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To be feminist and fair; or the nuance of Bristol Palin

April 28, 2010

You may have seen the new PSA the Candie’s Foundation put out a few weeks ago, which features a glammed up Bristol Palin bouncing baby Tripp on her hip, saying that if she didn’t come from such a famous family, with lots of privileges, raising a baby as a single teen parent would be a drastically different experience.  True dat.  (watch for yourself, below)

I kind of like the ad because it drew attention to the anomaly that Brisol Palin (and Jamie Lynn Spears) is as a teen mom – whenever we see her she’s perfectly coiffed, calm, baby is calm, fed, dressed, she looks together.  She’s on air, or on camera, or headed somewhere expensive.  This is night and day compared to what the vast majority of teen moms in the US – and worldwide – have to deal with.

I thought it was actually edgy and nuanced of the Candies Foundation to push this message.  So often the “role models” that teen moms have in the media are ones that are mostly wealthy, have lots of support, and we’re only seeing the happy side of teen motherhood.  So I was annoyed (though not surprised) when the ad was immediately harshed on by the femi-blogosphere. Take this post, for instance, on Feministing.  It sums up the ad as suggesting, “don’t get pregnant unless you’re privileged.”  It calls the Candie’s Foundation “abstinence pushing” and suggests that Bristol is telling girls that if they’re poor they shouldn’t get pregnant…almost suggesting some kind of terrible class-driven population control.

Other blogs like Bitch followed suit, criticizing Bristol’s “anti-poor” attitude, and calling her a hypocrite.  This post on Feminist Looking Glass was more judicious, but still criticized the Candie’s Foundation for its abstinence-only messaging.  Overall, coverage from the feminist blogosphere was a bit harsh, a bit alarmist, a bit misinformed overall, if I may say so myself.

If you watch the ad with an open mind (about the Palins in general and in the context of Bristol’s statements on ab-only/teen parenthood specifically) then what do you see?  More nuance, more complexity, more important messages.  Teen motherhood isn’t as glamorous as Bristol might make it seem on TV; really think and consider the consequences before you have sex.

The Candie’s Foundation has clarified that it is not abstinence-only and neither is Bristol, despite the fact that her messaging becomes murky, especially when her mother is around.

Give the home girl a break.  She’s a teen mom who happens to have an incredibly outspoken, famous, and famously conservative mom, who has drawn more wrath from the feminist community since those bozos who tried to vote down suffrage.  Bristol is a teenager with a mom who obviously supports abstinence-only and influences but doesn’t speak for her daughter – someone who is a living and breathing example of the perils of this mistaken policy.

I think often times “abstinence” becomes a buzzword of alarm for many of us, who instantly think this means bad, bad things… no to sex, no to information, no to choice.  But as one astute commenter on Feministing mentions, abstinence along with other methods, does mean comprehensive.

I certainly don’t condone abstinence-only as a sex ed policy (in case anyone is going to misread me), but it is still true that abstinence is the only 100% effective way to prevent pregnancy and STIs.  As a reproductive health counselor at Planned Parenthood, I told this to my clients in addition to telling them about all of their other options.  See?  I’m not trying to force anyone to have an abortion, but I’m not pretending that people don’t have sex either.  Comprehensive.

Feministing’s own mea culpa (although they never actually admitted that their first post was sensationalist and flat out wrong about some important details) came a few days after they posted their holier-than-thou take on the vid (sorry to harsh on Feministing, I do love them, but that post could not have been more unfair and snide).  Feministing founder and abstinence-only watchdog extraordinaire Jessica declares, “Bristol Palin does not support abstinence-only.”

Not to nitpick, but even this second post puts words in Bristol’s mouth, wrongly attributing to her a quote about the rising rates of teen pregnancy to her, instead of to the Candie’s Foundation director Christine who very clearly says it in this Fox interview.  My point is simply, let’s be accurate and get to the meat of the real discussion.

Teen pregnancy in this country is a serious, serious problem – and I salute anyone who is going to use her own life experience to help educate others, and also admit her privilege on national TV.

I think this should be a delicate lesson to all of us, but especially those of us in the feminist blogosphere: 1) let’s keep a critical feminist eye and an open mind; 2) if we want our issues to be treated fairly by opponents, we should always do the same, whenever possible and when rabble rousing isn’t necessary (many times it is); 3) abstinence works, but so do condoms, pills, patches, injections, and rings, etc. and 4) let’s continue to focus on preventing teen pregnancy, with prevention methods proven to be effective.

May 9th is Mother’s Day and unfortunately in this country, far too many teens will be celebrating this year.

10 Comments
  1. VidOmnia permalink
    April 28, 2010 6:36 am

    Actually, Sarah Palin is not an abstinence-only advocate, she supports contraception education in schools.

    http://articles.latimes.com/2008/sep/06/nation/na-sexed6

  2. Jessica Mack permalink*
    April 28, 2010 6:50 am

    I would contend that Sarah Palin can support the policy abs-only while still believing that there is some room for contraceptives…some of the time. I grant perhaps some murkiness in there, but not yet convinced: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=94332508. She has not campaigned for comprehensive sex-ed, and as a policy maker, I think tacit stance under abstinence-only funding can be tantamount to support as well. But yes, you’re right — not entirely clear, and to call her abstinence-only may not be entirely accurate all of the time.

