, Hillary Clinton, Teresa Kerry, Madeline Albright, Janet Reno, Janet Napolitano, Andrea Dworkin, Nancy Pelosi, Susan Estrich, Rachel Maddow and Michelle Obama (oh, and don’t forget Amy Bishop) in [their] party“? Do you have a point there, or did you just have a list of Democratic “witches” supplied to you by Faux News or some teabagger?
    OK, all those women are Democrats. So what?
    As for the posting itself, if you do not understand the difference between natural and artificial, or real and phony, or the steak and the sizzle, then you should just ignore postings like this, as they are apparently beyond your ken.

  • Ben

    For a long time I’ve suspected the glasses are fake—just clear glass. I’ve never yet seen a line of refreaction in any picture. Does anyone know? Am I right or am I wrong?

  • Zoey & Me

    The technique of removing hair, eye-glasses, lipstick is amazing. She is as a photo subject an attractive woman. I think she looks good with or without in both roll outs, and the again to roll back in. She probably does well with or without make-up. But to the men out there, you won’t get what you wish for. Just wait till she opens her mouth.

  • Amy

    Uncanny similarity between the made-under Palin to the mother in the iconic Dorothea Lange Depression-era photograph -

  • Electronic Cigarette

    Very clever. It’s like seeing an ageing movie star without the lights filling the cracks in the face. Very telling.

  • Joe Blow

    I thought she looked hung-over…..
    and crazed… like that Rolling Stones song about the girl with far-away eyes…
    “a little bleary, a little worse for wear and tear… you know what kinda eyes shes got!”

  • [email protected]

    oh stfu!!!! you are the retard you bouught it up troll!!!!

  • Aunt Moe

    She looks serious and professional without makeup and the 1970s hair (a style I myself favor, but then I’m not in the public eye or politics). Women don’t need to dress down to be or look serious, but party make up and jewelry interfere with the perception.

  • Brittany

    I was thinking she looked a lot more like Hillary.

Refresh Archives

Random Notes