Swine Semantics in U.S. Politics: Who Put Lipstick on the Pig?





pork barrel politics, lipstick on a pig, 2008 US presidential election, Sarah Palin, John McCain, Barack Obama

How to Cite

Flowers, A. A. (2010). Swine Semantics in U.S. Politics: Who Put Lipstick on the Pig?. M/C Journal, 13(5). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.278
Vol. 13 No. 5 (2010): pig
Published 2010-10-17

Swine semantics erupted into a linguistic battle between the two U.S. presidential candidates in the 2008 campaign over a lesser-known colloquialism “lipstick on a pig” reference in a speech by then Democratic presidential candidate, Barack Obama. This resulted in the Republicans sparring with the Democrats over the identification of the “swine” in question, claiming “sexism” and demanding an apology on behalf of then Governor Sarah Palin, the first female Republican vice presidential candidate. The Republican Party, fearful of being criticised for its own sexist and racist views (Kuhn par. 1), seized the opportunity to attack the Democrats with a proactive media campaign that made the lipstick comment a lead story in the media during a critical time less than two months before the election, derailing more serious campaign issues and focusing attention on Palin, who had just made her national political debut and whose level of experience was widely debated.

Leskovec, Backstrom, and Kleinberg conducted a meme-tracking study for analysing news-cycle phrases in approximately 90 million stories from 1.6 million online sites spanning mainstream news to blogs during the final three months of the U.S. presidential election (1). They discovered that “lipstick on a pig” was “stickier” than other phrases and received “unexpectedly high popularity” (4). A simple Google search of “lipstick on a pig” resulted in 244,000 results, with more than half originating in 2008.

Obama’s “Lipstick on a Pig” Reference        

During the final rounds of the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama’s words at a widely televised campaign stop in Lebanon, Virginia, on 9 September, sparked a linguistic debate between the two major American political parties 56 days before Election Day. Obama attempted to debunk McCain’s strategy about change in the following statement:

John McCain says he’s about change, too. [...] And so I guess his whole angle is, watch out, George Bush. Except for economic policy, healthcare policy, tax policy, education policy, foreign policy, and Karl Rove-style politics [...] That’s not change. That’s just calling some—the same thing, something different. But you know [...] you can put [...] lipstick on a pig. It’s still a pig (“Obama’s Take”).

A reporter from The New York Times commented that it was clear to the audience that Obama’s “lipstick” phrase was a direct reference to McCain’s policies (Zeleny par. 5). Known as a well-educated, articulate speaker, perhaps one considered too professorial for mainstream America, Obama attempted to inject more folksy language and humour into his dialogue with the public. However, the Republicans interpreted the metaphor quite differently.

Republicans Claim “Sexism” from a “Male Chauvinist Pig”

The Republican contender John McCain and his entourage immediately took offence, claiming that the “pig” in question was a sexist comment referring to Palin, who was introduced on 29 August as the first female vice presidential candidate on the Republican ticket (“VP Pick”). A Republican National Committee spokeswoman quickly told the media, “Sarah Palin’s maverick record of reform doesn’t need any ‘dressing up,’ but the Obama campaign’s condescending commentary deserves some dressing down” (Chozick par. 8).

McCain’s camp formed the Palin Truth Squad with 54 Republican women, primarily lawyers and politicians, on the same day as the metaphor was used, to counter negative media and Internet commentary about Palin (Harper A13). Almost immediately after Obama’s “lipstick” comment, McCain’s camp conducted a conference call with journalists and former Massachusetts Governor Jane Swift, a Republican and chair of the Palin Truth Squad, who stated the lipstick comment referred to Palin, “the only one of the four—the presidential and vice presidential candidates—who wears lipstick” (Kornblut and Shear par. 12). Another member of the Squad, Thelma Drake, then a Republican Representative from Virginia, said that “it’s hard for Barack Obama to paint himself as the agent of change if he harbors the same mindset that Palin and millions of women just like her, have been fighting against their whole lives” (Applegate par. 8). Swift and others also claimed Obama was referring to Palin since she had herself used a lipstick metaphor during her Republican National Convention speech, 3 Sepember: “I love those hockey moms. You know, they say the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull? Lipstick” (“Palin’s Speech” par. 26).

