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Sarah Palin


pit bull. A tough and relentless fighter. As a metaphor it is most often employed  in the political arena.

Pit bulls have a reputation, long held and recently exaggerated, as fighting dogs of “rare courage.”reference 1 Despite dog lovers’ and breeders’ protestations that no breed is inherently vicious and that it is individual dogs who are “trained” to be so, pit bulls are widely—but mistakenly—considered singularly dangerous dogs. As Dawn Blackmar DVM, director of veterinary public health for Harris County, Texas put it after a dogfighting ring was broken up, “It's not the dogs' fault. It's that people have taken and exploited this breed.”reference 2 In recent years, various versions of pit bull dogs—not only American Staffordshire Terriers, American Pit Bull Terriers, and Staffordshire Bull Terriers, but also a wide variety of breeds and mixtures of breeds with similar physical characteristics—have been the subject of controversial breed-specific laws and ordinances. The inherent difficulty in enforcing such laws and ordinances is that few of the dogs in question are purebred, much less registered as such.

Marjorie Garber's description of the “breed controversy” echoes the problematics that often surround racial categories: “‘Everyone knows’ and ‘no one knows’ what a ‘pit bull’ is. Everyone knows and no one knows that ‘they’ are dangerous.” Ah, the undesirable “they.” In a sly reference to Gayatri Spivak, Garber calls the pit bull “an ‘undecidable’ figure: singled out for vilification by the law yet not reliably identifiable as a breed.”reference 3

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The pit bull is the current bad boy of the companion species, but this was not always the case. The nationally beloved Petey of the Our Gang franchise was a pit bull. During the Great War, the U.S. was depicted as a Pit Bull Terrier on a 1914 recruiting poster.reference 4 In the 1960s, when I was growing up, German Shepherds were rumored to be more directly descended from wolves than other breeds and thus more wild and vicious.

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As pit bulls have emerged as especially terrifying signifiers, there are those who wish to associate themselves with this viciousness. In politics being merely an attack dog may not be sufficiently threatening. Wisconsin Representative F. James Sensenbrenner's was characterized as a “pit bull” by colleague Ric Keller (Fla-R) who goes on to paraphrase a one-liner from Cheers. “And the Senate negotiators he is up against are wearing Milk-Bone® underwear.”reference 5 (The dog metaphors seem to stick to this guy. Another colleague, Dan Lungren (Cal-R), says Sensenbrenner “treats us all equally. He treats us all like dogs.”reference 6)

1. American Kennel Club. 1992. The Complete Dog Book: The Photograph, History, and Official Standard of Every Breed Admitted to Akc Registration, and the Selection, Training, Breeding, Care, and Feeding of Pure-Bred Dogs. 18th ed. New York: Howell Book House ; Maxwell Macmillan Canada. 330.

2. McKinley, James C., Jr. 2008. Dogfighting Subculture, Illegal and Secretive, Is Taking Hold in Texas. New York Times, Dec 7, 29, 35.


3. Garber, Marjorie B. 1996. Dog Love. New York: Simon & Schuster. 194.




4. Ibid. 197-8.


5. Liebovich, Mark. 2006. 'Pit Bull' of the House Latches onto Immigration. New York Times, July 11, 1, 17.

6. Ibid.

In the most infamous and oft-quoted line of 2008 Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s acceptance speech in St. Paul, she quite deliberately claimed the moniker. Having styled herself a “hockey mom” two years earlier in her run for Governor of Alaska,reference 7 she amplified this description. She asked, “You know they say the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull? Lipstick.”reference 8 In this brief extemporaneous utterance she employed three potent tropes: pit bull, hockey mom, and lipstick. Their relationship is worth some consideration.
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Hockey Moms are the demographic descendants of Soccer Moms, so let’s start there. William Safire named Soccer Moms the “most powerful catch phrase” of the 1996 election season.reference 9 According to Safire, a soccer mom “often drives a sports-utility vehicle or a minivan, carries snacks and orange juice for the kids, sometimes takes along extra lawn chairs. She can be a full-time homemaker or can also work outside the home.”reference 10 In turn, he quotes Pat Harrison, a Republican political strategist, who states, “The phrase started in 1976, when women were first starting to enter the work force in droves and had to sacrifice to participate in their children's extracurricular activities. As an identifiable group with shared values and opinions were first distinguishable in the mid-80's. And we were usually uncommitted politically; that's why all Presidential candidates started seeking the ‘soccer mom vote.’”reference 11 To my ear, the term echoes Washington Senator Patty Murray’s self-descriptor from the early 1980s: “…she was once told by a state representative that she couldn't make a difference because she was just a ‘mom in tennis shoes.”reference 12 She claimed the name and it turned out to be an effective political strategy. But hockey moms seem to be of a different and more viscious breed.

