Feature

Letterman on Palin: A joke too far?

Is Palin's daughter fair game?

“Sorry, Dave,” said Kathleen Parker in The Washington Post. “Not funny.” Last week, after Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the folksy former VP candidate, took her 14-year-old daughter to a New York Yankees game, late-night talk-show legend David Letterman joked on his show that during the seventh-inning stretch, Palin’s “daughter got knocked up by Alex Rodriguez,” the womanizing Yankees third baseman. An infuriated Palin went on several TV shows to defend her daughter, calling Letterman’s joke ugly and “sexually perverted.” Amid the ensuing outrage, Letterman apologized, twice, for what he called “a joke that was beyond flawed.” Where, meanwhile, was the outrage from feminists? said Victor David Hanson in National Review Online. The women’s movement used to have a “zero-tolerance” policy for sexual slurs against women. Why, then, is it fine for “smug” left-wing Palin-haters like Letterman to yuk it up while fantasizing about the “statutory rape of a 14-year-old?”

It’s not, said Richard Roeper in the Chicago Sun-Times, “but nobody did that.” As Letterman quickly explained, and as was obvious from the start, the fateful joke was a reference to Palin’s 18-year-old daughter, Bristol, the pregnant teen Palin used as a prop during the campaign. His Palin jokes simply “make no sense if they’re not about Bristol,” said Jason Zengerle in TheNewrepublic.com. She is, after all, the Palin daughter who actually did get “knocked up,” and who is currently keeping the Palin name in the spotlight as an unlikely spokeswoman for the abstinence movement. If Palin doesn’t want her kids to be fodder for bad-taste jokes by late-night comics, then perhaps she shouldn’t keep exploiting them for her own political purposes.

Maybe so, said Amanda Fortini in Salon.com, but we liberals need to be careful that we don’t excuse sexist, classist attacks on powerful women just because we disagree with their politics. Even if Letterman’s joke was aimed at Bristol rather than at Willow Palin, it was still premised on the caricature of Palin’s family as a clan of oversexed backwoods hicks. Indeed, Letterman followed up his crass “knocked up” gag with a crack about Palin looking like a “slutty flight attendant.” Imagine if some conservative pundit made a similar remark about Michelle Obama or Hillary Clinton. “The outcry from the Left would be deafening.” If we do not object to all misogynistic put-downs of powerful women as sluts and sex objects, we can’t complain when some jerk demeans Obama or Clinton the same way.

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