Sarah Palin, Anti-Fandom, and the Nature of Political Celebrity

July 1, 2011
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A new documentary on Sarah Palin (The Undefeated) premiered on Tuesday night in Pella, Iowa, with Palin in attendance. The film reportedly opens with numerous instances of comedians and other Hollywood celebrities cursing Palin with perjorative and at times vulgar epithets, an editorial choice for framing the opening that I can only assume is used to (re)establish Palin’s victimhood and her own narrative as fighting those demonic Hollywood liberals. After the film concluded, The Hollywood Reporter asked Palin what she thought of those sequences, and Palin said in response, “What would make someone be so full of hate?”

How bizarre that one of America’s foremost political celebrities would so fundamentally misunderstand the nature of celebrity (though one must admit that Palin uses exceptionalist logic in almost everything she does). No single politician today—not even Obama—has so adroitly crafted her or himself as a celebrity figure and icon as Sarah Palin. From her reality television show, to her guest commentator position on Fox News (including having a TV studio built in her Alaskan home), to her Twitter and Facebook missives, to her book release tours, and even to crafting a family vacation/media circus entourage/ bus tour road trip of America’s historical sites, Palin has mastered the modern art of celebrity production and sustainment. If Palin farts (metaphorically, though perhaps literally), we can be assured it will receive media coverage somewhere.

So it seems particularly strange that she doesn’t understand the darker side of that celebrity. That is to say, with such spectacle presentations, fabrication of attention, insertion into people’s lives, and fawning, worship and adoration that is characteristic of celebrity culture comes the opposite: the outright hatred for all that (and in very personal ways). Most celebrities realize (if only from their fan and hate mail) they are loved and loathed at the same time, that people love their achievements but also (and at times simultaneously) revel in their failures, fatness, fakeness, and so on.

But perhaps Palin actually does understand this. While it is still strange that one of America’s most venomous and hate-filled politicians would take umbrage at others returning the feeling, perhaps she does understand that part of the media/celebrity game is that celebrities benefit from crafting such antipathies, and it is simply part of celebrity culture. What is Keyshia Cole without Lil Kim, David Letterman without Jay Leno, or Rosie O’Donnell without Donald Trump? Perhaps Palin does understand that such battles are the fuel that celebrity runs on.

But what makes political celebrity different from strictly entertainment celebrity is that the ideological yoke is always present. For right-wingers, to witness an attack on Palin is to be personally attacked as well (in ways that, say, attacking Lady Gaga simply doesn’t register). Similar to religious beliefs, political values and beliefs run deep. Feeling under attack, of course, is the bread-and-butter of the contemporary Republican Party. For over two decades, media pundits such as Rush Limbaugh (and now politicians) have perfected a victimization rhetoric built on binary oppositions, and in the process, using such rhetoric to transform political opponents into ideologically justified mortal enemies. One can find an audience, raise money, craft movements, be elected, and overthrow governments based on hatred. And it is central to Palin’s celebrity and brand as well.

Celebrity hating and oppositions have value in politics too. Why are Hollywood celebrities always a much more frequent target for right-wingers than, say, Senator Bernie Sanders—a true-to-life, living and breathing socialist who actually has political power? Because most Americans don’t know or care about legislative politics. What they care about is symbolic politics, and celebrity brands are the apex of symbolic meaning and value in a consumer society. Palin, in fact, does know this well, for it is one of the primary reasons she shed her duties as governor of Alaska mid-term (who the hell needs those tiresome burdens?) to embrace more fully and commit more time to her primary job as symbolic figure.

Political celebrity is an important part of contemporary American political culture. Politics can be as profitable as any other form of entertainment, and there are many such people—Glenn Beck, Mike Huckabee, Bill Maher, Jon Stewart, et al.—for whom politics is central to their celebrity brand. For Sarah Palin to reject the anti-fandom that comes with such celebrity is disingenuous, for what she knows better than most is that it is damn good for business.


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2 Responses to “ Sarah Palin, Anti-Fandom, and the Nature of Political Celebrity ”

  1. Jonathan Gray on July 1, 2011 at 9:23 AM

    There’s a massive religious overtone, too, to claiming victim status, as it makes one Jesus- or at least saint-like. Indeed, I don’t see a conservatism anywhere else in the world that is as fond of claiming it is being lashed and crucified. And yet once again this proves how the political right in America needs to actually read the Bible they claim to be following and/or read some world history to see that religious and political persecution take way nastier forms than being made fun of by Jon Stewart, or having Bill Maher use a four-letter word to describe you. The irony here, too, is how this victimhood cohabits with sabre-rattling bravado, all of which is most evident in Palin (shouldn’t the moose-hunting, leather jacket-wearing “Mama Grizzly” be above crying to the teacher because someone called her a poopyhead?)

    • Jeffrey Jones on July 1, 2011 at 9:51 AM

      Really good points. I used to study civil religion in America, and to extend your argument (re Christlike suffering and martyrdom), what this then becomes is an affective embrace and popular means to merge the religious and the political through daily practices of citizenship (because, of course, you find in the church pulpits and pews of America’s right-wing churches as well).