Sarah and Bristol on Oprah: WTF?

The Palin women discuss abstinence with the talk show queen -- on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, no less

By Rebecca Traister
Published January 22, 2010 10:23PM (EST)

How did Oprah celebrate the 37th anniversary of Roe v. Wade? By inviting Sarah and Bristol Palin on her show to talk about journalistic integrity and abstinence, of course!

In one of the most bananas Oprah segments in some time, the host first spoke one-on-one via satellite with the former Alaska governor, who appeared from her kitchen with her hair in tight long curls so jarring that Oprah practically reared back at the sight of her.

"I was trying to look like you," Palin bizarrely asserted.

To which Winfrey said, "It's kinda cute," indicating in no uncertain terms that she found it, in fact, not at all cute.

Super-tense niceties out of the way, Winfrey asked Palin about her new Fox contract, extracting what sounded like it might have been a nugget of insight when she asked the former governor if the TV gig meant the end of her political career. Palin responded that "I'm not closing any door that maybe I find open in the future, and thankfully the Fox network has allowed me to keep that door open for whatever maybe political is in my future." (Don't blame me, I only transcribe.)

Weirdest, though, was that while Winfrey seemed perfectly willing to go after Palin for her coiffure, she didn't challenge her when she described her new Fox job as an opportunity to get back to the "who, what, when, where and why of reporting, just stating the facts, gathering the information, providing it to the viewers and letting them decide what their opinion would be ... ratcheting back to the simplicity of what journalism should be about."

Instead of pointing out that Fox News was probably airing a story about how un-American it was for the Obamas to keep a Portuguese water dog in the White House or something, Oprah just said, "Absolutely." Yes, she really did. And she went on: "When I was in journalism school, that was what was emphasized, the who, what, where and why, and it seems like that's been lost now."

WTF, Oprah?

Later, Oprah and Sarah were joined by Bristol, a teen who, less than a year ago, was telling Fox News' Greta Van Susteren the who, what, where, when and why of how abstinence was "not realistic at all." She has since, thanks to her willingness to walk through any door that opens for her mother, become an advocate of premarital abstinence.

At first, Oprah seemed content with softball questions about the rigors of teen motherhood. (Bristol bathes Tripp. A lot.) But then Oprah began to press Bristol on her public vow never to have sex again before marriage -- a vow that Oprah admitted made her "bristle" when she read it.  "When you make the statement that I'm absolutely, positively not going to have sex and I guarantee it," Oprah said, "you don't think you're setting yourself up?"

"No, I don't," Bristol said, hands clasped on her lap.

To which Oprah responded, "Well, all right, good luck to ya on that."

Oprah wasn't quite ready to leave the topic yet, and so she dug in a bit more on the subject of abstinence in general. "One out of three teenagers are having sex by the time they're 18 years old," she began. "I'm wondering if [abstinence] is a realistic goal."

Interesting word choice, O: "realistic." Don't think the significance of those four syllables were lost on the Palins, who jumped in, eager to clarify.

"I think she's talking about herself, personally," said Sarah.

"Yeah," said Bristol, hand touching her breastbone now, "it's a realistic goal for me."

Oprah wasn't getting anywhere, a point she had to finally cede.  "OK, I was going to give you a chance to retract or" -- and here she made a pantomime gesture that might best be described as "walking it back" -- "and not say categorically I guarantee I'll never have sex until I'm married, but if you wanna hold to that, then may the powers be with you."

"Hey, does that mean you're going to get married young?" Palin asked, nudging her daughter playfully. To which her daughter rolled her eyes. "I don't know, Mom."

And an awkward laugh was shared by all.

In the end, the interview wasn't controversial or horrifying or entertaining so much as it was intensely ... odd. To which all I can say is: WTF, Oprah?

Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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Abstinence Broadsheet Love And Sex Oprah Winfrey Sarah Palin