Every time Sarah Palin is compared to Annie Oakley, I cringe a little inside. I was Annie Oakley for a few months, myself, and can’t help but feel a bit possessive of the feisty sharpshooter. I don’t want to share her with a woman who stands for everything I stand against.
Two years ago, I took my daughter to an audition for a community theater production of Annie Get Your Gun. The assistant director somehow convinced me to audition, too, and much to my shock, I ended up with the lead role. I had never sung or acted in public before, and wasn’t sure a shy girl like myself was up to such a task. With some vocal training and encouragement from friends and family and a very patient cast, though, somehow I found the gumption to step into the role. The experience changed my life, made me realize I’m capable of so much more than I had given myself credit for. I don’t know what the directors saw in me that I hadn’t seen in myself, but one audition and one callback were enough to convince them I was right for the job.
This sort of snap judgment can work in community theater--the stakes are low, and the audience is forgiving; the worst they can lose is the cost of admission and a couple of hours of their time. Choosing a running mate for the second highest office in the nation after only two meetings, however, is another story entirely. And we can see where this rashness has led—hate-baiting speeches, embarrassingly ignorant interviews, a whole serpent’s nest of questionable ethics. How can we believe McCain is putting country first when he is potentially putting the country in the hands of someone more used to holding a rifle? Someone who has already set her sights, loaded, on other countries?
Annie Oakley taught classes to thousands of women on how to shoot and be independent, and she insisted that women deserved the same wages and opportunities as men, yet (and this breaks my heart) she was opposed to the suffragist movement. In a way, this connects Annie Oakley and Sarah Palin more than anything—they both have talked about supporting women while wanting to take choice away from the very women they purport to empower. One historian believes that Annie Oakley’s stance may have been a marketing decision—she knew a lot of her audience was opposed to suffrage and didn’t want to risk losing potential audience members. Sarah Palin appears to be doing something similar in her pandering to the conservative Republican base.
When I watch her on stage speaking to hockey moms and “Joe Six-Pack”, I can see what a rush she gets. It’s easy to imagine; I felt a surge of adrenaline even when the 200-seat Corona Civic Auditorium was only half full, and she’s speaking before millions. Every wink, every “doggone” and “you betcha” must send a little zing up her spine. That’s understandable. But what’s not fathomable to me is how in just a few short weeks, she has transformed her stage—and the whole McCain campaign--into a platform not only for folksy propaganda, but sheer hate-inciting rhetoric.
In my limited theater experience, I learned that anything can happen on stage; you have to be ready to improvise; you have to be present to the people around you, to roll with the punches, to stay open and human. When Sarah Palin refused to acknowledge Joe Biden’s emotional recounting of his family tragedy during the VP debate, or didn’t address someone yelling “Kill Him” when she spoke about Obama’s connection to Bill Ayres, it was clear that she was not ready to, as they say, “go off book.” She can recite canned speeches, but ask her something she hasn’t rehearsed a clear answer for, and she lapses into gibberish. Annie Oakley may have been a sharpshooter, but Sarah Palin’s off-the-cuff answers are anything but sharp, just as John McCain’s “straight talk” has irrevocably twisted itself into knots.
Palin and McCain may call themselves “mavericks,” but the word is empty coming from their mouths. True mavericks don’t need to label themselves (in fact, branding oneself a maverick seems the height of irony since the word itself means “unbranded”). I can’t help but think of Pee Wee Herman in the classic '80s movie, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, when he says “I’m a loner, Dottie, a rebel,” in his little kid voice. It’s hard to take those words seriously as he stands there in his tiny bow tie and his too-short pants, just as it’s hard to take Palin and McCain’s maverick (not to mention “average American”) claim seriously when they’re styled for thousands of dollars a pop by makeup artists from reality entertainment shows, and Palin’s upscale department store wardrobe cost the Republican Party $150,000.
Our production of Annie Get Your Gun couldn’t afford any fancy stylists or costume budgets—we had to make do with drug store makeup, thrift store dresses, a cast member’s teenage daughter touching up our hair between scenes. But even in such a low rent show, a fair amount of off-stage drama transpired. The assistant director who convinced me to audition is now in jail for molesting two boys, brothers, from the cast. He had wormed his way into the family’s life, becoming a surrogate grandfather to them, before the abuse began. I had seen some warning signs during the rehearsal process, but didn’t feel I had enough evidence to confront him. My costar and I finally spoke up to J, the director, after we saw a boy from the cast jokingly refer to the assistant director (J’s uncle) as a child molester on MySpace. J told us she wished she could fire him, but her family wouldn’t let her; she did make some changes, and wouldn’t leave her uncle alone with children in the studio, but I was worried this wasn’t enough action. A year later, after the brothers’ parents didn’t believe their accusations, the boys caught the assistant director in the act on video tape and sent the video to everyone on the his email list. Their ingenuity and desperation led to his arrest.
Of course I am not accusing McCain of a similar crime, but I do see other kinds of warning signs, and I feel a similar need to speak up. The country is not safe in the hands of someone so clearly unstable. It’s certainly not safe in the hands of Sarah Palin, who wants to mow down women’s rights the same way she wants to mow down wolves from the air. I am grateful to citizen filmmakers on sites like YouTube for exposing the lies and dangerous fear-mongering that the McCain/Palin camp continues to propagate and inspire. I know it is the people standing up and banding together—in ingenuity and desperation and hope--who will put our country back on track.
As Annie Oakley, I sang “There’s no people like show people,” but now I want to belt out “There’s no people like vote people,” at the top of my lungs. Election day is kind of like community theater, if you think about it—average citizens using their voices to create something beautiful together. It’s time to put on the show of our lives.
*Note: Gayle Brandeis is on the national staff of CODEPINK: Women for Peace, but she is representing her own views here only.