Sunday, October 5, 2008

of winks, wonks and women speakers

Gosh darnit, aren't you glad Tina Fey doesn't look remotely like you when you give a speech? Or that you don't have bingo cards made with your image on them? Or, better yet, that you're not running for higher public office? That's what women speakers all over must be secretly thinking this week.

The attention on Sarah Palin's debate performance has been at an all-time high. Palin bingo cards have been filled out, the pundits and Tina Fey have weighed in, the polls have been taken. You can find word clouds of Palin's debate performance on Wordle.net, showing larger those words more frequently used (those would be McCain, also, and going). The vice-presidential debate last week was the most-watched-ever, reflecting not only the unusual drama of a woman candidate, but the roller-coaster economic week the nation's been through. That context helps account for the unusually high number of debate-watching parties, an excuse to gather with friends during a nerve-wracking week for most Americans. The Associated Press noted, of the more than 70 million viewers, "Generally, only Super Bowls bring together so many Americans to watch the same thing."

The day of the debate, I was asked a dozen times "What would you advise Sarah Palin?" by all sorts of people: doormen, cab drivers, family, friends, colleagues, avid poll-watchers and ambivalent non-voters. I said I'd give the advice I'd give any debater: Answer the question, admit what you don't know and what can't be excused, don't get angry or respond in anger, pause, slow down. My intent was to write something that distilled advice for readers of this blog from this high-profile performance, but I realized once more that there's little in a vice presidential debate that yields good examples or tips for the everyday speaker who's not running for office. Lucky for most of us, this isn't the hothouse we'll be growing in as speakers.

In fact, the setting of low expectations for Palin--a standard approach before campaign debates for all candidates, and predictable given her poor performance in one-on-one media interviews--made it impossible for her not to exceed expectations. Or, as Queen Latifah (posing as moderator Gwen Ifill) said on Saturday Night Live's sendup, "due to the historically low expectations for Governor Palin, were she to do a simply adequate job tonight--at no point cry, faint, run out of the building or vomit-- you should consider the debate a tie." (See Maureen Dowd's column today for a long list of "mush-mouthed" politicians, mostly men, in regard to Palin's stumbling.)

This morning, it struck me that Palin's candidacy cuts across party lines to demonstrate, as Clinton's did, the prevailing view that women leaders -- whether experienced or newcomers -- can be competent or likeable, but not both. You can be a substantial policy wonk like Hillary Clinton, but you'll get dubbed a "nutcracker" and "shrill" by men and women. Or you can wink your way through a debate like Sarah Palin, but your grammar will get diagrammed and your policy positions will get parodied as insubstantial. Merely seeking higher office or touting your own accomplishments can, for women in particular, bring a backlash. And many non-political women speakers tell me they get a similar feeling of disapproval from others when they step up to the mic--perhaps the same shunning, in smaller settings. Research has shown they're not paranoid, but actually sizing up their audiences, both male and female, with accuracy. At the same time, campaigns are reaching faster for the sexism argument, making a simple label out of a phenomenon that's deep and complex...and absolutely unworkable on the campaign trail, at least as it's currently paved.

That's not firm ground on which to plant yourself when speaking in public, which may explain why Clinton's campaign actually talked publicly about entering a "likeability" phase, and why Palin's been crash-coursing in foreign affairs. They've both veered between the competent and likeable poles. Women in all sorts of roles have sensed the same tension every day, wondering whether colleagues and audiences "love you because you're beautiful, or are you beautiful because I love you?" as Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote in their musical Cinderella. Women aren't just passionate about women candidates because they're women--but because they see themselves in those candidates and their perceived troubles and barriers.

Motherlode blogger and New York Times contributor Lisa Belkin has an apt take on "Palin talk," from the audience's point of view, and it's one I've noted in my own circles: Women who speak about Palin (and Hillary Clinton before her) more often than not explain their take on the candidate in intensely personal ways, projecting their experience onto the candidate. Belkin particularly looks at parenting issues, and notes:

This could all be dismissed as merely politics, and it certainly started out as politics, but there was a hunger and a fury in the conversation about Palin that hints at something deeper. Because what we are looking at while dissecting the parenting cred of our politicians (O.K., O.K., of our politicians who are mommies — we pay very little attention to the parenting of men) has little to do with them, and everything to do with us.
If you've gleaned a good tip, an issue, or an opinion about women speakers after watching this historic campaign, please leave them in the comments! (Photo of winning Palin bingo card by danperry.com and photo of Clinton nutcracker by dsjeffries, from Flickr.com)