The Republicans also created an anti-Obama Web ad with the theme, “Ready to Lead? No. Ready to Smear? Yes,“ (Weisman and Slevin A01) with a compilation of video clips of Palin’s “lipstick” joke, followed by the latter part of Obama's “lipstick” speech, and CBS News anchorwoman, Katie Couric, talking about “sexism” in politics, that latter of which referred to an older clip referring to Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the White House. Both clips on Obama and Couric were taken out of context. CBS retaliated and released a statement that the network “does not endorse any candidate” and that “any use of CBS personnel in political advertising that suggests the contrary is misleading” (Silva par. 8). YouTube pulled the Republican Web ads stating that the cause was “due to a copyright claim” (Silva par. 7).

Another porcine phrase became linked to Obama—“male chauvinist pig”—an expression that evolved as an outgrowth of the feminist movement in the 1960s and first appeared with the third word, “pig,” in the media in 1970 (Mansbridge and Flaster 261). BlogHer, a blog for women, posted “Liberal Chauvinist Pigs,” on the same day as Obama's speech, asking: “Does the expression male chauvinist pig come to mind?” (Leary par. 5) Other conservative blogs also reflected on this question, painting Obama as a male chauvinist pig, and chastising both the liberal media and the Democrats for questioning Palin’s credentials as a viable vice presidential candidate. Obama “Sexist Pig Gear” protest tee-shirts, buttons, and bumper stickers were sold online by Zazzle.com.

Democratic Response to “Controversy”

During a campaign stop in Norfolk, Virginia, the day after his “lipstick” comment, Obama called the Republican backlash the “latest made-up controversy by the John McCain campaign” and appealed for a return to more serious topics with “enough” of “foolish diversions” (“Obama Hits”). He stated that the Republicans “seize on an innocent remark, try to take it out of context, throw up an outrageous ad, because they know it’s catnip for the news media” (“Obama Hits”). Obama also referred to the situation as the “silly season of politics” in media interviews (James par. 8).

Obama’s spokespeople rallied claiming that McCain played the “gender card about the use of a common analogy” (Kornblut and Shear par. 6). An Obama campaign spokesman distributed to the media copies of articles from a Chicago Tribune story in 2007 in which McCain applied the lipstick analogy about the healthcare strategy of Hillary Clinton, a previous female Democratic presidential contender (Chozick 11). Another Obama spokeswoman said that the porcine expression “was older than my grandfather’s grandfather,” (Zimmer par. 1) which also inspired the media and linguists to further investigate this claim.

Evolution of “Lipstick on a Pig”

This particular colloquial use of a “pig” evolved from a long history of porcine expressions in American politics. American political discourse has been rich with cultural references to porcine idioms with negative connotations. Pork barrels were common 19th-century household items used to store salt pork, and some plantation owners doled out the large barrels as rewards to slaves who then had to compete with each other to grab a portion (Maxey 693). In post-Civil War America, “pork barrel” became a political term for legislative bills “loaded with special projects for Members of Congress to distribute to their constituents back home as an act of largesse, courtesy of the federal taxpayer” (“Pork Barrel Legislation”). Today, “pork barrel” is widely used in the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and other countries (“Definition Pork Barrel”) to refer to “government projects or appropriations yielding rich patronage benefits” (“Pork Barrel”). Conservative radio personality Rush Limbaugh coined the term, “porkulus,” as another expression for “pork barrel” by merging the words “pork and “stimulus,” while discussing President Obama’s economic stimulus package in January 2009 (Kuntz par. 1).

