No sooner had the controversy over Newsweek's Sarah Palin cover (July 11) died down than a new one over its Michele Bachmann issue (Aug. 8) took the talk shows by storm. For anyone who missed it, Palin had been presented looking fit as a fiddle, strong and structured, and highly attractive. Liberal commentator Lawrence O'Donnell of MSNBC took issue with the left-of-center magazine's allowing their joint "enemy" to come off so well. For him, Newsweek's ploy was hard, cold and politically amoral: to sell issues of a publication that's dying a slow, steady newsstand death.
O'Donnell had no reason to complain when a month later Newsweek followed up with a hatchet job on another tea-party favorite. With glazed-over eyes, in an "I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille!" image of other-worldliness, Bachmann appeared every inch the space cadet her detractors expect.
This time, Fox News unleashed anger. Virtually every commentator on that right-leaning network insisted Newsweek had featured the kind of visual put-down O'Donnell earlier had insisted ought to have been the case with Palin.
But it didn't end there. Terry O'Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, insisted the cover was "sexist." Yet here is a photograph that, whatever one thinks about Bachmann's politics, makes a physically attractive woman appear anything but. The irony is that, back on Nov. 17, 2009, when Newsweek featured a Palin cover displaying her in pigtails, bright red top, and black running shorts that showed off her to-die-for legs, spokespeople for NOW complained that that image was sexist.
Damned if you do, damned if you don't -- further proof that if the essence of what "sexism" actually means is to have any continuing value in our society, the misconception that "sexy" and "sexist" are equitable equivalent terms must belatedly be put to rest.
Rightist Palin also seized on the language of the left two years ago, attacking Newsweek for "sexism" though she had chosen to pose for the photo and expressed no problem with its earlier appearance in Runner's World. Yet another conservative woman, former White House spokeswoman Dana Perino, stated on Sean Hannity: "They made sexuality a part of her performance." What back in 1973 would have been a leftist complaint can now come from the right. But then or now, right or left, it simply isn't true. What Newsweek did was to honestly deal with the fact that physical beauty is a part of Sarah Palin's "performance." Love her or hate her, Palin is, like Bachmann, a conventionally attractive woman.
To pretend that isn't the case would be akin to making believe Scarlett Johansson is so huge a movie star strictly owing to her acting abilities. Yes, Johansson is a superb actress. So are many other young women who have not, and will not, achieve her level of fame. Not that beauty alone can ever do the trick. If that were so, Carmen Electra would qualify as a superstar instead of a C-list pseudo-celebrity.
If sexy and sexist were the same thing, any performance art by Madonna, Lady Gaga, or Beyonce Knowles would have to be written off as sexist. None ever hides her sexuality, but flaunts it. Yet if each rates as a sex symbol, none could be dismissed as a sex object. That occurs only when beauty is all there is, the case with an empty vessel such as Paris Hilton. While it can be argued that pop culture and politics are two different realms, that's more difficult to accept now that politician Palin has also hosted a reality TV series.
So: Was Newsweek's Palin cover biased or sexist? No. The Bachmann one? Biased, yes; but not sexist. If Newsweek were to do a Hillary Clinton cover, my guess is she'd look like a million bucks. If a conservative publication such as National Review features Clinton and Bachmann on successive covers, the former will appear wretched, the latter lovely.
We live in an age that has witnessed the death of objective journalism, as old-network early-evening news ratings go ever further down the tube. So long as a magazine openly admits its bias, we must accept, if not necessarily like, the fact that this is the way "the news" now works.
As for sexism, the term never should have been aligned with sexiness. "Sexism" should finally be employed to describe one thing alone: the gender bias that allows a woman working alongside a man to be paid less than an equal salary for the same job. What that woman looks like has nothing to do with a situation that represents sexism at its most offensive.
Douglas Brode teaches on the relationship of popular culture to contemporary society at the Newhouse School of Public Communications, Syracuse University. He wrote this commentary for The Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Va. He can be reached at email@example.com.