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‘Game Change’: Life Imitates TV Drama for Republican Women

Posted on Mar 16, 2012

Woman in the middle: Julianne Moore plays Sarah Palin in “Game Change.”

By Mark O'Connell

The HBO film “Game Change,” which bowed on March 10 with Julianne Moore starring as Sarah Palin, effectively tells two stories: The first is about the rise and fall of Palin’s vice presidential campaign, and the second has to do with how the GOP views women. The real Sarah Palin insists that the film is pure fiction, but given the recent news on contraception, the film does seem to accurately capture how Republicans use women as political pawns—something to which female voters are getting wise.

Take, for example, an early scene during which John McCain’s national campaign manager, Rick Davis (Peter MacNicol), uses YouTube in search of the best possible running mate to help McCain win. He clicks through videos of qualified women, all of who lack swimsuit-competition cred, and all of who are pro-choice. They are all passed over for Palin, who with her experience (of the swimsuit-competition variety), guns, religious extremism and political pliability (or is it naiveté?) is a conservative Republican’s wet dream. Davis couldn’t have materialized the campaign’s fantasy more precisely had he hired Industrial Light & Magic to digitally create her.

The remainder of the film looks at Palin’s experience in the now-legendary 2008 presidential pageant through an empathic lens—aided by sharp, sensitive direction by Jay Roach and a deeply absorbing performance by Moore that transcends caricature. While the campaign team, led by strategist Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson), strains to fashion Palin to its fancy, we see her—a talented but tragically uninformed human being whose fragile ego has only ever found strength by being incorporated into male power structures—desperately fumbling for autonomy.

On the surface, the movie is a backstage drama about the McCain campaign’s failure to pull a Pygmalion on the nation. However, the underlying drama is a disturbing depiction of gender relations, as the men who selected Palin experience an array of emotions including shock (when she won’t follow orders), frustration (when her obvious ignorance proves to be less than charming), shame (having been blindsided by this “siren”) and finally full-throttle fury (when she insists on doing things her own way).

When Schmidt unleashes on Palin, soon after McCain’s official loss, Harrelson’s performance not only conveys his understandable rage, resentment and self-blame, but also a virile aggression, almost suggesting that to hit her would be just deserts. It’s an evocative moment, offering us the choice to identify with Harrelson’s aggressive, “male” power or Moore’s vulnerable, “female” humiliation—which may help explain why women like Palin allow themselves to be adopted by conservative male ideologies in the first place.

Adding insult to her injury, Ed Harris’ McCain then warns Palin not to allow the conservative male pundits to “co-opt” her. This, of course, is backhanded advice after he and his managers have done precisely that, only to disassociate from her when she failed to let them fully possess her.

Many Republican and centrist women voters can apparently identify with the plight of this “fictional” Sarah Palin. Articles in The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, among others, state that many women with tendencies to vote Republican are making an about-face in reaction to the current contraception issue.

It appears that recent events, which include the House Republicans’ selection of a panel of all-male “authorities” on women’s health and a certain conservative radio host calling a young woman advocate a “slut,” have amounted to a wake-up call for right-leaning women. Perhaps a number of them are feeling what Moore’s Palin emotes at the end of “Game Change”: the abasement of having been co-opted by a male-run organization, used as a political tool, stripped of dignity and then kicked to the curb.

As these women spring to life, unlike the “nonfiction” Sarah Palin, the light may be rising for them in the form of self-advocacy, as well as identification with kindred minority groups. For example, looking at some of the specific complaints some women have stated in the aforementioned articles—that the GOP tries to control them, instructs them how to act in the bedroom and commands them to “live as I live”—the overlap with the LGBT community is palpable.

This is far from coincidence, as Republicans’ resistance to both removing policies like DOMA and passing ones like ENDA, is more about what professor Judith Butler calls “the policing of gender,” about maintaining a gender binary in order to preserve male dominance, than it is about a fear of same-sex sex. In other words, much of homophobia is really just veiled misogyny, and women voters might be catching on.

This awakening could mean a sudden surge in support for rights such as same-sex marriage—which, as Slate writer Linda Hirshman clearly argues, may actually be a coup for straight women. It could also simply mean an increased demand for women leaders who actually stand for women.

