First, the clip:
Since the moment three weeks ago when Tina Fey first donned that bouffant Palin wig and coaxed her voice into an accent reminiscent of someone from Garrison Keillor's fictional rural Minnesota town Lake Woebegone who spent a few years as part of the cast of Northern Exposure, I've marveled (admittedly a bit aghast) at the amazing and terrifying resemblance. And last week, when Tina Fey and Amy Poehler--the comedic duo to end all comedic duos--satirized Palin's interview with Katie Couric, I remember thinking how it was simultaneously scary and hilarious that part of the fake interview was an almost verbatim recitation of the real interview. Today, Lauren over at Feministe quipped, "Next week, SNL is just going to overdub a laugh track on clips taken directly from the campaign trail." This is funny because it's true. And scary because it's funny.
Until now, I couldn't quite articulate the weird combination of hilarity and discomfort these SNL's skits instilled in me. Luckily, someone else did the job for me. In a post about last night's opening, Le Loup-garou at The Feminist Underground put into words my ambivalence:
The same thing happened with W. We marginalized how scary he was through parody and mocking. He is an idiot, but we (the media) made the fact he is poorly educated and underqualified less terrifying and more acceptable by painting him as lovably bumbling. Let us not marginalize Palin's poor qualifications by letting Tina Fey turn her into a harmless beauty queen. Palin denies global warming, gay rights, and science. She is as dangerous as her ideology and ideas, and we will not be misled by her winks and Fey's comedic renderings!
Le Loup-garou makes a compelling point here about the power of satire to diffuse and distort reality to the point of "lovable" buffoonery, and I realize now that the Tina Fey-Sarah Palin connection is problematic because it renders the contrast between charming parody and biting satire hazy and ambiguous. Le Loup's impetus for posting was a comment on the gossip site TMZ offering this consolation: "Tina nailed it again last night and even the staunchest Dem can see a silver lining if McCain/Palin wins in November -- four more years ... of Tina Fey." This also explains how I was feeling during the actual VP debate, when a small part of me, a part I kept trying to quiet down, wasn't so much listening to Palin's rambling recitation of talking points but instead thinking, "Wow, she really looks like Tina Fey. Tina Fey has been doing a great job parodying her. Boy, I love Tina Fey. Ack, but I don't love Sarah Palin. Nononononononono! Bad mental association. Bad." Or something along those lines.
It's hard to know if the SNL parodies are hurting or helping Sarah Palin. On the one hand, they provide much needed humor and relief to Democrats whose greatest desire is to see the absurdities of this campaign reflected back to them in the media. A satirical mirror that tells us, "You're not alone. You're not seeing things. This is crazy and, yes, Sarah Palin is talking in circles and not answering the questions asked of her. Yes, she's a hypocrite and homophobic and likes to shoot wolves from helicopters. Let us show you how absurd this all is." On the other hand, I think Sarah Palin is popular with certain people precisely because she's "folksy," precisely because she doesn't take herself as seriously as McCain or Obama or Biden, precisely because she can get away with saying at the debate that she "may not answer the questions the way that either the moderator or you [Biden] want to hear,” and winking repeatedly at the camera. And what an additional honor to be satirized by Tina Fey, to be made to seem so lovably, comically misguided, just a regular hockey mom, smart and ambitious and a little goofy, up there behind the podium doing her best to obfuscate and appeal to her version of the American public.
The Palin-Fey juxtaposition is disconcerting, even for me, and I've been reading all the political blogs and The New York Times and The Huffington Post. I recognize that Palin is grossly inexperienced, that I do not agree with her on a single issue, that her stance on abortion frightens me, that her "tolerance" of LGBTQ "lifestyles" infuriates me, that her disregard for the environment is mind-boggling, and that her version of women's rights is not just nonexistent but regressive. And yet, as Le Loup-garou reminds us, the association with Tina Fey's brilliant parody still manages to make her seem funny instead of downright terrifying.
Don't get me wrong. I think satire is important. But it's not SNL's job to make Sarah Palin look bad or good or scary or anything. SNL is just supposed to be funny, to hold a wavy circus mirror up to our already twisted contemporary political landscape and let us laugh a bit here and there. And maybe that's enough--to expose and magnify the inconsistencies and the incompetency and the obvious ploys that distract us from actual policies and beliefs. But the tenuous boundary between what's funny and what's real is something we should keep in the back of our minds while we're guffawing over Queen Latifah as Gwen Iffil and her raised-eyebrow disbelief at Palin-Fey's antics.
Feminism has often been accused of being anti-humor, but that's a ridiculous simplification. I love comedy, I think SNL's presidential campaign satire is hilarious and engaging, even necessary. However, satire cannot fully convey the very real stakes of this presidential race, and the impact on the economy, on women's rights, on gay rights, on the environment, on health care. That's all very serious. Because if John McCain and Sarah Palin are elected, it's not Tina Fey who will be our Vice President. And it won't seem so funny anymore.
[ETA: For an addendum to this post, including my response to comments, click here.]