Sarah Palin is the politician Jonathan Swift would have imagined for this century if he were living in it. An attractive woman with some sort of strictly defined set of morals, she has exploded onto the scene because she is a masterful spin doctor, a skilled manipulator of her image, and someone who has found a way to flourish in modern America, despite lacking the obvious characteristics one might imagine as necessary for a life of public service (brains, ideas, experience, to name the most obvious). She is, of course, as much an entertainer as a politician—a celebrity above all—a strange thing but a natural development in this world of 24-hour news networks and multi-million dollar campaigns. It is perhaps jarring to think that CNN has as much to do with Palin’s rise as Fox, but it is stranger to see how Palin has chosen to further her career in these years between presidential elections, with her out of the governor’s office. When John McCain summoned her from the Alaskan wilderness in a desperate attempt to reclaim control of the presidential race in 2008, Palin was immediately one of the most controversial figures in all of America. Some were absolutely captivated by her, while others rued the fact that America had deteriorated to the point that someone like her could ever captivate the country. There were simultaneous arguments that Palin both lost the race for McCain and kept him in it, but no matter which side a person chose, it was obvious Palin’s career was just beginning. Today she’s one of the most important Republicans in the country, though she’s not actually in any office. Her latest endeavor is _Sarah Palin’s Alaska_, a new show on TLC—the channel that brought us many shocking pregnancy tales such as “Obese and Pregnant,” “Paralyzed and Pregnant,” and “I Didn’t Know I was Pregnant,” as well as the now infamous “John & Kate Plus 8.” How Palin’s show falls into this sort of programming culture might seem ambiguous at first, but the viewer begins to realize that perhaps her life is just another story that we can gawk at together.
The show is basically a chance for Palin to head into the outdoors, usually with a family member in tow, and to connect whatever experiences she has there with her own political beliefs. A particularly emblematic episode occurs when Palin takes her daughter Piper (and it should be noted here for those eager for a Bristol sighting that she is conspicuously absent from the first episode) into the wild in the hopes of seeing a mother grizzly. Excuse me, Mama Grizzly.
Palin is, of course, a champion of these animals, who she believes are the types of critters modern American women should be emulating. She says of the bears, “They’ve got a nature, yeah, that humankind can learn from. She’s trying to show her cubs nobody’s going to do it for ya, you get out there and do it yourselves, guys.” Unfortunately for Palin’s theory, the TLC camera crew ends up capturing footage of the bear swiping at fish to feed her cubs, while her children splash around in the water merrily. But Palin has shown that she has never been defeated by reality’s unwillingness to conform to her theories and assertions. She seems entirely satisfied with the sighting, her beliefs unchanged. “Wow,” she says, four, five times. She is clearly awed by the power and grace of her home. Or at least she wants us to believe she is.
Palin has seized upon that part of America that desires a leader no different from them, someone without a bunch of fancy degrees, someone with a large family and real home-based responsibilities. For some reason these people have decided that our leaders should not be top-of-the-class, accomplished doers, but instead Mike from down the street, and Claire from around the corner. Of course, Palin is neither of these, but instead a self-made megastar who plays up her apparent ordinary nature to seize control over the masses. But she says she’s just like you and me, so obviously she is.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing about Sarah Palin’s Alaska, besides Bristol’s absence, is that Alaska is really a beautiful place. For someone who has lived his entire life in New Haven, Connecticut, the sprawling pine forests and foreboding glaciers are a sight to behold. This is frustrating because these gorgeous sights are not narrated by an equally-awed, luscious-voiced narrator on PBS or the Discovery Channel, but in Palin’s unusual and oft-parodied Alaskan twang, which she uses to point out only the most obvious things. For instance, she chooses to explain why it’s more difficult to land an airplane on ice than on an airstrip at LaGuardia. Turns out, it’s because ice is very slippery. Who knew? The producers of the show are not here to show us Alaska, untamed, vast and majestic, but Sarah’s version of it. We watch her hunt, white water raft, and hike. We see a few scenes of her being a mother in her own house, with six kids running around, and even a few kids who are not her own. (At one point, Andy, a young friend of Palin’s daughter Willow, tries to head upstairs with the girl, but Sarah has none of it. Upstairs is a “no boys zone.”)
Despite this apparent hands-on approach to living and parenting, there are some odd episodes of friction that often occur unbeknownst to Palin. Willow in particular seems rebellious and not altogether happy. She bails on an excursion to Denali National Park on account of a hurting back, after her mom won’t let her friend hang out in her room. And Piper, all of nine years old, points out that her mom is always on her BlackBerry, and then, mimicking her mother, says, “She’s like, ‘Hold on, I’ll be there in a second,” furiously stabbing her thumbs at an imaginary keyboard.
All of these issues give rise to rather negative reviews. _The New York Times_ and _The New Yorker_, a pair of elitist journalistic enterprises, both published highly opinionated pieces about the show, and both wished Palin would stay in Alaska and not seek the presidency. I’m sure positive reviews for the show are out there that point out Palin’s humor, the lush Alaskan wilderness, and the apparent intimacy the show offers. But Piper’s sentiment about smart phone usage seems telling to me. Palin is not really all about Alaska, any more than she is all about the common American. There’s a selfishness to her, a cockiness, a star’s bravado. And though she puts up a 14-foot fence to keep the prying eyes of a writer who has rented the house next door from catching any glimpses of her day-to-day activities, Palin has no reservations about bringing America into her home. She doesn’t expect them to come away thinking anything’s wrong with her, but rather that she’s the ideal: the rugged frontierswoman with a burgeoning career, the doting mother and loving wife.
If Palin had been discovered by TLC to shine some light on women who simultaneously revel in the wild and act as mothers, she might be something of a revelation. A person who seems so comfortable in her niche could speak to the limitless potential the vastness of America offers an individual with any passion, any background. But of course, this is not the first time we’ve all met Sarah Palin. And her abdication of the governorship, her campaigning around America for conservative House and Senate candidates this fall, and this foray into our living rooms suggest that this niche is just a stepping-stone, that Alaska is just a platform from which she might spring. But if Washington is what she seeks, she might have to look a little harder around her kitchen table. In two years Willow can vote, and I’m not so sure her allegiance is assured.