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By heterochromatic, April 22, 2012 at 8:13 pm Link to this comment

Marian—- that total of $1 billion breaks down to how much per individual?  and
ehat part of it is explained by the fact that the female part of the population is
expected to outlive the male by more than 4 years and those last years are when
the costs of healthcare are likely to be highest?

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By Marian Griffith, April 22, 2012 at 10:19 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

—A recent study uncovered the fact that American women
pay $1 billion more for their health insurance than
their male counterparts.  Example - a 40-year old
American woman who doesn’t smoke pays more for her
health insurance than a 40-year old male who does

And at that many of the specific needs that women have for health care are blatantly ignored or excluded (on the ground that they do not want to ‘discriminate’ agains men, though the reverse is obviously not a problem).
So not only are women paying more for health care, they are also paying it for less adequate care.

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By heterochromatic, March 20, 2012 at 6:34 pm Link to this comment

doublesglass——governor of Massachusetts is a pretty solid credential.

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By doublestandards/glasshouses, March 20, 2012 at 2:43 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Palin isn’t so different than many others who run for vp or potus.  Most of them are not qualified either. What are Romney’s qualifications - that he’s rich?  What businessmen have ever been great national leaders?

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By heterochromatic, March 20, 2012 at 1:39 pm Link to this comment

don’t assume that the rightward drift of the Republican Party won’t reverse,,,,,

and certainly the Dems aren’t gonna go any further to the right as the economic
conditions improve and the support for an endless war on terror erodes.

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By ardee, March 20, 2012 at 12:24 pm Link to this comment

As I read this piece, especially the inference that many distaff republicans are disenchanted with their party over the stance on contraception I had a thought.

Could we be seeing a major change in the duopoly party structure, with moderates and progressives in both parties feeling ostracized or otherwise alienated? Could this be a path to third party politics; the left on both sides splitting from the increasing rightward swing of both parties to form another , more centrist or even leftist third party?

I cannot see how any progressive would be comfortable in the Democratic Party any longer nor how even a centrist republican can stomach the takeover of her party by radical right wing nut jobs ( Santorum , yes I mean you)

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By felicity, March 20, 2012 at 10:00 am Link to this comment

A recent study uncovered the fact that American women
pay $1 billion more for their health insurance than
their male counterparts.  Example - a 40-year old
American woman who doesn’t smoke pays more for her
health insurance than a 40-year old male who does

Wake up, ladies.

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By aacme88, March 20, 2012 at 5:48 am Link to this comment

The selection of Palin reminded me sharply of the selection of Dan Quayle to be George the First’s running mate. After a much publicized search for the perfect candidate, Quayle was selected, and it was explained that his breath-taking (to them I guess) good looks would assure the Ladies Vote. 24 years later they hadn’t learned a thing.
This is the level of sophistication we have come to expect from the “GOP”.

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By heterochromatic, March 19, 2012 at 6:38 pm Link to this comment

Andrew====Schmidt knew it would damage not only the
GOP but the country…..

and destroy any claim to decency for his work and his

if the author can’t grasp that as the basis for
Schmidt’s emotional intensity, he’s got his head in
the wrong place…..or is cynically looking for the
advancement of his own thesis at the expense of

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UreKismet's avatar

By UreKismet, March 19, 2012 at 6:28 pm Link to this comment

Factual accuracy of this movie is questionable. It came across more as a purge of responsibility for the Palin monster by her Frankenstein, Schmidt.
Shame O’Connell sees it as an indictment of rethug attitudes towards women, ie narrowly, than taking a wider view of the Palin syndrome as a symptom of a larger problem, identity politics, played by dems too.

Identity ‘causes’ only serve to divide the people, worst of all inculcate them in the belief that their representatives be selected on the basis of what they do for ‘me’.

As a humanist who has actively engaged in mass movements around the rock we call planet earth, I have seen humanism lose support amongst populations as the belief one should ‘support and vote for what is best for oneself’ is accepted.

Humans are pretty rigid in the way they catergorise their personal priorities; ‘needs’.  Material comforts such as nutrition, shelter and clothing are considered more important by most humans than self actualisation needs like the ‘right’ to work or the ‘right’ to marry.

