On the surface, I should like her. Sarah Palin is 44, precisely my age. We were born three months apart. And like me, she’s a mom and works full-time.
We should hang out, clink our highball glasses, and salute the kind of kismet that competent women often need to create real achievement. Except, in her case, the kismet catapulted her to the national stage and into history. In my case, it occasionally lands me a first-class upgrade.
Sarah and I could talk about stuff that professional Moms our age talk about: The rush of being in charge; the need to wear seriously rimmed glasses, even if your eyes don’t require it; and techniques for gagging and hogtying that persistent little voice in the back of our heads that suggests our ambition comes at the obvious expense of our kids.
But for some reason, I can’t warm up to her. And last Thursday, when she stood on stage in St. Louis and faced off against Joe Biden in the vice-presidential debate, I studied her face on the small screen and understood why. I know Sarah Palin. I went to school with her. And then, with a small shock of recognition, I saw who she was… and realized: I hated her in junior high.
In school, her name was Pam. When I met her, we were 7th graders. She had feathered brown hair that bounced around her shoulders as she walked down the hall, surveying her domain, left to right, like the felted nodding-dog dashboard ornament my grandfather had in his car. Her eyes were hooded with a shade of azure eyeshadow, and her full lips could reveal her horsey teeth in a sweet smile or condescending sneer with equal ease. Sometimes, her mouth seemed to hold both expressions at once. I thought Pam had real talent, and I practiced her expressions at home before my bedroom mirror.
We had Study Hall in the auditorium together, which allowed me to study technique from afar. We had assigned seats in the auditorium, and prescribed rules about talking, and facing forward, and chewing gum.
All during 7th grade, Pam flouted the rules, changed seats, chewed gum, sat in the back between two boys, whispering and cocking her head close to them with an intimacy I found exciting. When one of the teachers would call her on any of it, she’d fix them with a certain look, widen her eyes, and conjure up that sweet, apologetic, toothy smile. And, somehow, she always got away with it. She had everyone fooled–the teachers, administrators, the janitors who scraped her gum off of the bottom of the folding seats–and it was astonishing. Like them, I was transfixed, in total awe and wonder at her celebrity.
One time, though, she caught me studying her in my absentminded way, and she stared back at me pointedly, narrowing her eyes and raising her clenched fist to her chin, vibrating it in my direction, as if to warn me about getting too close. It took me a few days to peek in her direction again.
That winter, I had a brand new yellow ski parka. The color of a ripe banana, it was hip-length, with a cool belt that fastened snugly at the waist with a brass T-buckle. Unlike most of my clothes–which either came from an older girl who lived in my neighborhood or from a discount store with cheap brands–the coat was new and it was fashionable. In school, it became my anti-anxiety parka: I wore it constantly as a sort of armor as I walked from class to class, sweating through my day.
The only time I took it off, in fact, was when I walked into the auditorium. Miss Dolan, an exacting English teacher who demanded that both the rules of school and the rules of conjugating Latin verbs be followed with the same precision, despised it when kids wore hats or jackets in school. It wasn’t worth protesting, even if I had a voice that spoke above a whisper. It was best just to peel off the offending clothing and park it where she pointed, on one of the last two rows as we entered the auditorium. We could collect them an hour later, on the way out.
One day, I walked into study hall and noticed with a quick rush of pleasure and embarrassment that Pam had the same yellow jacket I did. Since my strategy at that point of my life was to attract as little attention as possible, sharing a wardrobe with a popular girl wasn’t a good way to fly below the radar, I thought. But then I reconsidered: in a way I couldn’t quite pinpoint, it was validating.
A few weeks later, I noticed that Pam’s coat had a huge blue stain on it, as if a pen had leaked in her pocket. And a few days later, when the bell rang in study hall and we filed as usual along the narrow aisles to the door, I paused to collect my coat. But it wasn’t in the usual spot where I’d left it. I cast around, confused that it wasn’t there, a panic beginning to bubble in my gut.
