Palin, Mama Grizzlies, and the Wife of Bath

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There was a lot of talk about Sarah Palin’s “Mama Grizzlies” this past election season. The image, which conjures up mothers fiercely defending their threatened young, has never made logical sense to me as a rightwing symbol. After all, shouldn’t mothers be fighting fiercely for social safety net programs (which Sarah Palin attacks) and against militarist foreign policy (which she defends)? That’s the point of this youtube video.

But then, as Roland Barthes once noted, logic isn’t the strong suit of mythological thinking, which circumvents the mind and goes straight to the gut. Palin invokes the fear generated by uncertain times and then lashes out against the designated enemy (the Democrats). Her image created a buzz, contributed to far right electoral energy (powerful metaphors have a way of doing that), and helped Palin consolidate her media career.

I believe that scrutinizing Chaucer’s Wife of Bath will help us better understand Sarah Palin’s appeal. There are more similarities than you might expect.

The Wife (Alison) isn’t the most logical of women, with her theological arguments taking crazy twists and turns. She has, however, an undeniable sexual energy and she craves the limelight. At a time when women were supposed to aspire to be like the Virgin Mary (sweet, submissive and chaste), Alison is loud and boisterous and lusty.  Of her five marriages, she has entered the last two for sex. She may be only one of two women among Chaucer’s thirty pilgrims, but she more than makes up for it by her volubility. Once she is given center stage, she grabs it with both hands, delivering the longest prologue of The Canterbury Tales.

Is Alison a feminist? The scholarly debates over that question have resembled some of the discussions about Palin’s self-proclaimed feminism.  On the one hand, Alison is certainly ambitious and determined to get her way. She insists on being the first in line in church (she throws a temper tantrum if she isn’t), she won’t her husbands boss her around, and when husband #5 reads her cautionary stories about “wicked wyves,” she snatches the book and throws it (and him) into the fire.

On the other hand, she doesn’t have a proper feminist reaction to her “first dude” of a husband, who slaps her across the side of the head.  Rather, she says that she wants men who are “daungerous” and claims that she loves this husband most of all.  On the other hand, after their fight she takes control of the marriage, convincing him that it’s best not to stand in her way.

Despite the fact that being married to Alison appears to be a death sentence, she nevertheless gets along with men.  This is because she’s not afraid to play the seductress card. Sometimes she builds up men’s egos, such as when she strategically accuses her aging and impotent husbands (husbands 1, 2 and 3) of messing around behind her back. (They are flattered that she thinks they are capable of infidelity.) At other times, she plays the dominatrix, wearing spurs, carrying a whip, and boasting that she will freely use her “instrument” (she means her private parts). She also (like Palin) dresses flamboyantly in red (think of Palin’s high heeled red stilettos).

My students sometimes wonder how Alison gets away with all that she does. My theory is that the other pilgrims don’t take her seriously as a thinker but give her slack because they are titillated. Deep down, I think, she wants to be respected for her mind, but she realizes that men will listen to her much more if she plays the sexy bitch. So she does.

And that presents a problem. Men might be willing to be entertained by mama grizzlies, but they won’t cede power to them. In a Slate article, Amanda Marcotte argues that, in today’s conservative circles, “women are supposed to be the light, the caretakers, the homemakers, those who smooth feathers and wipe brows. Aggression, meanness, ambition, and even lustiness are considered more masculine traits.”  Marcotte believes that, in the recent election, this is why Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell lost their Senate races and why Nikki Haley in South Carolina’s governor’s race “barely squeaked by with 51 percent of the vote in one of the most conservative states in the country.”

All of which doesn’t bode well for any presidential ambitions that Palin harbors. On the other hand, her traits serve her well as a media personality.  Her reality television show may do very well.

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