By their very nature, an emphasis on property rights and financial rewards, conservative political movements place the increase of personal material gain ahead of self actualisation goals, & are more likely to strike a chord among those voting out of self interest.

Humanist political movements do better when they lift their goals, up from the individual and his/her base wants to something more lofty and altruistic.  Such as ‘the good of our community’.
If voters are shown that contentment and security only occurs living where most feel content and secure (Doubt that proposition? Peruse “The Spirit Level” )  it is more likely many more of them will support humanist political movements than when voters believe they should vote for whoever best appeals to their self interest.

Does O’Connell seriously believe the white middle class males who dominate the democrat party consider the groups of voters who define themselves by their sexual orientation or race, any differently than the white middle class males who dominate the republican party consider women voters who define themselves by their gender?
Both are cynical grabs to corral a sizeable cohort of supporters from the seemingly amorphous mass that is the voting public.
This type of politics causes un-neccessary division among citizens whose interests are frequently the same, dividing, distorting, & perverting the community as well as the politic entity advocating them.

Look no further than that apology for a human being barack O’blamblam, to see the danger of voting for a candidate because he/she appears to be from a particular shard of the splintered mass; shattered by decades of identity politics.  How many african amerikans would support Oblamblam’s war mongering and craven obeisance to the elite if he didn’t claim to be an african amerikan?  5%, maybe 10% tops.  Yet right now we know that come November the vast majority of those african amerikans,  that the white middle class males in control of both political movements, allow to cast a vote, and who decide to do so, will tick the box next to Oblamblam’s name.

There are so many capable and honest men and women genuinely of the african amerikan culture who would make a great prez of amerika, their chances of becoming elected to any positiion of power have been substantially reduced by this farcical ‘african amerikan’ who functions as little more than a tool of the elite.
That disaster occurred because greedy pols and their careerist campaign ‘advisors’ decided it would be easier to ‘energise the base’ or whatever is the current cliche for conning supporters, by playing identity politics, than it would be to develop and sell a platform of acheivable and user friendly policies which encompasses all voters.

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By BrooklynDame, March 19, 2012 at 5:09 pm Link to this comment

I can’t wait until she is fully gone from the public eye; that woman must be the
LEAST value-added politician on the scene in ages. Her vitriol and rants are
something I will never forgive John McCain for.

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By Andrew, March 19, 2012 at 5:02 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)


Agreed. The concession speeach is important as American political campaigns can be very heated at times, it’s important that they show their base that they’ve conceeded defeat in a free and fair election. It had a lot more to do with that, given the likely blowback over the racial and personal overtones at the time and the general need for McCain to calm his people down. But I can understand why the author would see it like that, not harping on it, I am a progressive and hate the tea baggers and neocons but ultra-feminists tend to see everything through a prism of their own making.

I think it’s pretty simple that Palin saw an opportunity for personal advancement, she may be dumb as a door knob unlike most women in and out of politics but she is smart enough to be a simple opportunist. Schmidt knew it would damage not only the GOP but the country.

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By heterochromatic, March 19, 2012 at 4:45 pm Link to this comment

Avery interesting little article from O’Connell
centered around the scene where Schmidt grows furious
with Palin for insisting on giving a speech following
McCain’s concession….

Had O’Connell not ignored the overriding and clearly
stated reason that Schmidt to Palin about the
patriotic reason why a concession speech is good and
necessary and how a lesser, political or personal
speech would be at best highly distasteful and
ignorant and undignified, then the whole mess of
sexist-based and political bullspittle that O’Connell
is raising wouldn’t be as poorly centered.

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By Tobysgirl, March 19, 2012 at 1:34 pm Link to this comment

When I read stuff like this, I wonder what bubble the author is living in. My husband works with a bevy of Republican women (re 2008 election, “I voted white”) and I am surrounded by them in the form of neighbors and townspeople. They are emphatically NOT victims unless you want to start exploring their dysfunctional families, their emotional repression, etc.

Sarah Palin has a bigger mouth than the nasty old ladies I am familiar with, but that’s an age difference. I wish I had tape-recorded the woman next door, a supposed Christian in her eighties, who just couldn’t wait for the U.S. to start killing Iraqis. We need to start looking at the mental health of people who embrace denying their fellow Americans health care, housing, education, even food, and who are viciously enthusiastic about mass murder by our military.

