Photoshop for Democracy Revisited: The Sarah Palin File

During the 2004 presidential election season, I ran a column in Technology Review Online which described the way that average citizens were exploiting their expanded capacity to manipulate and circulate images to create the grassroots equivalent of editorial cartoons. These images often got passed along via e-mail or posted on blogs as a way of enlivening political debates. Like classic editorial cartoons, they paint in broad strokes, trying to forge powerful images or complex sets of associations that encapsulate more complex ideas. In many cases, they aim lower than what we would expect from an established publication and so they are a much blunter measure of how popular consciousness is working through shifts in the political landscape. Many of them explore the borderlands between popular culture and American politics. I called this "Photoshop for Democracy" and the ideas got expanded in the final chapters of Convergence Culture. I thought back on my arguments there this past week as I've begun to search out some of the images being generated in response to John McCain's choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate. Given the intense flood of news coverage around this decision, the ways that it has shaken up the terms of the campaign, and the ways that it challenges gender assumptions surrounding the Republican leadership, it is no surprise that it has provoked a range of response. And I thought it might be interesting to dissect some of these images here.

Some of the first images that circulated around the Palin appointment were, in effect, frauds. They sought to tap into the media feeding frenzy and the blogosphere's search for any incriminating evidence. Some of these images were probably already in circulation in Alaska before the announcement, while others may have emerged quickly as the nation started to learn who this woman is. Here are two examples. Both suggest the ways that Palin doesn't fit our expectations about what a female politician looks like. For the first time, we have a vice presidential candidate who is young, feminine, and well as she is one of the first to acknowledge, "hot." She was after all a runner up for the Miss Alaska competition and this couldn't be further removed from our current Vice President or for that matter, the tough matronly style adopted by America's most successful female politicians. Camile Paglia celebrates Palin in a recent Salon article: "In terms of redefining the persona for female authority and leadership, Palin has made the biggest step forward in feminism since Madonna channeled the dominatrix persona of high-glam Marlene Dietrich and rammed pro-sex, pro-beauty feminism down the throats of the prissy, victim-mongering, philistine feminist establishment." Needless to say, Palin's appearance and persona provokes strong reactions, ones which struggle to separate anxieties that she may be a Stepford Wife or a Barbie from a more generalized dismissal of attractive women. This first image plays on the fact that Palin did pose for photographs for Vogue by constructing a mock cover of the magazine.


This second plays with the contradiction between the sexy mom] and the rough and tumble Alaskan. She's a "babe," in this case, a Bikini-clad "Babe," who also knows how to shoot and skin her own meat. This image was deemed sufficiently plausible that it needed to be discredited at the Urban Legends site.


Those of you who watched the televised convention no doubt caught the disconcerting images of 70 something male delegates bearing buttons bragging about how "hot" Governor Palin is. Given the actual buttons circulated at the convention, this mock button is not as far fetched as it might seem, though now we are moving into the space of political humor rather than anything that was meant to deceive the viewer.


This next one juxtaposes erotic images of Palin with the very real anxieties about mortality raised by McCain's age. One of the most powerful arguments against the Palin appointment has been the concerns about what would happen if McCain were to die in office. And before he announced her pick, pundits had said that he needed to choose someone who would reassure voters that the VP would be prepared to move into the top office and stabilize the country.


This Photoshop collage also calls attention to the vast age difference between the 70-something McCain and his 30-something running mate -- in this case, by reading the pairing in relation to the Anna Nicole Smith case. This is a classic example of how grassroots political humor maps politics onto popular culture, thus allowing us to mobilize our expertise as fans or simply readers of People magazine to make sense of the complexities of American politics.


Several images in circulation read Palin as a superhero. Indeed, I was struck when I first saw her that she had adopted many of the stylistic choices of female superheroes in their alterego disguises -- her hair up in a bun, big librarian glasses. These "serious" trappings no more mask the beauty queen underneath than Clark Kent's glasses hide Superman and in the real world, they can come across as inauthentic. You add that with the stories of her braving the elements and slaughtering Alaskian wildlife and you can imagine the Amazon underneath the librarian disguise. I have been imagining that moment which would be inevitable if this were a movie where she takes off her glasses, lets out her hair, and gives a sultry look to the American voters.


This next image pushes the conception of Palin as superhero in an entirely different direction -- this time, she's Batgirl. Here, she fits into an ongoing series of popular images which depict McCain as Bush's "sidekick," one of the ways that the idea that McCain represents a continuation of the Bush administration, a constant refrain at the Democratic convention, is entering the popular imagination. So, she's now the "sidekick" of a "sidekick," who will likewise continue the Bush Administration's policies for "four more years."


Given the ways that Palin's announcement has been intertwined with debates about teen pregnancy, it is no surprise that the poster for Juno has become a basic resource for people wanting to comment on these issues. Many feminists have already critiqued the film for making teen pregnancy and adoption seem like the only viable option for its protagonists. And of course, it doesn't hurt that Juneau is one of the larger cities in Palin's home state.



I couldn't resist throwing in two additional examples surrounding the McCain campaign. This first links McCain himself to Doctor Strangelove as a way of conveying the fear that the candidate may be a war-mongerer.


The second playfully reworks an Obama poster, one of the most vivid visual icons of the campaign to date, and in the process, sets up the contrast between Obama's politics of "Hope" and McCain's politics of "Nope."


We can expect to see many more such images produced and circulated as the campaigns intensify even more over the coming two months.

Most of these examples are taken from the Political Humor site which regular collects such Photoshop images. You can find many more examples here.