Sarah Palin is Back on TV—What’s the Harm?

TLC’s rotating headline featuring Sarah Palin. Screen capture taken Friday, March 26, 2010 at 9am PST.

Discovery Networks’ announcement of its newest acquisition, Sarah Palin’s Alaska, a documentary series hosted by the state’s former governor, left me feeling conflicted.

On the one hand, any mention of John McCain’s running mate provokes involuntary full-body shudders. I spent the presidential election campaign in a state of anxious high alert, wondering what Gov. Palin would say or do next. Wondering, in other words, what further platforms she’d find to display her homophobia (I’m sorry, tolerance for gay and lesbian lifestyles) or to pontificate about being staunchly anti-choice.

On the other hand, should her appearance on something as innocuous as an 8-hour Alaskan travelogue “told by one of the state’s proudest daughters” (according to Peter Liguori, chief operating officer of Discovery Communications) really inspire angst? What’s the harm if Palin coasts on her fifteen minutes of fame a little longer? She certainly wouldn’t be the first politician to delay her  inevitable (hopefully) ride into the sunset.

But here’s the root of my unease: Despite the fact that the series will likely have nothing to do with politics, the idea of Sarah Palin’s Alaska isn’t innocuous. Palin has never really left the spotlight, and the show’s executive producer, Survivor’s Mark Burnett, clearly has no qualms about capitalizing on her political celebrity:

With a dynamic personality that has captivated millions, I can’t think of anyone more compelling than Sarah Palin to tell the story of Alaska … I’m thrilled to reunite with Discovery on this project, which brings together one of the most fascinating figures of our time with one of the most wondrous places on earth.

Whether Palin is “one of the most fascinating figures of our time” is open for debate, but it’s telling that Discovery has shopped her doc to its subsidiary TLC, a cable channel known for reality programs about what The New York Times describes, diplomatically as “big, small and unconventional families.” In other words, TLC exploits familial “novelties” in shows like Jon and Kate Plus 819 Kids and Counting, I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant and Little People, Big World

TLC now has a rotating headline on its website proclaiming, “You Betcha! Sarah Palin is coming to TLC,” including video of her guest appearance on the TLC show American Choppers, a quiz entitled “Could You Survive in the Alaskan Wilderness?” and a link to photos of the former governor.

Even if Palin never utters a single conservative talking point during her Alaskan tele-tour, we still know who she is and what she stands for, and Discovery/TLC aren’t shy about using her celebrity to their advantage. While The New York Times’ reporter Brian Stelter notes that environmentalists might take issue with the host’s denial of climate change–not to mention her promotion of aerial hunting of wolves or advocating for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—for me, Sarah Palin’s Alaska provokes a different conundrum.

By allowing fallen politicians to enter the media spotlight from a different angle—a wholly unpolitical, seemingly inoffensive angle—we’re allowing them to appear declawed, harmless, perhaps even charming. Case in point: former Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s stint on Dancing with the Stars, where he seemed bumbling and goofy as opposed to calculating or corrupt (he resigned from Congress in the wake of an alleged money-laundering scandal).

Or, there’s former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, who allegedly tried to sell President Obama’s former Senate seat: He’s currently a contestant on Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice despite the fact that he’s awaiting trial on corruption charges.

Similarly, Sarah Palin’s Alaska might foster a false sense of normalcy about the host, coaxing viewers to let down their guard and forget her anti-choice, pro-gun, homophobic rhetoric.

I had similar misgivings about Tina Fey’s satirical turn as Palin on Saturday Night Live. Sure, Fey was hilarious, but by representing Palin  as harmlessly befuddled and misguided, would she lead viewers to forget Palin’s ultra-conservative ideology and its threats to women’s,  LGBT, environmental and other rights?

While we could send complaints to TLC about the upcoming show, maybe our best defense against these kinds of “innocent” media infiltrations is to remain alert. We must keep reminding ourselves that even when people like Tom DeLay evoke memories of our fathers trying to learn the quickstep, infamous political celebrities never completely leave the political arena. Sarah Palin won’t disappear quietly into the Alaskan backwoods on a four-wheeler with a team of cinematographers. She’ll be back.

Read coverage of Sarah Palin from Ms. here.

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Aviva Dove-Viebahn is an assistant professor of film and media studies at Arizona State University and a contributing editor for Ms.' Scholar Writing Program.