  3. VidOmnia permalink
    April 28, 2010 7:24 am

    Palin’s position on this and other social issues is often incorrectly portrayed. For instance, while she obviously lives by pro-life principles, she’s never attempted to force those beliefs on anyone policy-wise. She’s said abortion should not be criminalized and even appointed a woman to the Alaska Supreme Court (Morgan Christen) who was a former board member of Planned Parenthood.

    http://www.juneauempire.com/stories/030809/sta_406743982.shtml

    The only policy position she’s ever taken on this was to speak out in favor of a proposed parental notification law in Alaska.

  4. DB9 permalink
    April 28, 2010 8:50 am

    Jessica,
    Overall an good and quite interesting article. One glaring exception though. Sarah Palin is not, nor has she ever been, for abstinence only education. An obvious error like that takes away from the rest of your piece, which is quite good. Do you also contend that Sarah Palin said “I can see Russia from my house”?

    • May 1, 2010 12:42 pm

      It’s amazing how much info you can find by Googling: http://firstread.msnbc.msn.com/archive/2008/09/01/1320417.aspx

  5. Carrie Polansky permalink
    April 28, 2010 10:28 am

    I have nothing against Bristol Palin — it must be really hard to be Sarah Palin’s daughter, and the media does put words in her mouth all the time, particularly when it comes to her feelings on abstinence-only vs. comprehensive sex ed. I think she has the potential to be a really interesting, strong role model for a lot of girls.

    That being said, I do think this ad was misguided. The message that you took from it — “Teen motherhood isn’t as glamorous as Bristol might make it seem on TV” — is a great message, but it’s not one that I felt while watching the ad. Bristol never actually says, “My life isn’t glamorous.” She says, “My life wouldn’t be glamorous if I was someone else.” So I don’t think the Feministing critique is too far off, in this instance. Do I think Bristol is a terrible person who believes that poor people shouldn’t have babies? No. But is that the message I got from this ad? Yeah, kind of. I think she has a lot of important things to say, and she should say them…but this particular ad is a little problematic.

    • Jessica Mack permalink*
      April 28, 2010 11:25 am

      I can definitely see how the message is murky enough that it could be construed different ways — so I grant that for sure. I think you’re right that it was pushing the boundary a bit, but I also don’t think that’s a terrible thing in and of itself, since it got so many more people to watch the ad…and think about teen pregnancy! Very “meta”

  6. Alicia permalink
    April 28, 2010 12:50 pm

    Thanks for your perspective on this ad by Bristol Palin and the Candies Foundation. I had a similar discussion and debate on Ms. Magazine’s Facebook page when it was posted a few weeks back. I support this ad, and I fully support that it is done by Bristol Palin. I am not a Palin supporter by any means–I have my own bag of things to say about the Palin drama this country faces, however, I do think Bristol should be viewed on her own merit and not that of her mother. This ad was posted on YouTube with the title of Bristol Palin’s Abstinenence Only Message. However, that came from the original person who posted, as no where in the ad or on Candies’ website does it state that this ad was intended for abstinence only recognition.

    The catch phrase “Pause before you play” is a very powerful message allowing teenage girls to interpret that within their own contextual beliefs. It could mean wait until you’re ready, wait until you’re married, wait until you can get to the drugstore and get a box of condoms. It simply implies that teen girls should pause and consider the results of their choices–this is a message that is effective in any situation where we must consider our consequences and results of our choices.

    I think it says a lot that a teenage mother from a wealthy family can get up and acknowledge that she has it much easier than most teen moms out there. She realizes that teenage motherhood for her is much different than the average teen mom. She isn’t glamourizing her life, just pointing out what we have already been saying about her anyway–she has it a lot easier than most. The fact that she can acknowledge that says much about her. It never came across to me that she was telling the rich kids to get pregnant and the poor kids not to. That must be coming from individual interpretation.

    We all know that teen mothers struggle much more, and many have very little money and resources to provide an easy life for themselves and their babies. I think Bristol Palin helped break that idea that “well if Spears and Palin can do it, I should be able to also”. She openly tells her “fans” or followers who look up to her that there is nothing magical or easy about being a teen mom. She shows that she too would be struggling if she wasn’t by chance the daughter of a politician. Again, that takes a lot for someone in her position to step forward and say that to the public–and in hopes that other teens will realize that teenage motherhood is not a picnic in the park. She helped show the realities and not what the media wants our girls to see and think.

    So to end, I think this ad was a great concept. I also hope that feminists across the board can look at this with a critical eye and examine what messages it can relay. I also hope that we can accept that feminist messages can be found even in the most conservative outlets. Pause before you play is a concept that can fit any theory on sex education and can accomodate any set of moral beliefs–but more importantly, it puts the control back in the teen girls’ hands to be in charge of their choices.

  7. anonymama permalink
    April 28, 2010 5:38 pm

    I think the commercial is great. She’s not glamorizing teen motherhood, she’s not demonizing it or teen sexuality. Bristol Palin is saying that teen motherhood without money, resources, etc standing behind you is hard.

    While we can debate the class notions of this, I think it’s important that someone with money is saying, “I’m a teen mom with money; don’t assume this is the normal experience.”

    Raised working class, Hispanic feminist saying thank you to Bristol!

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