Being a hockey mom is so much a part of Palin's identity that her biographer used in the title of her book.reference 13 But who—in general—is a hockey mom? Slate reporter Jacob Leibenluft offers an overview. First, they are from colder parts of the U.S.: two thirds of youth hockey is played in the Great Lakes states or the Northeast. Also, since just 2% of NHL players are black, we might guess that hockey moms are largely white. Given Palin’s claim to blue collar values, I found it especially interesting to learn that “[youth] hockey-playing households earn nearly twice the U.S. average, with a median income of $99,200.” They “tilted” Republican even in the 2008 election when voters nationwide—especially women voters—were otherwise unwontedly Democratic.reference 14

7. Bajaj, Vikas, et al. 2006. The 2006 Elections: State by State; West. New York Times, Nov 9. Accessed Dec 1, 2009 2006 from http:// gst/f ullpage.html ?res=9504EF D71E3FF93AA35752C1 A9609C8B63&st=nyt.

8. Palin, Sarah. 2008. Sarah Palin's Speech at the Republican National Convention. New York Times, Sep 3. Accessed Dec 3, 2008 from http:// 2008/ president/ conventions/ videos/ 20080903_PALIN_SPEECH.html.

9. Safire, William. 1996. Soccer Moms. New York Times Magazine. Oct 27. Accessed Dec 1, 2008 from http:// fullpage.html? res=9C05E2D81231F934A 15753C1A960958260.

10. Ibid.

11. Harrison, Pat quoted in Safire. 1996.

12. Wikipedia contributors. 2008. Patty Murray. Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Accessed Dec 1 2008 from http:// wiki/ Patty_Murray.

13. Johnson, Kaylene. 2008. Sarah: How a Hockey Mom Turned the Political Establishment Upside Down. Kenmore, Wash.: Epicenter Press.

14. Leibenluft, Jacob. 2008. Hockey Moms Vs. Soccer Moms: Which Is the More Important Voting Demographic? Slate. Sep 4. Accessed Dec 1, 2008 from

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And how does a hockey mom differ from a soccer mom? “Hockey partisans…also claim that hockey moms are a bit more intense than their soccer counterparts, both in terms of the commitments they make to the sport and the intensity with which they cheer their kids.”reference 15 Such a description, I think, is where Palin finds her comparison to a pit bull. While soccer moms may also be white and middle-class, they are more mild mannered, perhaps even a bit skittish about conflict. Not so the iconic Hockey Mom. Hockey fans are notorious for encouraging fights and bloodshed, apparently this is so even when the players are children. Figure 7 shows Sharla Matkin & Frederick Zbryski in Canadian playwright Michael Melski’s, Hockey Mom, Hockey Dad.reference 16 The similarities in the depictions of the mom and the pit bull in figure 6 are hard to ignore. 

And what should we make of the addition of lipstick? Her delivery suggests that without the lipstick, the casual viewer might not be able to tell the hockey moms and pit bulls apart. However, this would presume that lipstick wearing was an inherent characteristic of hockey moms. Having grown up in hockey country myself (my sister could once have been called a hockey mom, since my nephews played hockey), I am skeptical at best. Let’s assume that it has other implications, consciously intended or not.

15. Ibid.

16. Melski, Michael. 2001. Hockey Mom, Hockey Dad: A Play in Two Acts. 1st ed. Wreck Cove, Cape Breton, NS: Breton Books.





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As a former beauty pageant contestant and a politician in the television and YouTube age, Palin is certainly familiar with the many ways in which lipstick can be deployed in a literal fashion. The appearance of having full red lips is generally considered one of beauty, health, and vitality. Contemporarily lipstick use in the U.S. is associated almost exclusively with women. While the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s eschewed lipstick as a part of sex-object-creating consumer culture, it has made a comeback, even among young women of the twenty-first century who consider themselves also to be feminists.