By the way, in my experience these are the same people who will commit crimes if they think they won’t be caught, such as another neighbor who sold the same piece of land twice.

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By SarcastiCanuck, March 19, 2012 at 10:26 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Are you really asking us to feel sorry for Sarah Baracuda?Gimme a break.The barracuda was just thrown into a shark tank with bigger predators than her and got eaten.To pass her off as a victim then tying it to women/gay rights is about as delusional as you could get.

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By kazy, March 19, 2012 at 10:13 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Good article. I’ve been a big advocate of pressing forth that same reality that feminists have been advancing for many years over the distinct bashing of male homosexuality so vehemently by other males is more about men choosing to make themselves subservient (inferior) by “taking it” like a woman. IOW being fucked like a woman rather than being or embracing the virile aggressive, “male” power (superior) that they naturally possess. Why, if you are superior and more dominant, would you want to be inferior? If it weren’t for that split in gender - the different roles given us, I think male homosexuality would be preferable like it was in ancient Greece where the love between men was considered superior to the love between a man and woman. After all we live in such a self loving, chest thumping male society. Men clearly think they’re better and our society’s worldview praises and glorifies all that is male. It’s all around us in their dominant paradigm of themselves and all they do. You can see this self love at its extreme in the religious Muslim and Arabic communities in the Middle East where women are there only to bear more sons, they are such non entities that their clothing covers them up so that they are not even people. There probably is even resentment over them being the ones to bear children. Why can’t it be just a world of men? They are complete non entities in which the men do everything together and while homosexuality is against Islam as it is in all religions, we still live a very homosexual habitat in the way we separate and bring up our children according to their gender. Among the Arab warlords it is far more prestigious to have a young male lover than a female. While we don’t live like that here outside these extreme communities (for us, anyway), I think the Middle East is still a mirror of what permeates underneath the patriarchal culture throughout the world. Just go onto the Internet and read some of the anonymous comments men make about women and you will be convinced Rush’s remarks are pretty much status quo. It is unfortunate that we have this schism between men and women and the roles we must play depletes our world, not only for the things women could have contributed but were denied, obviously, but this ridicule and belittlement of that which is considered feminine as opposed to the more virtuous traits that are copyrighted to males, is that it weeds out and condemns those men who do not wish to embrace those masculine defined tendencies and I always think of how much those men could have contributed and changed our world for the better had their been more of an acceptance for men to embrace their “feminine” side rather than keeping on doing the same thing over and over again so that the world has virtually stayed the same in terms of death and destruction. Yes, much better for technology and science but as far as us getting along? Not so much.

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By EmileZ, March 19, 2012 at 5:00 am Link to this comment

@ Andrew

I pretty much agree with the comment.


I thought Moore’s performance was strained (from constantly try to contort her face into a reasonable facsimile of Palin’s) which may have been misread as vulnerability.

All in all, it could have been a much better movie if they had, perhaps tried to have a bit more fun with it. The whole movie, was in my opinion, pretty strained.

As for the rest of the article not involving “Game Change”, I think it sounds pretty accurate, but I don’t have my proverbial thumb up the ass of the Republican woman, so I couldn’t really say for sure. I can only imagine what must be going on in her head.

It was interesting to hear Laura Bush come out in favor of marriage equality, not a position that I can see Palin taking.

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By Andrew, March 16, 2012 at 9:19 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I think you’re reading too much into it. Palin saw a chance to effectively save face at the end, by trying to give a concession speech. Schmidt knewn doing so especially to Republicans when the country just elected the first black president could tear the country apart, or at least cause more problems.

Given that since lossing she has attempted to rally a movement in the Tea Baggers which are a group who are emphatically unwilling to compromise or purpose real policy or ideas and has only served to stoke the flames of racism, stupidity and prejudice to survive and prosper in Washington, it is amazing that she can be reduced to simple victim here. She is actively leading people who were just as ready to call Obama a terrorist or call for his death or deportation ‘back to Africa’. She’s no victim, the victim is the American public that has to endure her and people like her.

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