Moonlight and Valentino

Why are the media so clothes-minded when it comes to Palin?

He was drawn to her from their first meeting. He liked her and respected her and saw how charming she could be, so he brought her on board, made her his partner, and led her into his rarefied world of insiders and high-stakes politics. That world didn’t understand her at first—nor she, it—and its members tested her, weighing whether she really belonged. But she was spunky and sassy and pretty, and she knew, above all, who she was and where she came from. So, guided by a few trusty advisers, but most of all by her own instincts, she learned to hold her own and, finally, fit in. And, in the process, she taught the insiders how to be, on the outside, just a little more human.

Thus, the plot of Lady Maverick: The Sarah Palin Story, the quaint little narrative the McCain campaign has been attempting to construct, since the first announcement of her nomination, on behalf of Sarah Palin. “Oh, man, it’s so obvious I’m a Washington outsider, and someone just not used to the way you guys operate,” Palin declared during the Veep debate. Such clarification was, of course, unnecessary.

If the story sounds more familiar than that, though, there’s good reason. Because it’s also the plot of Pretty Woman. And of The Sound of Music. And of Mean Girls, My Fair Lady, She’s All That, The King and I, Mary Poppins, Pride and Prejudice, The Devil Wears Prada, Legally Blonde, and on and on and on—modern, generally lowbrow takes on the classic Cinderella story (not, mind you, Cinderfella: it’s a story, almost always, about a woman): the tale of the Noble Stranger who is chosen, by fate or a dashing gentleman or both at the same time, to enter the insular lives of the elite, shake them up, and reveal the moral shortcomings of their own pretensions to superiority.

It’s a story, at its core, about class—because the outsider in question, we’re conditioned to understand, is not merely a diamond in the rough, but also an agent of social reform. And it’s one that gives the tired old dichotomies of Palin’s controversial candidacy (conservative politics versus liberal; street smarts versus book smarts; folksiness versus erudition; elitism versus Joe-six-packism; blah versus blah) a Pygmalionesque political implication: that by bringing the outsider onto the GOP ticket and into the party’s echelons, McCain and his team have invited the common to infiltrate the exclusive, thereby daring—expecting?—the former to change the latter from within. It’s straight out of the movies…but, hey, the sincerest form of flattery, and all that.

And it’s an implication the media—if we’re looking at the media beyond the airwaves of Fox News and the pages of The National Review, that is—have challenged. Or, well, tried to challenge. Because the McCain campaign’s very framing of Palin, from the beginning, as an outsider—and as everything that that implies—has been, to some extent, The Narrative to Which All Other Narratives Must Relate. (Is Palin an outsider? What does Palin’s status as an outsider mean for the McCain campaign? Etc.) The “Hi! I’m An Outsider!” button perma-pinned to Palin has been the Veep hopeful’s version of McCain’s “Hi! I’m a Maverick!” one: a label that not only stubbornly sticks no matter how much the media try to scrub it away, but that also—perhaps even more frustratingly for those who try to dissolve it—presents Palin not just as an agent of political ambition, but also as an agent of morality. And as an agent, specifically, of Outsider Morality. Sarah Barracuda, meet Fraulein Maria.

Which is perhaps why the media have shown such glib delight in informing their audiences of the new twist Lady Maverick’s plot has taken this week—in the form of a sequel entitled Sarah’s Shopping Spree: The Moose Hunter Is a Clotheshorse!. And why Palin’s wardrobe dominated the cable news shows yesterday (Mika Brzezinski’s references to Palin’s sartorial proclivities during yesterday’s Morning Joe were in the double digits). And why world outlets picked up the story. Sure, reveling-in-irony may be part of the explanation (the famous Shunner of Elites has been frequenting the Elites’ sartorial stomping grounds!). And, sure, the fact that we’re currently in pre-election limbo may be part of it, too: To everything, there’s a season, and our current season is, apparently, of the silly variety.

But the coverage of Sarah’s Shopping Spree is a matter of quality as much as it’s one of quantity. Take the moralistic tones that seeped into its telling. “Sarah Palin, small-town hockey mom and everywoman? More like Sarah Palin, pampered princess,” scoffed the Los Angeles Times’s Booth Moore. “It’s hard to run as Joan of Six Pack when your wardrobe alone almost qualifies for an Obama tax increase,” Robert Schlesinger declared in U.S. News and World Report. “According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, American households spend an average of $1,874 a year on clothing. The RNC spent $150,000 on one family in seven weeks. Frankly, I’m not even sure how one family can spend that much so quickly,” The Washington Monthly’s Steve Benen echoed. Over at The American Prospect, Ezra Klein covered the irony angle when he slugged his take on WardrobeGate, “IT AIN’T CHEAP TO LOOK THIS AUTHENTIC.”

The basic implication in all this is, of course, that shopping—and, worse, excess in that endeavor—is at odds with the populist rhetoric that has been a hallmark of Palin’s candidacy. Fraulein Maria, after all, didn’t spend thousands on Valentino blazers. She didn’t spend the Captain’s precious wartime schillings on sassy knee-high boots or spunky pink suits or high-end haircuts or makeovers or what have you. She didn’t indulge in image-rehabilitative shopping sprees to the tune of $150,000 as her country crumbled around her. Nor, more importantly, would she have. Such profligacy wouldn’t befit the head of a household during a time of deprivation.

Just as Maria’s ability to economize—and to convince her charges that raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens and the like are to be treasured more than traditional luxuries—serves as a hint, to her costars and her audiences alike, at her moral goodness, Palin’s apparent inability to do so, the media have been implying, suggests a betrayal of morality. Or, at least, a betrayal of the populist pact that McCain’s Veep has, since the announcement of her nomination, been striking with the hard-working, cash-strapped denizens of the so-called “real America.” Hence, the bit of schadenfreudic glee that has seeped into the media’s dissection of Palin’s wardrobe: Gotcha, Sarah, you’re just as vain and materialistic as the rest of us! By your own definition, you don’t live in the “real” America, either!

And yet. For the media to be so moralistic about the matter is also to overlook the obvious: that politics is about image. Fraulein Maria, and the nobly humble frocks that revealed so much about her character, weren’t being photographed from all angles and described by campaign reporters and analyzed by fashion critics and snarked about by Defamer and uploaded to YouTube. The glib gotcha-ism on display when it comes to CoutureGate or what have you is, among other things, hypocritical: The media are the same people, after all, who attack politicians when they don’t live up to the standards of attractiveness that they set (see “Clinton, Bill,” and “Clinton, Hillary”)—and who take umbrage when politicians are portrayed as, you know, normal (remember that infamous Newsweek cover?). Politics is, in many ways, a beauty pageant. And it’s so because we—the public and the media—make it that way.

If anything, Sarah’s Shopping Spree is more a dark comedy than a romantic one: It’s a story about a makeover, sure, but a makeover imposed rather than chosen. One not about the empowerment of the individual, but about the tyranny of the image. Just as it’s absurd to say that the occasional $400 haircut disqualifies a politician from advocating for the poor (“Edwards, John”), it’s also absurd to suggest that to be fit for Gio Armani is therefore to be unfit for Joe the Plumber. But that’s what the media are suggesting when they treat Palin’s wardrobe “malfunction” as a malfunction in the first place. There are plenty of criticisms to be made of Palin—her cheerful culture warriorhood, her willful incuriosity about the world, her general unpreparedness to assume the office of the vice president—but let’s keep the censure focused on substance. Let’s not tear Palin apart simply for dressing a part.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.