There’s something familiar about these Mama Grizzlies.
We’ve been fighting off a nagging, low-grade déjà vu for weeks now, staring at news story after news story, picture after picture, showcasing the crop of conservative women hand-picked by Sarah Palin as the Tea Party’s feminine vanguard. What is it about them that trips wires in the brain?
The Grizzlies include Delaware Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell, chaste and allegedly privy to Chinese state secrets; Toby Marie Walker, a Tea Party organizer “with a low tolerance for BS”; former Delta Air Lines flight attendant and “true blue Southern belle” Amy Kremer; mudslinging Georgia gubernatorial candidate Karen Handel; and many, many others. They share a host of common viewpoints, including a disdain for the Obama administration, a fondness for family values, and a rosy nostalgia for Reagan Republicanism.
And the similarities don’t end there. Palin’s brigade of lady-bears have arresting commonalities on a more superficial level. Many are brunettes, many favor styles harvested from popular ‘90s sitcom stars: side-parts, front-poufs, the timeless “Rachel.” Many have soft facial features, high cheekbones, and button noses. Many have killer curves, halfway between maternal and va va voom. Just in terms of aesthetics, if Designing Women were a political movement, this would be it.
“What we have here is a mild degree of fat tissue without being overweight, which comes also with some degree of light-hearted jolliness slash aggression,” says T. Byram Karasu, a Yale-trained psychologist and the university chairman of the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at New York's Albert Einstein College of Medicine. This appeals to voters, he said. These physical traits signal a woman who is “protective of her family” and also “affectionately sexual.”
Where oh where have we seen this look before?
Oh, yes: Monica Lewinsky.
A number of the most prominent Grizzlies bear a startling resemblance to President Clinton’s old flame. Theirs is a look that projects both a certain essentially American quality of sweetness—common at PTA meetings, Little League games, or in the audience at Temple Beth Shalom—but also a knowingness, a winking, wary understanding of the world. It is pretty but not prom queen, ever so slightly bodacious but fundamentally unthreatening.
Gallery: Meet the Mama Grizzlies
• John Avlon: 15 Races the Tea Party OwnsRepublican media consultant Fred Davis, who’s working with the O’Donnell campaign, said his first thought when he saw the Senate candidate, before meeting her, was “Gosh darn it, you look like Sarah Palin.” But he says he believes her real appeal to the electorate goes deeper, to O’Donnell’s “purity from outside Washington, her overwhelming honesty, even when it’s to her detriment.” Davis helped O’Donnell craft a new ad out Monday night, with a message that attempts to portray her as a regular American gal: “I’m You.”
“Typically, women candidates are successful to the extent they can present themselves as competent and experienced,” said Leonie Huddy, a political-science professor at SUNY Stony Brook and an expert in gendered reactions to female politicians. “Attractiveness and physical appearance doesn’t play much of a role.”
It is pretty but not prom queen, ever so slightly bodacious but fundamentally unthreatening.
So the Palin look may not send voters out in droves—or keep them home reading Primary Colors. And of course the Tea Party stretches to encompass women of many different styles, ’90s-sitcom and otherwise. But, especially given all the attention that’s been paid to Hillary Clinton’s haircuts and pantsuits over the years, it is curious to see the brunette forces amassing on the other side of the party line—and to consider an earlier exemplar of the Mama Grizzly style.