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