The vice presidential candidate debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin was rich in visible rhetoric, but I think one image really brought that home to me in a far more compelling way than any others.
The day after the debate, I was working on putting together a national news page for the newspaper where I work. I picked out a story about the debate, then clicked to go to the accompanying photos. The first photo that popped up was a close-up of Palin’s legs from behind as she stood at the podium. (And, try as I might, I could not find any photos of Biden’s legs.) While I realize the photographer may have just been trying to make an interesting statement, there’s a whole brand of ethics involved that seem to have been pretty well glossed over.
Yes, Palin has shapely, womanly legs. Yes, that is part of the visible rhetoric through which we perceive her. But I don’t think a close-up view of those legs, sans any other body part, is a necessary or responsible visual message for the public. (Never mind that this photograph was taken from behind and below, in a very voyeuristic manner.) There are so many feminist arguments involving the use of women’s parts separate from their whole bodies that I can’t even risk going into that sort of analysis of visual culture for fear of overloading the blogspot server.
Prior to this discovery, I still found the debate to be one rich in visible rhetoric. There are obviously some laws of visible rhetoric that both candidates knew and followed. Both wore black, a neutral, professional color, with some accents. Biden wore a blue “power tie,” and a small flag pin (the same pin that caused an uproar earlier this election season between the Democratic contenders). Palin also wore the flag pin, and she used some other accents to break up the black theme, although her gender allowed her to be more creative. She used earrings, her now-famous glasses and her hairstyle – as well as having less black on by virtue of bare legs – to soften the severity of her all-black outfit. (It is interesting to note that moderator Gwen Ifill also obeyed these conventions.)
The fact that the debaters were of different genders was certainly a central factor, and I found myself siding with the majority: I felt more at ease with both candidates afterward, as did more than half of Americans, according to CBS polls. Both came off as polished and intelligent. Visible rhetoric is vitally important to politics in this manner, and this is precisely why candidates agree to such forums. Through TV and other media, candidates come right into our living rooms and we familiarize ourselves with their styles. Their features become familiar to us, and familiarity results in goodwill. This is an easy conclusion just based on my statement above that I liked both of them “better” afterward – because I’m not a fan of the politics of either of them.