Deconstruction of Lipstick

The will come a time when it is impossible to understand how Senator Barack Obama’s reference to the old metaphor of putting lipstick on a pig, as a colorful way to indicate a vain attempt to make something fundamentally unattractive appear beautiful through the expedient of a cosmetic change, caused such an uproar. Perhaps was near contemporaneous exploration of the issue will be of some small future value for all those political science theses that will be written on the subject.

Here are Obama’s words:

“John McCain says he’s about change, too.And so I guess his whole angle is, ‘Watch out, George Bush! Except for economic policy, health care policy, tax policy, education policy, foreign policy, and Karl Rove-style politics, we’re really going to shake things up in Washington. That’s not change. That’s just calling something the same thing something different. But you know, you can put lipstick on a pig. It’s still a pig. You can wrap an old fish in a piece of paper called change, it’s still going to stink after eight years. We’ve had enough of the same old thing.

Clearly, within the immediate context of the quotation, the “lipstick on a pig” referred to the Bush policies that could not be made to look better. If that same metaphor had been used earlier in the the campaign, it would be impossible to read any different meaning into it. Unfortunately, it was not a metaphor Obama had recently used, but one that unleashed after the nomination of Governor Sarah Palin for vice-president.

Days before, Palin had cited the now famous joke: “What is the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull… Lipstick.” The joke became a signature comment and the word “lipstick” was specifically associated with Palin and her feminity. It is in this total context not only the context of his words that day that Obama had made his remarks. Moreover, the phrase “old fish” could be applied to Senator John McCain.

Taken together, the remarks could be viewed as a clever swipe against both halves of the national ticket. Indeed,the smirking laughs that followed Obama’s comments indicate that the the audience got the joke.

Until they changed their coverage to hide this crowd reaction, ABC news reported:

“The crowd rose and applauded, some of them no doubt thinking he may have been alluding to Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s ad lib during her vice presidential nomination acceptance speech last week..”

while AP recorded the same impression:

“”You can put lipstick on a pig,” he [Obama] said to an outbreak of laughter, shouts and raucous applause from his audience, clearly drawing a connection to Palin’s joke even if it’s not what Obama meant….”

It is impossible to peer into Obama’s mind and know his intention. There remain a couple of possibilities. The more negative interpretation is that he was making a vaguely misogynistic remark against Palin. The less damning one is that he was unaware of how the remark would be interpreted. This is not quite the image of the clever constitutional law lawyer adept a parsing sentence and interpreting words in the context of the times.

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