Palin: Embracing the Caricature?

I am loathe to give credit to Tom Shales, because I think he’s gratuitously mean and often clueless (he doesn’t get Mad Men, and thinks Lorne Michaels is a genius and SNL is still cutting-edge funny), but I think he’s onto something here: Sarah Palin is not only not defying the caricatured version of herself Tina Fey and others have created, she’s deliberately embracing it.

Sarah Palin looked as though she had prepared for her appearance at the vice presidential debate last night by studying Tina Fey’s impressions of her on “Saturday Night Live.” She twinkled and winked and piled on the perkiness, a “darn right” here and an “I’ll betcha” there.

In fact, I thought Palin even got “increasingly adorable” whenever she was cornered, just as Amy Poehler as Katie Couric said (you can see a transcript of the sketch here). She also seemed to kick it up a notch whenever she got aggressive with Biden (“Well, by golly, I sure feel like a Warrshington outsider when I hear you talk like thet…”).

It’s an interesting strategy, and not completely unprecedented. Al Gore showed that sticks and stones and being called “stiff” could never harm him by performing the “Al Gore version of the Macarena” at the Democratic convention. And when he was being accused (falsely) of having claimed to have invented the Internet, he fought back by joining in the jokes. And McCain went on SNL a few months ago to tell some “very, very old” jokes at his own expense. It’s the most basic form of comedic self-defense: if you make the joke about yourself, you’ve disarmed those who would use that particular joke against you.

But what Palin is doing here is a little different, and the risks and benefits a little less clear cut. She’s trying, I think, to disarm those who would mock her accent and her “down-to-earth” folksiness by “owning” those aspects of her image, and trying to convince us that yes, she really is like that. It’s a strategy designed to make the mockery seem even more personal than it actually is, and more specifically, to make it seem “elitist”: “Yah, you betcha I talk this way, goshdarn it. And so do the folks back home in my real-American small town, don’tcha know.”

Politicians with regional accents will often turn up the drawl and the colloquialisms when they want to seem “down to earth,” or attack the “elites.” Clinton did it. Bush acquired his Texas twang late in life (not as late in life as he acquired his ranch), but that doesn’t stop him from turning it up to 11 when he wants to seem folksy (which for him is pretty much all the time).

The risk for Palin is that her use of colloquialisms and folksy phrases (or “frases”) can seem calculated. Not that it isn’t calculated when other politicians drop such phrases into their speech, but Palin’s public speech has been so rife with talking points and Republican cliches (she used both “shining city on a hill” AND “there you go again” last night), that her “you betchas” can seem equally scripted. It’s as if every utterance is constructed by selecting two items from column “A” (“white flag of surrender,” “the surge is working,” “General Petraeus,” and other conservative talking points) and two items from column “B” (folksy “gollys” and “you betchas”).


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