PIGmalion: A Pork Opera

In a pig’s eye…
Barack bent more than a few ears with his recent use of the plat-popular proverb “You can put lipstick on a pig [not that there's anything wrong with that....], but it’s still a pig”. The wiry newsflashes were arsonistically kindled into printhouse fires, and the chatterbox became an analytical tinderbox. Though a common midwest phrase, uncertainty grew as to what or whom Obama was refering to. Opponents bristled at each other: was this a relatively benign pastoral adage, or was it a sexist poke at Palin, cleverly concealed by metaphor?

Hear it from the horse’s mouth
Palin, the stylish GOP candidate in question, has long been accused of spending too much time at the public-funds trough. It’s not a far stretch, since she has indeed been known to pen a few porcine parchments in her day. And she does wear snoutstick – namely CoverSow #3274, Miss Piggy’s Choice. But does any of this make her a pig?

Metaphor and analogy are often confused and occasionally indifferentiable. Essentially, metaphor tears down picket fences between two ideas, while analogy puts up plastic posies to keep up with the Jones’ roses. That is, if the pig comment was merely analogy, Senator McCain was making fruitless superficial changes to improve his flawed proposed policies; if the pig comment was intended as metaphor, the lipstick could be considered Palin and the pig is McCain’s campaign policy*. The problem started with our instant association between lipstick and women – an association that does not bear the test of history nor subculture. And only a few days prior to Obama’s ma’am slam, Palin reapplied that association with her podium-cast “You know the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull? Lipstick.”

Meanwhile, for many years, language has used the term “man” as a gender-neutral fit-all that slid past the Woman’s Lib years and into the present, via the routines of idiom, tradition and the likes. We still, naturally, anthropomorphize without batting an eye to the very roots of the word. In this way, we’ve become accustomed to turning things into men through our phraseology, without it being branded sexist. It’s not that phrases like “has a lot of balls” hasn’t been used to describe women, it’s that phrases like “man is still an animal” is not considered a sexist slight on human males. As it is, putting makeup on a pig (note: not a sow) is tantamount to feminizing the creature – should this phrase somehow implicate one who is indeed a female, the assumption is that we are calling them a pig. Since Palin does wear lipstick, another interpretation is that it is the makeup that makes her the pig. Either way, with Palin as the lipstick on a policy pig or as political pig hiding under lipstick, the presumption of guilt held that Obama was using Palin’s femininity ad hoc to attack McCain.

It’s enough to make you want to hide under a blanket. While the potentially transvestine analogy would normally target anything or anyone asexually, here it quickly interpreted as targeting Palin on the basis of being female. A listen to the video does show a classic pause-for-punchline and an oddly strong response, suggesting an intended double entendre. The Metaphor Observatory is of the opinion that a voiced portion of the audience viewed his use of the phrase as metaphor.

As polls would soon show, Barack’s turned phrase spun him sideways from platform to spit – somehow, he had to get his political fat out of the fire. He hit the screen hard with a larder of denial and a reminder of the issues, turning the bad news into hope, and hoping this loopy tale winds up deep in the archival mud.

But as the days after have turned to weeks, the grunts, oinks and squeals of the press continue to echo those harsh Obamian words, unaware that whenever we use this phrase, some poor, lonely pig dresses up, puts on makeup, and waits in desperate hope for anyone to call. Sadly, this is one phone that will not ring, even at 3am.


[Observer's Note: Apply the "Lipstick on a pig" proverb to the Chinese zodiacal characterization of the pig, as detailed by the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco. This highlights the immobility of some phrases across language borders, since many phrases are both culturally sourced and culturally biased. Metaphor, however, appears to move between languages quite well, perhaps due to its apparently strong mathematical nature.]

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