Bristol Palin and the Privilege to Fail

As the daughter of the erstwhile vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, Bristol Palin has made a name for herself out of her life story. She got pregnant as a teenager, during her mother’s campaign for the federal government with Senator John McCain. She chose to keep her child, and subsequently built a million dollar career out of preaching abstinence for various organizations around the nation.

And now, she’s pregnant again. And she’s still not married. In a confusing series of posts on her blog, she first announces her pregnancy with what sounds like regret, saying that her pregnancy is a “huge disappointment to [her] family and friends.” She comments that she will rely on God, as God is merciful (which implies she has done something that requires mercy).

But after the media went into a furor, she posted two more, angry updates, accusing the “giddy a$$holes” of jumping to conclusions about her pregnancy, explaining that this pregnancy was planned. She is careful, as well, to explain that she has not worked as an “abstinence spokesperson,” but rather as a partner with an organization dedicated to the prevention of teen pregnancy. She also calls out the Gawker by name, obviously insulted by their implication that her pregnancy and her choices are an argument for abortion, ending her announcement with a declaration that she is pro-life and always will be.

In 2008, when her first pregnancy was announced, there was a lot of handwringing and argument about the choice she made to keep the pregnancy and to become a teenage mother. This consternation put her and her mother’s pro-life politics under a microscope, as a symbol of the hypocrisy of the religious right. Bristol Plain has, in recent years, become shorthand for the failure of conservative Christian purity culture to actually achieve its goals of abstinence until marriage.

But such simplified narratives fail to account for the wily ways in which conservative Christians justify and understand their own emphases on purity. Part of the pervasiveness and insidiousness of purity culture is that idea that God forgives when we mess up. Tales like Bristol’s, instead of becoming a counterexample for why purity and abstinence education fail, become cautionary stories for why you need to stay abstinent. Her failure becomes her redemption.

Despite Bristol’s protestations to the contrary, the organizations she supported over the years as a teenage mother were centered on abstinence as a preventative measure for teenage pregnancy. Indeed, while Candie’s foundation never explicitly says the words “abstinence only education,” the ultimate lesson for delaying pregnancy and preventing pregnancy as teenagers is not safe sex, but abstinence until marriage. Indeed, the Candie’s foundation seems to exist less for supporting teen mothers and providing them with resources, but instead as a stigma and shame-reliant method of using the stories of teen moms as cautionary tales in favor of abstinence. “Don’t become me,” seems to be the message, instead of offering resources on how to have sex safely.

So while Bristol parses words on the meaning of “abstinence spokesperson,” her work has had the same effect as a person who actively identifies as a spokesperson for abstinence. She participates in purity culture when she casts her own story as a personal mistake in maintaining purity, instead of a failure to have sex safely.

Bristol argues vehemently for her own privacy while simultaneously participating in a culture that insists on making women’s bodies public property. She made a choice, but God forbid you do as well.

This, ultimately, is why Bristol Palin’s second, chosen pregnancy matters. Because of the abstinence culture she promotes, because of purity culture’s narratives of forgiveness from which she benefits, other people are left without resources. Bristol was uniquely privileged in her pregnancy to have a supportive family and the public relations ability to capitalize on her story to make money for her and her child. She is privy to resources almost no teenage mothers have, and is engaged, even while choosing to have another child, in the rolling back of resources and rights for women just like her.

And this class and racial privilege is ultimately why Bristol Palin’s active choice to have a child out of wedlock will be respected and even affirmed by the religious right, while women who do not share her privilege will be told to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, to wallow in their ruin, to stop mooching off the government. If there is anything that demonstrates how out of touch and unconscionable purity politics actually are, it is that Bristol Palin can choose to become pregnant out of wedlock and consider it a righteous stand for her politics rather than an exemplar of the privilege race and class afford a rich, white teen mother.