Bristol's Cover

This past week, newly-minted high school graduate Bristol Palin landed the cover of People Magazine, in red robes and baby Tripp. Not surprisingly, media coverage of the cover story ensued. From CNN to Huffington Post, the objective was to articulate what message should be drawn Palin's cover.

If you were simply to take Bristol Palin at her word, here's the message she delivered: "If girls realized the consequences of sex, nobody would be having sex." Palin added, "Trust me. Nobody."

Bonnie Fuller, on Huffington Post, asserts the visuals outweighed Palin's words and made teen pregnancy seem enviable and appealing. Fuller writes, "Bristol appears tanned, rested and already fitting back into her skintight jeans." Fuller adds, "So while Bristol talks in the exclusive piece about how "girls need to imagine and picture their life with a screaming newborn baby," there's nothing in the People magazine spread to visually suggest that life isn't one big happy bed of roses in the Palin household, where Bristol and Tripp still reside. There's not even a dish out of place, let alone a pile of laundry or an unmade bed."

CNN notes that Palin's cover rolled out the day after another Republican daughter, Megan McCain, spoke out about abstinence. McCain asserted that the Republican party should not back abstinence only for teens because it actually is not realistic "for this generation." McCain said, "I think we need to have sex education with condoms, birth control and etc., etc.," on Comedy Central's The Colbert Report. "I think that if the Republican Party says abstinence only is the only way to be, then we're going to lose a lot of young voters. And I think I wouldn't want to practice anything I didn't preach." Clearly, CNN was determined to create an idealogical war of the Republican youth. Just add appropriate teen battle music.

At Momtourage's Blogger Knows Best commenters' remarks are highlighted to point out that what may weaken Palin as an effective spokeswoman has more to do with her privilege than anything else,. For example, this commenter notes: "I think the other message is that you can make a profit off of being a teen mother if you happen to have a famous parent. Flying around the country getting paid to talk about how difficult your life is? It seems a bit inconsistent. I think that if they wanted to have someone talk about how difficult it is to be a teen mom, they could have chosen someone for whom it really was a huge burden." Laura Motta of Momtourage echoes her readers' perspective "Even the photo of Bristol on the cover of People is idealized, as though every teen mom can graduate, raise an adorable child with ease, and look cute–all at the same time. That said, Bristol's graduation is hugely positive for her (The Candies Foundation reports that less than half of teen mothers receive their high school diplomas) and People is interested in a glamorous story. You have to wonder, though, about other young women in Bristol's position, the ones who won't make it on any magazine cover."

These observations–that she looks relatively put together, that there's disagreement amongst daughters of famous Republicans and that even if she's struggling with the workload and a sense that her choices have been narrowed, her experience as a teen mom is buffered by support from a family with means to help–are all true, and not even contradictory, exactly.

As has been well publicized, Palin's fulfilling her duties as teen abstinence ambassador for Candie's Foundation, that's an obvious reason she agreed to have her high school graduation day photographed. It seems clear that she's less a Republican operative (pawn of operatives? Debatable.) than a young worker trying to do her job correctly so she can keep it. In this case, she's been contracted to promote abstinence. While she may not have thought–and as she asserted earlier this year–that abstinence for teens is "realistic," she's not really changed that point of view by warning teens against teen pregnancy. She's saying that if teens really knew what they were potentially getting into, they'd choose no pregnancy over chance of pregnancy.

What's not in keeping with the spirit of the far right's abstinence-only approach, of course, is the way Palin's cautionary tale did this in her household: it opened up the topic of teen pregnancy rather than having it remain taboo. In the article, Palin explains that she–and her father, Todd, echoes this–warns her younger sisters against making the same mistake. Given that Todd expressly did not discuss teen sex or its consequences with his eldest daughter and now the message loud and clear in the household to younger sisters Willow and Piper is not to repeat their big sister's mistake, their household is changed. No one–big sister or parents–is condoning teen sex by warning against teen pregnancy. But the correlation is no longer secretive. They are reinforcing–repeatedly, it would seem as Bristol Palin tells it–sex leads to pregnancy (so don't have it). That first part, the if/then, is explicit. It's a very different message than total silence. Those daughters could conclude no babies is more important to their parents than no sex. And even a message of no sex offers up the news flash of why no sex that silence did not for Bristol (whether she'd have believed them if they'd warned she could get pregnant, who knows?).

To a forty-five year-old mother (of both teen and toddler), what I saw–what prompted me to read more about others' reactions and want to write again about Bristol Palin– in the photographs is how sad she looks (and in the text, how sad she sounds). She's saying she was bummed out to miss the prom and that her life is no longer hers. She explains that despite working in "spare" hours, she can't pay for diapers and formula (much less her own place to live). She's saying that while she loves this baby, everything she enjoyed before or was looking forward to–clothes, boys, college in a warmer climate and a desired career–feel totally out of reach. She's left with exhaustion, isolation and a sense of being indebted to her parents (and grateful to them, hugely) and also beholden in a way that she never planned to be. Even the photogenic Pallins can't really gloss over that sadness.

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

Author: Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser's work has appeared on the New York Times, Salon, and the Manifest Station amongst other places. Find her on Twitter @standshadows

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