Gender

Levi Johnston Lashes Out at Sarah Palin -- Can You Blame Him?

Johnston was shoved in the public spotlight to burnish Palin's conservative credibility during the election. Now he's striking back.

Levi Johnston, former Sarah Palin accessory and newfound media personality, leveled some low blows at the grandmother of his child in this month's Vanity Fair.

In its pages, already being excerpted in splashy headlines across the Web, Levi casts Palin as a hodgepodge of stereotypes that feed into the sexist rumormonger's playbook: a bad mom who takes hourlong baths, wears Wal-Mart pajamas in the daytime and doesn't cook for her kids, a money-hungry, narcissistic diva, a grabby woman who tried to take her daughter's baby as her own. Oh, and a wife who doesn't sleep with her man.

Many readers are saying that his words are so extreme, they feel sorry for the former Alaska governer, who despite parroting the sexist, anti-choice policies of the extreme right wing, has taken a staggering amount of unfair, sexist criticism.

It's vital to call out misogyny even when it's directed at our ideological archenemies, and feminists like Alternet's Adele Stan and the Frisky's Jessica Wakeman correctly point out that this latest piece in the so-called liberal media plays into woman-bashing tropes without context or explanation.

Why did Vanity Fair ask Johnston to write about "Mrs. Palin" alone and not his entire experience in the political realm?

But it's hard to get too worked up about Johnston's boorish posturing. Johnston isn't just a typical hanger-on trashing a famous figure to stay in the spotlight -- he's a teenage kid who was used in an abysmal way.

During the Republican National Convention, he and Bristol Palin were cleaned up, shorn, put in fancy clothes and literally paraded in front of a live and TV audience of millions. No one can forget how often the cameras on all the networks swung over to the Palin clan, zooming in on these two somewhat-dazed-looking teen parents-to-be.

The McCain/Palin presidential campaign literally effected the transformation overnight, turning two probably scared kids into the poster children for the anti-choice movement.

Levi and Bristol's suddenly upcoming nuptials were announced with fanfare, and they were applauded in a loud, public way for deciding to carry through with the pregnancy and get hitched. They drove thedelegates and the right wing wild and the media wilder.

Their very personal decisions were manipulated to beef up Palin's Republican-mom credentials. She and her handlers played up her image as a mom who had taught her kids, and by extension their partners, to make good traditionally conservative choices. For many, that alone gave her the bona fides to be a great VP candidate.

But by purposefully making the Palin family and Palin's sainted motherhood a huge part of her appeal, and by putting their teenagers' faces on countless screens (teenagers by nature tend to have a twisted and needy relationship to public attention), the campaign created the conditions for a perfect storm.

They also left room for the family to be mocked, imitated, questioned and examined, turned into punchlines and Halloween costumes, something other public families, including the McCains have strived hard not to do. In one fell swoop, Bristol and Levi were given a massive dose of fame's pleasures and its pitfalls.

And for Levi Johnston, there was no turning back. His public persona was created by Palin and her circle of advisers. He's their Frankenstein monster, their brilliant conception that has taken on a life of its own and started causing havoc.

If Palin isn't eager to leave the spotlight, why should Johnston be? And since he was present at the creation of the myth of Sarah Palin, super hockey mom and pillar of upright family values, it appears that his public revenge has taken aim right at the heart of that myth.

Saying that this latest tell-all is a natural progression in the public psychodrama doesn't mean we should try to guess further into Johnston's inner life, excuse his words or necessarily give him credibility. But it does point out that another dynamic is at play besides gender -- the dynamic of age and authority.

The Palins had those privileges over their kids, and they exercised them in a callous way. So is it any surprise that Johnston is using a few choice barbs, leveling his gender privilege to strike back?

It's practically a cardinal law of human psychology that when an adult appears inauthentic or seems to betray a teenager, said teen will lash out.

Even Bristol Palin has let a thought or two of her own slip out (remarking that abstinence-only education is unrealistic) before she was presumably reined back in and turned into the queen of pseudorepentant teen moms.

As parents and adults, the Palins and McCains must have known this, and so to a certain extent they're reaping what they've sown. All the adults in the campaign showed poor judgment, and I'd venture to add, bad caregiving instincts by using young adults and children as props for an ideological movement -- including the babies Tripp and Trig.

Ultimately, this rather tiresome soap opera does not boil down to gender, or to the Palins' and Johnston's class -- no, Gail Collins, the fact that he likes tattoos and hockey has little if anything to do with this -- nor is it really about Palin's home life, which is none of our business now that she's no longer using it as a platform point.

Rather, the Wasilla whirlwind is a strong argument for politicians keeping their kids out of the public eye and using their agendas, rather than their personal lives, to get themselves elected.

As much as I cringe at Johnston's words, there remains a perverse satisfaction to watching him stomp through the countryside, terrorizing the villagers, seeking vengeance on his creators.

But I do wish that Johnston would also take aim at McCain and the campaign officials, who had every bit as much to do with branding him as the Palins did.

And it would be nice if Bristol had the same freedom as her ex -- not to receive undue media scrutiny, but to say exactly what she thought without compunction. I imagine her words would be different from the abstinence-only line she's been (rather unbelievably) toeing recently.

Sarah Seltzer is an RH Reality Check staff writer and resident pop culture expert. Sarah is a freelance writer based in New York City. Her work has been published in Bitch, Venus Zine, Womens eNews, and Publishers Weekly among other places. She formerly taught English in a Bronx public school.