Bristol Palin, and feeding the base while starving the middle
Reading Rebecca Traister’s article about the soon-to-be infamous Bristol Palin interview, I couldn’t help but think the whole thing might be further evidence that Sarah Palin in the wave of the future for the Republicans, and thank the Disco Ball for it. The injection of the person of the pregnant Bristol Palin in the ongoing debates over sex and whether or not women are fully human was a divisive thing—it separated the wingnut base from the rest of us who don’t have the energy or desire to obsess over forced pregnancy as the ideal way to get women in line. Bristol, to put it plainly, is red meat thrown to the base, and in such an obvious way that it served to horrify the rest of the nation. Abstinence-only had been sold to the country as a teenage pregnancy prevention program, but the right wing reaction to Bristol made it clear that it was a teenage pregnancy inducement program, and Bristol was the poster child for its intended effects. And what are those?
But Van Susteren was determined, in this mother-and-child-worshiping world, not to lose sight of how blessed and happy Tripp’s very existence is. “I realize what joy a child brings to a family,” Van Susteren continued delicately, “but was there any sort of sense that maybe this would happen a year or two from now?”
Okay, I have to take a break to point out that Van Susteren is feeding a right wing delusion that the rest of the country finds repugnant—okay, don’t when you’re 17, but full speed ahead when you’re 19? She isn’t even trying to hide that this is all about making sure young women are mothers before they have time to be themselves, much less get things like college educations and careers and partners they met when they were fully formed adults, instead of partners they will eventually grow apart from.
Bristol did a lot less beating around the bush. “Of course,” she replied matter-of-factly. “I wish it would happen in like 10 years, so I could have a job and an education and be, like, prepared, and have my own house and stuff. But he brings so much joy. I don’t regret it at all. I just wish it would have happened in 10 years rather than right now.”……
“I don’t know if it’s what I expected,” Bristol said of young motherhood. “But it’s just a lot different. It’s not just the baby that’s hard. It’s like I’m not living for myself anymore. It’s for another person.” Later in the interview, she again repeated this line — a heartbreaking point if ever there was one, and one we don’t talk about much because we feel obligated to acknowledge that of course motherhood is a sacrifice, of course there are consequences, of course for many women and men, choosing to have children and become less self-obsessed is a pleasure. But so much of what pro-life advocacy is about — whether it denies people sex education or contraception or access to abortion — is in valuing the cells that make up a fetus (or baby) more than the woman in whose body those cells have grown.
Bristol’s articulation of this quagmire may sound selfish and naive. But what she’s describing is how she hadn’t fully comprehended that, in having a baby at 18, her value as a young woman with interests and desires and ambitions and goals would now come second to the needs of a child.
But for the right wing, that was precisely the point. What I think set a lot of people’s stomach to mode sour, too, was that after it was determined that Bristol Palin was another sacrifice to the god of the patriarchy, they all lined up to express the canned, pseudo-respect accorded women who submit. Van Sustern falls right into this, yammering on about how the whole situation is an unmarred blessing, even though she’s got an living example right in front of her of how that’s not true. But that’s one of the many blessings of unintended pregnancy for “pro-lifers”—it means you can safely erase the woman, and substitute a phony respect about the greatness of motherhood for a real respect for the human being.
For the rest of us, of course, the whole thing is a horror show. Most people, even those who think they’re conservative but aren’t right wing wackadoodles, can’t imagine reacting to a teenage daughter (or any relative at all’s) pregnancy by miming a few words of disappointment before plunging into acting like it’s an unmitigated blessing. Many people are uneasy with teaching kids about contraception use, and don’t think there’s anything wrong with their own hostility towards the reality that kids grow up and sexually mature, but they find teenage motherhood and the shutting down of career and education options even more horrifying. That’s why, two years before the country even knew who Bristol Palin was, comprehensive sex education was polling at popularity levels resembling those of puppies and sunshine—82% of Americans. Seeing the wackiness of the Anti-Sex League in the wake of Bristol’s pregnancy probably only shored those numbers up.
In a sense, seeing Bristol admit that it’s hard and undesireable, and quietly agreeing that perhaps it would have been smarter to use contraception (something that didn’t seem to even come up for her, due to her upbringing that clearly made it unspeakable) would have made the 82% of us that aren’t batshit crazy feel a little better about Sarah Palin. Maybe they aren’t so bad, that they can admit a little bit of reality, right? But nope, Sarah Palin pushed into the room and fed a bunch of red meat to the base, assuring them that her daughter’s motherhood has successfully wiped out her humanity, and also echoing that right wing sentimentality that sounds so scripted, forced, and downright creepy to people who don’t live on the stuff.
But the whole awkward purity of Bristol’s interview got wrecked once Mama Palin purportedly “surprised” the pair by entering the room holding Tripp, offering him to her daughter and asking, “You want this joy?”
Gov. Palin opened by claiming to be “proud of [Bristol] wanting to take on an advocacy role and just let other girls know that it’s not the most ideal situation but certainly you make the most of it.” It was like the elder Palin had put her daughter’s words through a meat grinder: What Bristol had said was that she wanted to let other girls know that they should wait 10 years, that their lives would shift beneath their feet.
“Bristol is a strong and bold young woman,” Palin said, as Bristol sat quietly — after her mother entered, she barely spoke further — “and she is an amazing mom, and this little baby is very lucky to have her as a momma. He’s gonna be just fine. We’re very proud of Bristol.” Palin was missing the point, or part of it, or perhaps making it even louder: Bristol’s self-professed desire to prevent teen pregnancy is not just about whether this little baby is going to be just fine, it is about whether his momma is.
As Rebecca says, Palin made it absolutely clear that she saw teen pregnancy as an inevitability, and was careful to avoid even feeling bad about that. Because she knows her base, and they see the effects of teen pregnancy in whittling down women’s opportunities and expectations as a feature, not a bug, and she’s not going to buck that, even for her own child. Especially not seeing as how the baby in question is a boy, and therefore his fate is certainly the only one that matters.
This sort of full scale base-coddling in the face of political defeat is endemic to the Republicans, and it’s worth wondering if it’s just the desperate actions of the brainless few, or if they’re evil masterminds who have a plan in all this.