“C’mon,” my friend Denise said, tugging at my arm. And when I didn’t budge, it was Denise who flagged down Miss Dolan and explained what had happened: I couldn’t find my coat, which I always folded in half and placed exactly on the same seat. Miss Dolan set her iron blue eyes on me, “Is that right?” she sniffed, with a slight suspicion. I nodded mutely, and pointed at the backside of the yellow coat in the front of the line: Pam.
Miss Dolan shouted above our heads. “Pam!” she barked. “Are you sure that’s your jacket?”
Pam turned to Miss Dolan and there it was: the sweetest, most dazzling smile you’ll ever see. All her teeth were bared, but she didn’t seem threatening. Instead, she seemed so heartbreakingly cute and friendly, really, that I felt a flicker of something inside, and I tapped at Miss Dolan. “It’s okay…” I started to whisper.
I don’t think she heard me, though, because at that moment Pam piped up loudly. “Oh, this is mine,” she assured our teacher, nodding. “We have the same one.” Then she pointed at a spot behind me, “That must be hers.”
Miss Dolan stooped to retrieve an identical yellow parka from the floor. As she held it up I could see the indigo stain on the right pocket. She shoved it toward me, depositing it into my arms, and waved us through the doors. “All right? All right,” she pronounced, in the manner of someone who was used to seeing issues without nuance, in black and white, good and bad, right and wrong. “Out you go.”
I didn’t mind, really. All I could think was, She noticed we had the same coat. It would be a while before I’d see it otherwise.
In The Nation last week, Linda Hirshman called Sarah Palin a “Mean Girl,” the kind of girl Rosalind Wiseman terms a “Queen Bee” in her chilling 2002 book about tweenagers, Queen Bees & Wannabees. Like the name suggests, the Queen Bee is the royalty of the middle school, a larger-than-life figure who (unlike an actual queen bee) packs a barbed stinger, and wields it at will.
I picked Hirshman’s story out of one of the 358,000 results you get if you Google “Sarah Palin Mean Girl.” Hirshman likened Sarah’s shenanigans onstage at the Vice-Presidential debate to a kind of staged performance art piece of The Rules, Ellen Fein’s and Sherry Schneider’s controversial 1995 book that, as Hirshman put it, had upended 30 years of feminist teaching.
“Forget all that equality and intelligence stuff, ‘The Rules’ advised. Who wants to be Hillary Clinton? Men are simple, attracted to sexual symbols and bright, shiny objects. If you want them, they argued, you must sport long hair and wear sexy, attention-getting clothes,” Hirshman writes. She points out that the suit Palin wore for the debate with Joe Biden was “some amazingly iridescent material, and she sported an eye-popping sparkly rhinestone flag pin. The governor as the It Girl of the ’90s singles scene.”
It wasn’t just her clothes, of course. But her flirty demeanor, her “hey there, Sailor!” wink, as Richard Cohen says, and “all those doggones, references to her working-class status (net worth in excess of $2 million), promiscuous use of the word ‘maverick,’ repeated mentions of ‘greed and corruption on Wall Street’ … and, of course, that manic good cheer. ”
As Amy Poehler said during a recent Saturday’s “Saturday Night Live” sketch, looking over at Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin, “When cornered, you have a tendency to become adorable.”
Adorable, I thought, as I leaned into the screen, scrutinizing her. She was dazzling. Heartbreakingly cute. And friendly.
I hadn’t thought about Pam in a long time. But, suddenly, there she was. Between the relentless smiles, and widened eyes, the winks, I recognized both the Mean Girl and the old familiar sense of being played. I felt the lack of anything close to sincerity, or the truth. And then I recognized her: playing to her spectators to get what she wants, at whatever the cost.
As Hirshman wrote, the real problem is that how a Mean Girl acts “does not have to reflect what she really believes–or even what she knows.” It only has to be effective with the target audience–of 7th grade boys, or junior high Latin teachers, or voters.
I know Sarah Palin because I went to school with her. And, in fact, most women did. Then, the Queen Bees or Mean Girls were just that. Now, they’re really scary.