Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Sins of the Mother: Can We Just Leave Bristol Alone?

Look. I never thought Sarah Palin should get a free pass on 1) using motherhood as one of her chief qualifications for public office and then 2) telling America we had no right to know anything about her family. I sharply criticized Palin for getting on an airplane while leaking amniotic fluid. I thought it was reasonable for people to criticize her for marketing herself as a perfect mother when, clearly, she's not.

But back in September, when Bristol Palin turned up pregnant, I also wrote that criticizing her was out of bounds:
There's no room for schadenfreude. She shouldn't be made the poster child for the failure of abstinence-only approaches to teenage sexuality; we have too many such poster children already. She's going to face the difficulties of early motherhood with the added burden of publicity. She'll also find deep joy in her baby, I'm sure - a point too rarely mentioned for all the moralizing about "teenage mothers." She's embarking on an amazing adventure in one of the hardest ways possible. I wish her well.
Now that Bristol has given an interview and basically said, yes, it's hard but I love my baby, I don't really have anything more to say about her - except that I really feel for her when she lets slip that she mourns a chance to just be herself, for herself.

But darn it, too many people that I otherwise like and respect are amplifying the Bristol interview and making her into, well, the poster girl for the bankruptcy of abstinence-only education. Sure, Bristol herself said it doesn't work. That's worth reporting. But Rebecca Traister at Salon goes on to comment:
Bristol went on to make more (perhaps unwitting) feminist points about what, exactly, the responsibilities and consequences are for young women who choose (or are forced down) the path she took.
At Pandagon, Amanda Marcotte quotes Traister's article approvingly, adding:
For the rest of us [non-prolifers], of course, the whole thing is a horror show.
Both Rebecca and Amanda then go on to give Sarah Palin the drubbing she deserves. I'm all for that. I just wonder: Can't we call out Palin on her hypocrisy and failed policies without dragging Bristol any deeper into it? I mean, Amanda sees the problem when it's coming from the opposite direction:
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. [my emphasis]
Analytically, I agree with Amanda 100 percent on what the 'wingers were up to. Yet I think we can make this argument without making Bristol the poster child for a feminist critique of wingnutty views on sexuality. Otherwise, we're reversing the terms, not redefining them.

And we can certainly condemn the failures of abstinence-only without endorsing statements that hold Bristol up as a "perfect example " and assume we know just what went down between Bristol and her mother. In fact, we don't know whether Sarah Palin forbade Bristol to have an abortion.

Let's not make Bristol pay for the sins of her mother.


Apostate said...

Much as I hate to say it, I have little doubt that Bristol will be just as much a recruit of the patriarchy as Sarah Palin is. Her vehement position "This was MY choice" and her discomfort around the question of contraception outlines a clear refusal to face up to the realities of her situation, even now.

I don't see a problem with holding Bristol - an adult - responsible for being part of a pro-life propaganda campaign.

Sungold said...

If Bristol Palin is spouting pro-life propaganda a few years from now - and getting a national megaphone to do it - then yes, by all means, we'd better call her on it. That's not exactly what she's doing, even now; instead, she's saying teen motherhood isn't all it's cracked up to be. You're right, of course, that she displays lots of ambivalence and muddled thinking.

Bristol may be 18 and a legal adult by now, but the *only* reason she's not just another anonymous young mother is that Sarah Palin thrust her kids into the limelight. In that sense she's still a "politician's child." She doesn't have any fame in her own right. She didn't seek or choose fame. That's why I think the kind and wise course is to leave her alone ... unless she makes a career out of offering sex advice to teens.

I agree that the most likely outcome is that her politics will likely end up similar to her mother's. I've known people her age whose politics changed dramatically as they grew into independent thinking. Actually, I'm one of them! But such change normally depends on leaving home and being exposed to new ideas, be it through college or other experiences.

Thanks for stopping by, Apostate.

John Pine said...

I'm a Free Love Apostate: apostasy in the opposite direction to both of you, I think.

We are launching Bristol into the arena of the Colosseum because it can't be avoided. She is at the focal point of a crucial issue.

I think everything will be well with her because she has a broad supportive extended family who delight in new life. Sarah Palin has supported her publicly where lesser figures might have allowed this curious case of negative synchronicity to anger them. She did not disown her.

Bristol was probably more influenced, like most teenagers, by her peers than by her parents. Total abstinence could only work if it was recommended by the whole community at all levels. But, of course, it is deeply unfashionable now and those who think they are being daring and radical in advocating free sex are kidding themselves: they are riding on the bandwagon. Even serial monogamy is old hat.

Try reading the closing lines of Milton's 'Comus' to an audience in their twenties.

Decadence wins by being modern and young.

Now marriage has gone down the tubes (with no-fault unilateral divorce - first tried by the Bolsheviks and hastily reversed when they observed their whole society falling apart) there is no legitimate way of manifesting one's sexual nature. Marriage now is hara-kiri for a man.

I think girls in most cases are very dissatisfied with polyandry: a different part of their brains lights up on having sex for the first time... the part that says 'this is love, and this is permanent' and if it turns out not to be permanent, everything seems wrong for ever after. (I can't help adding - slightly frivolously - that if they are not virgins 'permanent' is likely to be about six years. I suspect virgins go on a bit longer than non-virgins and if people are going to bring up children, virginity followed by marriage is quite a good idea [ignition point here]). Don't tell me about exceptions because I know there are many: but human beings have made a lot of progress by observing generalities.

I believe there is a fundamental difference between the sexes which used to be resolved by steering men into marriage contracts (when they used to be enforceable). Men take verbal promises in front of lots of people very seriously.

You know I'm pro-life, so I don't need to go over that all over again.

I know these comments will be followed by an explosion, so I am holding on to my seat very hard.

Sungold said...

John, this is why blog space is free: so you can try to provoke in your own space! Perhaps someone else is interested in engaging with this. I'm not going there, and you'll get no explosion from me.

I'll just say this one thing: Abstinence in the Palin state of Alaska is *extremely* unfashionable. There's precious little to do in those 23-hour-long winter nights, apart from drinking, toking, and shagging. So you could radically change culture in the lower 48 to match your vision, and I could pretty well guarantee that nothing would change in Alaska. (This is partly on the authority of several friends who lived there or grew up there.)

John Pine said...

Sungold, you know I would never try to provoke you! But yang talking to yang is boring. I need your yin. And surely you must get bored sometimes with adoring chelas?

Sungold said...

John, I'll just say my yin is already spoken for. So it goes.

hesperia said...

Abstinence is very unfashionable NOW? lol

I'd ask when it was fashionable but I don't really want his answer. That comment just cracked me up and you know I can't resist sharing a laugh with you sungold.

John Pine said...

I don't want to spoil a rhetorical question, but see 'Sexual Energy and Yoga' by Elizabeth Haich. You'll see that abstinence is highly fashionable in there.

What age should you open the flood-gates, do you think? In the teens? And is permanence something you never wished for?

John Pine said...

PS I shouldn't laugh so mockingly, Hesperia. Only an 'i' separates you from Hespera and it suggests you give away your golden apples much too easily (maybe in Italy one does).