Ben Zimmer, an American lexicologist, explained that “many porcine proverbs describe vain attempts at converting something from ugly to pretty, or from useless to useful” (par. 2). Zimmer and other writers investigated the heritage of “lipstick on a pig” over the past 500 years from “you can't make a silk purse from a sow’s ear,” “a hog in armour is still a hog,” and “a hog in a silk waistcoat is still a hog.” Zimmer connected the dots between the words “lipstick,” a 19th-century invention, and “pig” to a Los Angeles Times editor in 1926 who wrote: “Most of us know as much of history as a pig does of lipsticks” (par. 3).

American Politicians Who Have Smeared “Lipstick on a Pig”

Which American politicians had used “lipstick on a pig” before Obama? Both Democrats and Republicans have coloured their speech with this colloquialism to refer to specific issues, not specific people. In 2008, Elizabeth Edwards, wife of presidential hopeful John Edwards, used the porcine expression about McCain’s healthcare proposals at a Democratic campaign event and House Minority Leader John Boehner, a Republican, about weak Republican fundraising efforts during the same month (Covington and Curry par. 7-8). McCain ironically used the term twice to criticise Hillary Clinton’s healthcare proposals as “lipstick on a pig,” while they were both campaigning in 2007 (Covington and Curry par. 6). His statement received limited attention at the time. During a telephone interview in 2007, Obama also had used the pig analogy when referring to an “impossible assignment” George W. Bush gave to General Petraeus, who was then serving as the Multinational Forces Iraq Commander (Tapper par. 15). In 2004, Republican Vice President Richard Cheney applied a regional slant: “As we like to say in Wyoming, you can put all the lipstick you want on a pig, but at the end of the day it's still a pig,” about the national defence record of John Kerry, then a Democratic presidential nominee (Covington and Curry par. 4). A few months earlier that year, John Edwards, Democratic vice presidential candidate, scolded the Bush administration for putting “lipstick on a pig” on “lackluster job-creation numbers” (Covington and Curry par. 3). Representative Charles Rangel, a Democrat, identified the “pig” as a tax bill the same year (Siegel par. 15-16). In 1992, the late Governor of Texas, Ann Richards, a Democrat, who was known for colourful phrases, gave the pig a name when she said: “You can put lipstick on a hog and call it Monique, but it is still a pig,” referring to the Republican administration for deploying warships to protect oil tankers in the Middle East, effectively subsidizing foreign oil (Zimmer par. 4). A year earlier, when she introduced her first budget for Texas, she said: “This is not another one of those deals where you put lipstick on a hog and call it a princess” (Zimmer par. 4).

The earliest reputed recorded use of an American politician using the phrase was Texas Democrat Jim Hightower, who applied it to depict the reorganisation of Ronald Reagan's Cabinet in 1986 (Macintyre 16). Time magazine reporters (Covington and Curry par. 2) and Zimmer (par. 3) claimed that a San Francisco radio personality, Ron Lyons, was one of the earliest quoted in print with “lipstick on a pig” about renovation plans for a local park in November 1985 in the Washington Post. Author of the Double-Tongued Dictionary, Grant Barrett, uncovered a 1980 article from a small Washington state newspaper as the earliest written record with an article that stated: “You can clean up a pig, put a ribbon on it’s [sic] tail, spray it with perfume, but it is still a pig” (Guzman par. 7).  A book on communication also adopted the pig metaphor in its title in 2006, Lipstick on a Pig: Winning in the No-Spin Era by Someone Who Knows the Game, by Torie Clarke, who previously served as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs under Donald Rumsfield during the early years of the G.W. Bush Administration.

Media Commentary

According to The New York Times (Leibovich and Barrett), “lipstick on a pig” was one of the most popular political buzzwords and phrases of 2008, along with others directly referring to Palin, “Caribou Barbie” and “Hockey Mom,” as well as “Maverick,” a popular term used by both McCain and Palin. Many journalists played on the metaphor to express disdain for negative political campaigns. A Wall Street Journal article asked: “What's the difference between a more hopeful kind of politics and old-fashioned attacks? Lipstick” (Chozick par. 1). International media also covered the Obama-McCain lipstick wars. The Economist, for example, wrote that the “descent of American politics into pig wrestling has dismayed America’s best friends abroad” (“Endless Culture War” par. 6).                       

