Thursday, September 4, 2008

Palin: Toned down and revved up

Earlier this year, I noted the double-edged sword of image for female political candidates, particularly in regard to their speaking style. Here again is an excerpt from Kathleen Hall Jamieson's Eloquence in an Electronic Age: The Transformation of Political Speechmaking, about:
...the double bind in which television traps a female politician. The [manly] style traditionally considered credible is no longer suitable to television. But only a person whose credibility is firm can risk adopting a style traditionally considered weak....Two ironies result: only to the extent that they employ a once spurned 'womanly' style can male politicians prosper on radio and television; meanwhile, in their surge toward political equality, women abandoned and must reclaim the 'womanly' style.
Last night's speech by Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin gives us another view of that struggle. Her rhetoric defines her as a "hockey mom" to evoke a decidedly feminine image. The campaign, apparently wanting to underscore the novelty of a female running mate, features this ridiculous photograph of Palin's high heels prominently on its website, as if perhaps footwear or a shapely calf might drive more votes. But Palin's speaking style last night was decidedly old-school, aggressive and more traditionally masculine in tone--at a time when her own credibility and suitability for the role is widely debated. The hard-driving, loud and emphatic speaking style may prove to be a risk in another way: As Geraldine Ferraro and Hillary Clinton found, the effort to appear credible and competitive in a male-dominated field may rob Palin of an advantage noted by Jamieson, the 'womanly' and personal style that helps speakers connect to audiences, particularly on television, which can mimic the one-on-one situations in which women excel at communicating.

Or at least, that may be true for television viewers, or for an audience less dominated by men--attendees at this convention are 68 percent male, an increase over the previous convention. The hall was certainly revved up, and as happened to Clinton, Palin stepped on some of her own lines, letting them get swallowed by the chanting crowd.

But observers are already saying the speech may have been the easiest task she faces. Here, the New York Times weighs in:
From here, Ms. Palin moves into a national campaign where she will have to appeal to audiences that are not necessarily primed to adore her. She will have to navigate far less controlled campaign settings that will test not only her political skills but also her knowledge of foreign and domestic policy. And she must convince the country she is prepared to be vice president at a time when the definition of that job has been elevated to the status of governing partner — something voters might have been reminded of Wednesday by images of Vice President Dick Cheney embarking on a mission to war-torn Georgia.
In an earlier speech in Ohio, Palin said:
Well, it's always, though, safer in politics to avoid risk, to just kind of go along with the status quo. But I didn't get into government to do the safe and easy things. A ship in harbor is safe, but that's not why the ship is built.
But that's just what she did with her choice of wardrobe. Surprisingly for a former broadcaster, Palin chose a neutral palette, with a gray blazer and black skirt. The RNC's choice of a black background for its speakers, with a large-screen streaming video of landscapes of the United States, didn't help. Even though all eyes were on Palin in the hall, it was Cindy McCain's vivid green dress that stood out in the television footage.

Buy Eloquence in an Electronic Age: The Transformation of Political Speechmaking

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