Hank Stuever writes in The Washington Post a review of Bristol Palin’s reality show, which debuted last night on Lifetime, called “Bristol Palin: Life’s a Tripp.” The review does not get off to a good start. Stuever notes that “the young Palin claims [her memoir] was a bestseller,” and in context the implication is clear that she’s lying. Apparently Stuever is too lazy to look for himself at the New York Times bestseller list at the time Bristol’s memoir appeared. (It was #21 in its first week and #31 in its second week — and yes, you are officially a “bestseller” on the whole list, #1-#35, as a two-time finalist for a Pulitzer prize ought to know, not to mention an author of two books, even if his books apparently did not make the list.) Neither does the review end well. “Even if you have a lasting grudge against all things Palin,” he says, “there’s no payoff here.” We don’t really need to ask how Stuever knows, do we?
The show, he says, is “somnolent,” a “new low,” and he chastises Bristol for believing that “being Bristol Palin means a life of continued anguish and suffering.” (Bristol has always seemed pretty upbeat and hopeful to me, but what do I know?) “We keep hearing,” Stuever writes, “about the painful glare of media attention that snapped on nearly four years ago” but “that glare never ended, mostly because Bristol keeps reaching to turn the switch back on.” Apparently most young women with a baby and a high school degree would have chosen part-time work and community college classes over Dancing with the Stars and being paid to live in a Beverly Hills mansion and star in a reality show. Then the venom starts to pour:
At 21, Bristol decides, for no clear reason (besides footage), to leave Wasilla, Alaska, once more for another taste of life in Hollyweird, taking her adorably cherubic toddler son, Tripp, with her. Her intent is to volunteer at a religious-based charity called Help the Children. When she gets there, a worker gives her a Help the Children polo shirt and takes her on a tour of L.A.’s skid row, where Palin makes a lethargic attempt to appear even remotely interested. The charity work being done here is bizarrely inverse, in which a needy child of our political culture wars is helped by Help the Children to get airtime.
Starting off a charity experience with a look at the hard-hit neighborhoods you’re serving is entirely normal, and I’m sure Help the Children was thrilled with the visibility. But the scorn factor here is dialed up to 10. When the gods of Hollywood bring cameras to areas of poverty or war, they’re using their celebrity to shine a spotlight on a problem. When Bristol Palin does it, she’s exploiting the children for positive publicity. And Bristol, of course, cannot truly be interested in the suffering of others. She can only make a lethargic [read: unconvincing] attempt to appear remotely interested. How does Stuever know what’s in her mind and heart? Oh, he just does. Don’t you worry about that.
For a night off (a night off from nothing), Bristol and some friends head to a juke joint in West Hollywood, where she is thrown off a mechanical bull. “Did you ride Levi like that?” a patron at the bar shouts. “Your mother’s a whore!” As anyone who was near the internet when this interaction occurred 10 months ago knows, Bristol engaged in a pointless debate with the man, asking him for examples of why he dislikes her mother, and then snaps at him: “Is this because you’re a homosexual?”
It ends with Bristol weeping in the parking lot. Between sobs, she existentially wonders why she can’t escape the constant attention, criticism and sniping. The answer (to pull the plug on the hype machine) truly eludes her.
Except Stuever tells a thoroughly sanitized version of the story of the bar encounter. Bristol is clearly feeling self-conscious when she’s on the mechanical bull, aware that all eyes (and cameras) are on her. Like most young women, especially in that vulnerable situation, she doesn’t want strangers mocking her for her sexual mistakes and calling her mother a whore. Moreover, her mother is not merely called a “whore,” but “evil,” a “f***ing devil” who is destined for a hell if there is one. When Bristol asks what his problem is with her mother, the patron answers, “She lives, she breathes.”
I’d never watched the encounter before, so I sought it out. I’m actually very impressed with the way Bristol conducts herself, and I had no idea how vicious the 47-year-old “bar patron” (Stephen Hanks) was. See for yourself (language warning):
After her public mocking, Bristol stands up for herself and for her mother, but she remains courteous. She presses for examples, but she’s not calling Hanks names (other than “sir”), not cursing at him, not shouting. She’s clearly being the more mature of the two. Was it wise to reference Hanks’ sexuality? Probably not, but (1) she used “homosexual” and not worse names, (2) she was correct, as Hanks (who appeared to be on a date with another man) acknowledged, and (3) I know what she’s getting at. Few homosexuals like Sarah Palin or the policies she stands for. Indeed, when Bristol asks if he objects to her mother because he’s homosexual, he says, “Pretty much.”
When he says that Sarah Palin “lies” about “everything,” but cannot give a single example, Bristol says (still kindly and courteously) that he should be able to give an example if he’s going to call her mother a whore. His less courteous response is to say: “You don’t look anything like Glen Rice. I thought you would.” This is referring to the fever-swamp story that Sarah Palin slept with basketball star Glen Rice in 1987 when Sarah was a reporter and Rice was at Michigan. “You’re right,” says Bristol sardonically. “I’m half African-American. You caught me, sir.”
I can’t make out much of the second conversation, except that she’s called “f***ing white trash” and Hanks finally roars at her, F*** you, you f***ing b**ch!” Hanks later issued an apology through his lawyer, along with a plea for the media to stop paying attention — but now, unbelievably enough, he’s suing her.
Hank Stuever summarizes all of this with Bristol “engaged in a pointless debate” and “snapped” at the bar patron. Then he mocks her sobbing and wishing she did not have to deal with this kind of bile. Stuever himself (as his bio makes clear) is gay, so I understand why he would fixate on this issue, but it’s an extremely self-serving rendering of the story. Far from illustrating Stuever’s point, the story in full actually illustrates Bristol’s point. She has never asked for media attention to stop. But she does say, rightly, that she’s on the receiving end of some extremely vile and caustic political hate.
Bristol has a fan base of young women who find her relatable and empathetic, who empathized with her very public pregnancy, who appreciated her courage and cheer while she received all kinds of vitriol throughout her Dancing with the Stars run, who read her memoir and follow her blog, and who appreciate what she has to say about sin and redemption, striving for sexual rectitude even after one has lost one’s virginity, and the struggles of raising a child as a single mother. Bristol is honest and humble about her mistakes, and I can hardly blame a single mother with no college degree and no clear professional track for jumping at the opportunity to provide for herself and her son by starring on some shows. That does not make her an unscrupulous fame-monger, much less a deserving target for all the overheated anger and vituperation of the Left.