Bloggers claimed that Obama’s “lipstick” speech was influenced by copy and imagery from two leading American cartoonists. The Free Republic, self-acclaimed to be “the premier online gathering place for independent, grass-roots conservatism” (Freerepublic.com), claimed that Obama plagiarized almost verbatim the language leading into the “pig” comment from a Tom Toles cartoon that ran in the Washington Post on 5 Sepember (see fig. 1).

Fig. 1. Toles, Tom. Cartoon. Washington Post. 5 Sep. 2008. 30 July 2010

Another cartoon by R. J. Matson appeared in the St. Louis Post Dispatch (see fig. 2) four days before Obama’s speech that depicted Palin not just as a pig wearing lipstick, but as one using pork barrel funding. The cartoon’s caption provides an interpretation of Palin's lipstick analogy: “Question: What’s the Difference Between a Hockey Mom Reformer and a Business-As-Usual Pork Barrel-Spending Politician? Answer: Lipstick.” Newsbusters.org blogger stated: “It’s not too far-fetched to say Team Obama is cribbing his stump speech laugh lines from the liberal funnies” (Shepherd par. 3).

Fig 2. Matson, R. J. Cartoon. St. Louis Post Dispatch. 5 Sep. 2008. 30 July 2010 .

A porcine American character known for heavy makeup and a starring role as one of the Muppets created by puppeteer Jim Henson in the 1970s, Miss Piggy still remains an American icon. She commented on the situation during an interview on the set of “Today,” an American television program. When the interviewer asked, “Were you surprised by all the hubbub this election season over your lipstick practices?,” Miss Piggy’s response was “Moi will not dignify that with a response” (Raphael par. 6-7).

Concluding Comments

The 2008 U.S. presidential election presented new players in the arena: the first African-American in a leading party and the first female Republican. During a major election, words used by candidates are widely scrutinised and, in this case, the “lipstick on a pig” phrase was misconstrued by the opposing party, known for conservative values, that latched onto the opportunity to level a charge of sexism against the more liberal party. Vocabulary about gender, like language about race, can become a “minefield” (Givhan M01). With today’s 24/7 news cycle and the blogosphere, the perceived significance of a political comment, whether innocent or not, is magnified through repeated analysis and commentary. The meme-tracking study by Leskovec, Backstrom, and Kleinberg observed that 2.5 hours was the typical time lag between stories originating in mainstream media and reaching the blogosphere (8); whereas only 3.5 percent of the stories began in blogs and later permeated into traditional media (9).

An English author of the history of clichés and language, Julia Cresswell, stated that the “lipstick” term “seems to be another candidate for clichéhood” (61). Although usage of clichés can prove to cause complications as in the case of Obama’s lipstick reference, Obama was able to diffuse the Republican backlash quickly and make a plea to return to serious issues affecting voters. David Greenberg analysed Obama’s presidential win and explained:

And although other factors, especially the tanking economy, obviously contributed more directly to his November victory, it would be a mistake to overlook the importance of his skill at mastering the politics of negative attacks. When Obama went negative against others, he carefully singled out aspects of his opponents’ characters that, he argued, American politics itself had to transcend; he associated his foes with the worst of the old politics and himself with the best of the new. When others fired at him, in contrast, he was almost always able to turn the criticisms back upon them—through feigned outrage, among other tactics—as perpetuating those selfsame blights on our politics (70).


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Author Biography

Arhlene Ann Flowers, Ithaca College

Arhlene A. Flowers is Assistant Professor of Integrated Marketing Communications in the Department of Strategic Communication at the Roy H. Park School of Communications, Ithaca College, New York. Her research focuses on verbal and visual literacy, virtual worlds, and social media. Her article, “Parodying Palin: How Tina Fey’s Visual and Verbal Impersonations Revived a Comedy Show and Impacted the 2008 Election,” recently appeared in the Journal of Visual Literacy. She also has two decades of industry experience in global public relations and marketing. E-mail: aflowers@ithaca.edu.