10/04/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Girl of the Golden West

"I'd have a beer with her ... or I'd go to church with her."
-- Minneapolis construction salesman Bill Dupont discussing Sarah Palin in the Sept. 3 Wall Street Journal

Here is one way to think about Sarah Palin: she combines all three of our culture's most enduring gender stereotypes about the West. They are, in the words of Western historian John Mack Faragher -- "Molly, Miss Kitty, and Ma."
Molly is the Eastern schoolmarm in Owen Wister's The Virginian,the virtuous woman in search of "a man who was a man." In the current drama, the role of the man is played by Gov. Palin's blue-collar, union-member husband whose manly skills include commercial fishing, oil-rig working, piloting small plane, and racing snowmobiles. And if some of that rubs off the man from Arizona, well, shucks, that's fine, m'am.
Miss Kitty is the saloon-keeper with the heart of gold in TV's Gunsmoke, a PG-rated stand-in for all the good-hearted madams and prostitutes who have populated every horse opera since The Virginian. It takes a fallen woman to redeem a fallen man. In the current version, the role of the fallen-but-redeemable woman will be played by the Governor's pregnant daughter Bristol. And "Ma" is the resilient and faithful farm wife of Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books. Like Ma, Sarah Palin is a woman who John McCain hopes will prove her grit by riding out the current storm with him. Given that Governor Palin is an NRA member who has already bagged and skinned her share of elk and caribou, she stands ready to step right into that role - and play Pa, to boot.2008-09-04-RevolverGirl500.jpg

The Democrats seem reluctant to take on this rootin', tootin' cultural legacy head-on. If John Wayne and Gary Cooper could get soft-hearted about this kind of woman -- part Calamity Jane, part Annie Oakley, part Bonnie Parker -- who would want to deny them? F. Scott Fitzgerald, who always thought of himself as a Westerner contending with Eastern corruptions, knew the type well. As a senior at Princeton, collaborating with Edmund Wilson on a student musical, he wrote a parody of Puccini's opera, Girl of the Golden West, in which the heroine bags her men as part of her "merry quest." Never mind that the stereotype is a disservice to the diverse and different roles real women played in the West. But that's not what Senator McCain has in mind in 2008 it?