The Possible ‘Bachmann Versus Palin’ Narrative

If Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann both run for the White House, how long until they’re portrayed as catfighting enemies?

The Possible 'Bachmann Versus Palin' Narrative

There are pragmatic and political reasons for comparing Bachmann and Palin. They are both socially conservative Tea Party favorites who would be in direct competition for not only their base, but the rest of their party, if they run: Since they’re such polarizing figures, Bachmann and Palin will have to convince the establishment they are viable candidates — no small feat for either.

And both need to overcome equally embarrassing geographical gaffes: Bachmann recently placed the Revolutionary War’s first shots in New Hampshire, rather than Massachusetts, and Palin will forever be remembered for seeing Russia from her backyard.

The most glaring comparison, though, is also the most simple: Palin and Bachmann are both women, and a race between them fits perfectly into our nation’s catfight-loving culture.

From celebrities to politicians, high-powered women are constantly pitted against one another. Angelina Jolie and Jennifer Aniston’s supposed feud, an updated version of “Elizabeth Taylor versus Debbie Reynolds,” has sold millions of tabloids, and news anchors Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric were made out to be bitter enemies back in 2009, when Sawyer took Charlie Gibson’s seat at “ABC Evening News,” thus becoming the second woman in the nightly time slot.

And “Dynasty” surely wouldn’t have endured for nine seasons had it not been for their innumerable girl-on-girl altercations.

There does appear to be evidence that women share a uniquely competitive relationship with one another. Author Susan Shapiro Barash, author of ‘Tripping the Prom Queen: The Truth About Women and Rivalry, notes, “More than 90 percent of women of different social strata claim that envy and jealousy toward other women colors their lives,” and “80 percent of women say they have encountered jealousy in other females since they were in grade school.”

Meanwhile, writer Naomi Wolfe, discussing the movie “Black Swan,” contended, “When women are aggressive toward one another, the methods are stealthier and the fallout more bitter. Women tend to mix up love and longing with hostility, to be attracted to what they wish to condemn or destroy. It was for female friendships, not male, that the term frenemy was popularized.”

Our pop and political cultures sensationalize such rivalries, taking the stereotype of the emotional, “hysterical” woman to new heights. And we’re already seeing such a trend emerging in the coverage of Bachmann’s increasingly likely presidential campaign.

Palin proved to be as large or even larger character as Bachmann, for example, in a ‘New York Times’ piece called “Michele Bachmann Weighs Run for President.”*

“If Congresswoman Bachmann gets in, she has the potential to appeal to a lot of people who might have gone for Governor Palin,” said Iowa Gov. Terry E. Branstad. “Imagine if they both got in. That could make it really interesting.”

And a Bachmann supporter, Iowa State Sen. Kent Sorensen, played a typical political trick by saying he wouldn’t “bash” Palin, then proceeded to do just that: “I don’t want to bash Sarah Palin, but she lacks substance. I believe Michele Bachmann has more substance. I think she’d mop the floor with her, if you want me to be frank.”

And Bachmann’s comments on a hypothetical match-up could easily be read as condescending toward Palin: “I personally like Sarah Palin; she’s a lovely person. I’ve had the privilege of meeting her and being with her on three different occasions.”

Palin and Bachmann first came together last April, only one year ago, for a joint rally for the Tea Party cause. The women reportedly “lavished praise” on one another and Palin, when asked about running with the Minnesota Representative, said “[A Palin-Bachmann ticket] sounds kind of cool.”

As the 2012 campaign begins to take shape, don’t be surprised if we’re made to forget that possibility.

Hopefully, though, Bachmann and Palin can avoid the traditional “girl fight” paradigm, because not only does such a narrative diminish their potential qualifications, it could divide the Republican party’s female base, turning the GOP’s primary into a battle as bitter as the one that played out between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton’s Democratic supporters in 2008.

Even if Palin and Bachmann don’t run, though, and there’s no catfight narrative, we can still be sure of one thing: if a woman makes a presidential or vice-presidential bid, we’ll be hearing a story about her hair, shoes and clothing.

*Note: this article was alternatively entitled, “A Tea Party Star Stirs Iowans, and She Isn’t Palin”.