"Ready for dinner"
If you ever wondered about the difference between boys and girls, Bristol Palin and her ex-boyfriend and forever baby daddy, Levi Johnston, are currently staging a very convincing reenactment of that old high school drama: the slut vs. the stud. Bristol, as we all know, has spent the months since their son was born speaking out for abstinence, essentially agreeing with her harshest critics that she should have kept her legs closed. Meanwhile, Levi has an offer to pose for Playgirl.
In a video on the Vanity Fair Web site, Levi and his handler Tank Jones — Tank! — cruise in a limo around New York talking about Mr. Johston’s, ah, johnson. Yes, we do mean this in the most literal sense. When Levi says he’s game to pose for Playgirl, Tank says, “You realize you’ve got to have some johnson. You’ve got to unfold some things.” Tank mentions that a friend of his who once posed for the magazine had to “add an extra leaf to fold out for him” — not that Tank ever saw the shots, mind you, since he’s not into that kind of thing.
Gawker thinks it’s hilarious that “Playgirl’s biggest get in years doesn’t have a clue about who reads the male flesh mag” and implores him, “Oh Levi, don’t be ashamed to go down the gay icon route.” And, OK, the idea of a boy from Alaska becoming an unwitting gay icon is amusing. But this ignores the ginormous issue that requires a dozen giant fig leafs to ignore. To wit: Can you fucking imagine what would happen if Bristol announced she was doing a spread in Playboy?
In the year-plus that these teenagers have made headlines, they have barely deviated from the script: Bristol has all but become a born-again virgin, while Levi has been labeled, in the immortal words of New York magazine’s Culture Vulture blog, “sex on skates,” and the subject of more ogling, drooling and innuendo than major porn stars. “I am all for seeing what’s in his Levis,” says the very first comment on Gawker’s post yesterday. Meanwhile, David Letterman nearly lost his job for making what seemed to be a sexual comment about Bristol. That case was ugly — he joked she was “knocked up” by A-Rod, a man twice her age whom she does not know, and was made even more complicated when the Palins claimed he was actually referring to their then-14-year-old daughter, Willow — and I absolutely do not condone it (over on the Broadsheet blog, we’ve dissected the many layers of wrong in fine detail, so please, please, please do not take this as an endorsement of Letterman). But then Levi did a bizarro sketch with Kathy Griffin — who, at 49, is 30 years his senior — in which she joked about “slipping him a roofie” for their night of love. Again, I’m in no way saying that the David Letterman comment is OK. But I bring it up to underscore a bigger question: Why has it been OK for Levi to become a national object of lust, up to and including overt jokes about literally raping him?
The sexual double-standard is a classic, because each part works to reinforce its opposite. We can believe that Bristol really, truly wanted to stay a virgin, so long as we can see the reason that she did not in terms of outright seduction: I mean, who wouldn’t give in when propositioned by Mr. Sex on Skates? The whole nation, ladies and gents, seems to be clamoring to get into this guy’s pants.
But this is not a story about sex. Yes, we can all assume that Levi and Bristol did share some steamy hours together last summer. So did approximately 46 percent of all American teenagers between the ages of 15 and 19. Like it or not, teen sex is not extraordinary; it is utterly common. What is extraordinary is having a pair of teen parents in the national spotlight. And in our zeal to focus on the most ordinary aspect of it — should they have kept it in their pants? — we have run right past just about every important conversation we should be having about what it means to be a teen parent in America. Not a teen having sex (which, after all, on a very good day, takes somewhere around an hour). Not a pregnant teen (yet again, a state with clearly defined limits). A teen parent – as in, someone who is now responsible for a kid for the next 18 years.
This month’s Vanity Fair, you may have heard, has an article called “Me and Mrs. Palin,” in which Johnston excoriates his former future mother-in-law, and it’s the reason we have that behind-the-scenes video shoot concerning the man’s crotch in the first place. There are many things to loathe about this piece: As many writers have pointed out, he talks trash about the Palins’ parenting skills, citing as evidence the fact that, as is common in many working families, their teenage children help out around the house, doing laundry and making meals and sometimes — gasp!– even ordering takeout (though Palin-o-philes may remember a scene from the Todd Palin profile in Esquire in which Sarah took time out to teach Levi how to cook a roast). There are a few details — Sarah Palin wears Wal-Mart jammies and craves Taco Bell! — that I suspect were included by some editor who wished to get in a sly dig at the Palins’ gauche tastes. Levi dishes on Sarah and Todd’s marriage, saying he thought they were headed for divorce; he claims Sarah wanted to leave her position as governor because she thought she’d get more cash elsewhere, and claims she originally thought the best solution to Bristol’s pregnancy would be to cover it up by adopting the baby and claiming it as her and Todd’s own.
The article is a gold mine for those still feasting on the picked-over carcass of Sarah Palin: One can go the trashing-working-women route; the political-scandal route; the please, God, why are we still talking about this family route. But to me, the most conspicuous thing about this article is what’s missing: namely, just about any information about his relationship with Bristol, his relationship with his son, his plans for school, and how he plans to get through it all. The closest we get is the very last paragraph of the story, in which he says:
I don’t ever want to be a deadbeat dad. I love Tripp, and my goal is to take care of my family. I could go out and do movies, maybe one day even end up as a celebrity. But I’m not going to get a big old mansion and drive around in a Bentley. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll just go back to being a licensed electrician like everyone else in my family. That’s still a lot of fun to me.
Well, hey, after a year of basking in the nation’s lust, who’s to blame the kid for thinking he could make it as a celebrity? After all, if a sex tape worked for Paris Hilton, it’s conceivable that knocking up the daughter of the Alaskan governor just might be the beginning of a brilliant career. If not, well, the electrician gig sounds perfectly OK (though, you know, starting work on getting “licensed” might not be the worst idea). But as anyone who has ever tried to raise a kid can tell you, there is absolutely nothing worse for a child than to have to choose between two sides of its family. And if one wants to take care of one’s family, there is absolutely nothing stupider than to start a war with the custodial parent of one’s child and his or her family.
Whether or not Levi Johnston knows just how stupid this is, I can’t say for sure. But the rest of us — his handlers, the professional journalists offering him interviews and TV spots and magazine profiles — most certainly know that inciting and airing a family feud between the parents of an infant is a really terrible idea. And it’s us — our earnest editorials, our loaded questions, our snarky blog commentary, our edited-for-national-magazine tell-alls — that have, in large part, shaped the national conversation about two people who are undoubtedly the most famous teen parents in America in a generation. Wouldn’t you like to say we talked about the high cost of daycare? About the necessity of getting a good education? About the importance of getting along with your partner, even if you choose not to get married? Wouldn’t you like to say we at least asked the right questions and emphasized the right points?
I would. But thus far, this is the story I see: a slut and a stud get together, while all the rest of us gleefully rummage around in the ruins. See, kids? This is exactly what we think you deserve.
Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.More Amy Benfer.