Let’s forget for a moment—maybe you already have—that Bristol Palin’s mother ran for vice president in 2008 and has been a figure of occasional media attention since then. Let’s forget the whirlwind of attention surrounding the news that she was 17 and pregnant, which broke during the Republican National Convention. Let’s forget Levi Johnston and the tabloid stories and all the social button-pushing that arose from the confluence of Sarah Palin’s family-values political platform and her family’s personal lives.
Let’s just look at Lifetime’s new reality series, Bristol Palin: Life’s a Tripp, from the standpoint of the mission statement that Bristol, who took on a career speaking out about teen pregnancy, gives to the show: “I think a lot of girls see a baby as an accessory on their hip, and it’s not. It’s something that needs work, needs attention, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.”
Well, that’s something we can all agree on, regardless of politics and social beliefs, no? Whether you believe abortion should be legal, whether you support sex education or abstinence education, it’s probably a pretty widely held belief that teenage girls shouldn’t see young motherhood as something that brings you nothing but attention, love and good times, right?
So let’s look at how Life’s a Tripp—Bristol’s second reality show, after Dancing with the Stars, or third, if you count Sarah Palin’s Alaska—presents the lot of Bristol, now the mother of energetic Tripp, two years old at the time of filming. We open with Bristol, in Alaska, who has somehow gotten the opportunity to try living in Los Angeles for a while. Who’s to say how this opportunity came up, but it’s a good thing reality TV crews are there to capture it! She spends some time talking with her mother and sisters, “debating” the foregone conclusion of moving, and trying to “convince” her sister Willow to tag along in a scene so staged-looking it makes Don’t Be Tardy for the Wedding look like closed-circuit surveillance video. (Among the pros of California, says Willow: “We don’t have to pay for a tanning bed.”)
Willow says yes, and they’re off to LA! They need a place to live, of course, so until they find a place of their own, they’re going to stay at “one of my parents’ friends’ houses”—a massive, villa-like mansion with fountains, an ornate hot tub and a wrought-iron gate. You get the message, teenage girls? Get pregnant early and you could find yourself stuck in a place just like this, spending all day with no one but your sister and a reality-TV crew to help you keep your child safe around your palatial home’s numerous water features!
The first two episodes of Life’s a Tripp, sent to critics, pretty much continue in this vein. Bristol and Willow go shopping in a chic boutique in Hollywood, stressing that Bristol doesn’t really like the sexy outfits because she’d rather dress to do “outdoorsy things.” Bristol meets up for support with Mark Ballas, her partner from Dancing with the Stars. Bristol volunteers with the homeless. Bristol gets Willow to babysit while she goes out with friends from home to a bar with a mechanical bull, where she gets in an argument with a man who yells, “Did you ride Levi like that?” and “Your mother’s a whore!” (“Is it because you’re a homosexual?” she asks when she confronts him.)
That last is the big moment the episodes play up, Bristol repeating “Give me one example” while her inarticulate harasser rants in obscene generalities. And that pretty much sums up how enlightening this show is, flailing to provoke us and getting our attention, then fumbling for anything to say once it gets it. The run-in with the hater notwithstanding, Life’s a Tripp has pretty much nothing to say about the Palin family’s public role or what it means that Bristol has chosen to continue as a media figure and spokeswoman.
And it certainly has little to say about the actual challenges of raising a two-year-old as a young single mom: forget Bristol’s high level of family support, cable-network sponsorship and her palatial digs, there’s just not much child-rearing going on in the first two episodes, beyond the occasional cut to Bristol reading to Tripp in bed or giving him a bath. There are more scenes of hands-on parenting in the publicity photos Lifetime selected for the show than in the actual episodes it’s sent out. If you can say that Bristol Palin: Life’s a Tripp is about anything, it’s about being on the reality show Bristol Palin: Life’s a Tripp.
It’s not that Bristol’s unsympathetic—she’s in a pressured environment that she’s probably not really ready for, and even if she signed up for the show, it’s hard not to feel for her when she cracks under the strain. And it’s not that Bristol’s a bad mom: I’m not going to make that judgment, because Life’s a Tripp gives me almost no examples of her raising Tripp to go by, other than electing to bring him on the show in the first place. He’s the opposite of seen and not heard: he’s talked about, but hardly seen.
Actually, we hear more about the parenting strains on Willow, who complains in the second episode about Bristol treating her like “the nanny” while Bristol traipses around shooting her reality show. Their conflicts, raw, resentful and laden with sibling issues, are the most interesting part of Life’s a Tripp by far. Maybe Willow’s live-in-nanny experience would be a more interesting series. And maybe there is a worthwhile reality show that a teen-pregnancy spokeswoman could make about the actual challenges of being a single parent. But in this one, the toddler in question ends up treated as little more than—didn’t somebody famous say this once?—”an accessory.”