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In language, lipstick can at times be feminizing (as in the combined form Lipstick Lesbian), eroticizing (as in the title of the television show, Lipstick Jungle), or describing a superficial relationship (as in the term Lipstick liberal, one “who passes him/herself off as a liberal or becomes a card-carrying Democrat strictly for the perceived fringe benefits”reference 17).

In this case, I believe that Palin was calling on a different kind of reference. Lipstick and other forms of makeup are sometimes referred to as “war paint.”reference 18 I suspect that this turn of phrase has its roots in what used to be more commonly referred to as the “war between the sexes.” This conflict has moved on to different turf these days. However, despite the aspersions it implicitly casts on indigenous peoples, the phrase survives. In her memoir Why I Wore Lipstick to My Mastectomy, Geralyn Lucas states, “I want my lipstick to tell everyone in this room that I think I have a future and I know I will wear lipstick again, but on my terms next time. But for now, I have my war paint. I think I am ready.”reference 19 However, here the usage emphasizes a defensive posture rather than the aggressive stance that Palin projected.

The American Heritage Dictionary offers a literal meaning of the phrase war paint: “pigments applied to the face or body in preparation for battle, as in certain tribal societies.”reference 20 I am not exactly certain what the editors mean by the word “tribal” nor why they limit the use of war paint to tribal societies. Nonetheless, Governor Palin displayed what I might think of as a tribal view of the world during the campaign: one divided between us and “them.”

Oddly, it is my guess that in her reference to lipstick Palin intends a kind of contemporary feminist ideal: not only can you be a strong woman and still wear makeup, but also, lipstick can be the signifier of an especially dangerous woman. No wonder she had trouble articulating her definition of feminism.





17. Fett, Sue. 2007. Lipstick Liberal. Urban Dictionary. Accessed Dec 1 2008 from http:// define.php? term= lipstick%20liberal.


18. The Oxford English Dictionary Online. 2005. 3d ed. Accessed from


19. Lucas, Geralyn. 2005. Why I Wore Lipstick to My Mastectomy New York: St. Martin's Press. 54.

20. The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth. 2000. Accessed Dec 3, 2008 from



About the illustrations: Figure 1 shows Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin at the Republican Convention in Minneapolis giving her acceptance speech in which she uttered the now-famous lines. The color of her lips has been enhanced. Associated Press photograph by Kyodo; used by subscription.

Figure 2 shows Our Gang's Petey in his personalized director's chair. This image was taken from a fan site. I believe that it is in the public domain.

Figure 3 is a poster for the U.S. Navy from WWI. The caption reads: “The American Watch-Dog; we're not looking for trouble, but we're ready for it.” As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain.

In Figure 4 Representative Sensenbrenner is a bit jowled in his official portrait but he does not look like that much of a threat. This United States Congress image is in the public domain because it is an official Congressional portrait, because it was taken by an official employee of the Congress, and because it has been released into the public domain and posted on the official web sites of a member of Congress.

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Figure 5 is a generic soccer mom. © 2008 Jupiterimages Corporation

Figure 10, to the left, offers a slightly different perspective. This is Tracy Gold, host of the show which is not about her, despite the load of laundry in her arms. Each week, one stay-at-home mom who gave up her career, secretly sees the life she left behind. This image is a promotional image for TLC's reality series, The Secret Life of a Soccer Mom. I believe that the use of scaled-down, low-resolution images of promotional images to provide critical commentary on the television show in question qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law.

Figure 6 is picture of a pit bull straining at its leash. It is by Gastongato who has released it into the public domain.

Figure 7 is a still from a review of the play by Michael Melski. The photograph is by Ian Jackson of EPIC photography. This image is copyrighted and unlicensed. I believe that the use of this scaled-down image qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law.

Figure 8 shows a woman applying lipstick. © 2008 Jupiterimages Corporation.

Figure 9 shows a Stephanie Adams modeling a "Lipstick Lesbian" tee shirt from Psycho Therapy Clothing. Used by permission..

see also: attack dog politics; bulldog; junkyard dog; mad dog
cf: poodle; lap dog
Last updated: April 4, 2011
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