Sarah Palin's cojones outburst had nothing to do with President Obama, or Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, or immigration for that matter. It was quite simply all about Sarah. It was about Sarah Palin's long-term image construction project where she simultaneously fosters feminine and masculine stereotypes.
Since bursting onto the national scene at the Republican National Convention, Palin has deftly played with gender stereotypes. Her first entrée into gender bending came with her self-identification as a Pit Bull with lipstick. Most recently she is a Mamma, but a grizzly bear too. Palin is an attractive women who proudly wears her stilettos, form fitting suits, and coiffed 'dos. However, she will just as readily slip into a parka, put on a baseball cap and grab her hunting rifle.
Sarah Palin navigates between the roles of mother and tough stud. As a mother and a grandmother she highlights the associated characteristics--a nurturing, empathetic side with strong inter-personal skills. At the same time, her policy issues and remarks regarding her opponents (e.g. Barack Obama) showcase a competitiveness and aggressiveness that allows her to brandish her Pit Bull cred.
Her invocation of cojones bumped her up quite a bit on the masculine side of the ledger. She could have said, "balls," but she did not. Instead she chose the Spanish translation that has a much more vulgar connotation AND adds on the culturally stereotypical element of machoness. I doubt Sarah Palin was attempting to be culturally consistent by using a Spanish term when discussing the Mexican border. Cojones--a term that my grandmother would scold me for if I ever used is something that just does not come out of the mouth of a señorita.
Palin juxtaposes feminine and masculine stereotypes offering her the best of both worlds. Research in the field of business organization finds that a key element of leadership, charisma, is made up of stereotypically male and female traits. In other words, a cocktail mix of confidence, assertiveness, sensitivity to follower needs, and empathy provides for a leader that is effective, especially in change-oriented organizations (e.g. Groves 2005; Rosner; 1990; Hegeslen 1990; Merolla and Eberhardt 2010). Whether the Republican party is a change oriented organization can be disputed, but at the very least the face (older white males) of the Republican party is seeking change.
A recent paper by a colleague of mine, Jennifer Merolla at Claremont Graduate University, finds that Palin indeed envelops both gender trait stereotypes and that the priming of these stereotypes produces differential reactions by survey respondents. Tangibly, what this means is: 1.) By shoring up both feminine and masculine traits Palin develops her general charismatic leadership style and 2.) She can micro-target her messages by highlighting certain traits from her character arsenal depending on the audience and context.
Sarah Palin's cojones statement was not erratic. It was a calculated and purposive step toward auguring a charismatic leadership profile. A combination of softness and toughness is not new to women in politics. However, such an explicit and active combination of the macho and feminine is. From a Pit Bull with lipstick, to a Mamma Grizzly, to a Señorita with cojones Sarah Palin is building her resume. The question is whether voters will embrace Palin as the CEO of the Republican Party or perhaps of the United States.
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