Framing the First Daughters…
Shayla Thiel-Stern / University of Minnesota

Framing the First Daughters: party girls, ugly ducklings, and graceful wives who grew up in the White House

Bristol with Baby

Bristol garners national attention as the pregnant daughter of Sarah Palin

When Bristol Palin stood on the stage of the Republican National Convention in a clingy gray dress that did not hide her bump, a not-so-subtle narrative centering on her and her conservative family played out before the world’s eyes. Although the media scrutinized the announcement a few days before, coverage of Bristol Palin’s pregnancy seemed to change that night when her teenage boyfriend-turned-fiancé appeared on stage holding her hand. It seemed that since the narrative of the pregnant teen had resolved itself with the promise of marriage, the subject could be dropped.

Arguably, the subject should have been dropped in lieu of more important matters, like whether Bristol’s mom had enough political, financial, and foreign policy experience to warrant voting her into the second highest office in the country. However, the fervor surrounding Bristol’s condition dissipated the moment that she was represented as a young engaged mother-to-be—rather than a pregnant teenage girl—who had embraced married domesticity.

The framing of Bristol Palin’s pregnancy—both by the Republican presidential campaign and the media—is unsurprising. Daughters of vice presidents and presidents have entered prominently into the media landscape throughout the past 40 years, always in a very gendered context.

Bristol with Levi

Bristol’s story: from pregnant teen to wife-to-be

Tricia Nixon, who occasionally accompanied her father on presidential trips, is mostly remembered for having an elaborate, beautiful wedding ceremony on the White House lawn. There is also Ronald Reagan’s daughter, Patti Davis, who was often referred to in the news as the “black sheep” of the family. Known for dating rock stars and publicizing her liberal views on abortion and gay rights, Patti’s liberalism was always tied to her “wild” nature in media frames.1 The American media was only able to frame the resolution to her rebellious daughter story when she appeared, contrite and conservative, at her father’s funeral many years after he left the White House.

Amy Carter was represented as an outspoken teen who expressed her political views and later, was arrested in student protests at Brown. Amy’s narrative feels somewhat incomplete compared to the other first daughters, but this could be attributed to her retreat into private life—as a wife, mother, and board member for the human rights-focused Carter Center.2

However, we should question the way that first daughters, past and present, are incorporated into the public conversation through the media. While first and second daughters deserve their privacy—after all, they are not running for office—at times they are thrust into the spotlight for political purposes, often to serve as reminders that our candidates are parents – regular moms and dads that the public can relate to. By bringing their children to the convention stage with them or asking them to ride along on the campaign trail, those children become a part of the public discourse on American family values.

Jenna drunk

A National Enquirer story on Jenna Bush

The American public has not been presented with a first son who was college aged or younger since the Kennedy Administration, but over the past 30 or so years, Amy Carter, Chelsea Clinton, and the Bush twins figured prominently into their parents’ lives in the White House. The media attention devoted to these presidential daughters occurred simultaneously with an overall interest—media and otherwise—in girls and girlhood.

During the past 15 years in particular, an entire “girls-in-crisis” movement has come to the forefront of American culture through best selling books—from the troubled girls portrayed in Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia to the mean girls represented in Rosalind Wiseman’s Queen Bees and Wannabes. It is fascinating to note how media portrayals of these four presidential daughters intersect with similar discourses of girlhood operating during this period of increased reflection about girls’ place in American culture.

Jenna Wedding

The transformation of Jenna Bush: from college drunk to domestic wife

Two particular cases illustrate the types of narratives foisted upon the first daughters. The media’s fascination with Jenna Bush and Chelsea Clinton specifically—now young women in their 20s—has led to the circulation of very specific, traditionally feminine, narratives about these young women. In some cases, the daughters have facilitated such representations through their own actions. But in general, most of the storylines revolving around Bush or Clinton framed the girls’ narratives in highly gendered ways, often through the use of carefully crafted language, images, and disclosed details of the daughters’ lives.

The cultural representation of one of the current first daughters, Jenna Bush, provides a striking example of how gendered storytelling works within media discourses. Jenna’s early brushes with the law for underage drinking were well-documented. Late night talk show hosts loved to joke about her rebellious streak and seemingly poor judgment. She was painted as the out-of-control blonde bombshell, and even though she brought on the scrutiny herself in many cases, she was cast as a staggering embarrassment to her family. However, over the past eight years, Jenna graduated from college and seemed to give up her wild ways. Jenna’s past discretions, once fodder for late night talk show hosts, are not mentioned nowadays when she appears on those very shows to discuss her work as a children’s author and former grade school teacher. Today Jenna Bush has been redeemed through her work with children and her life as a new blushing bride. Ultimately, the media narrative surrounding Jenna was reframed as one of forgiveness and the resolution of the wild girl now tamed.

Chelsea with Arnold

Chelsea Clinton during her stay at the White House, posing here with Arnold Schwarzenegger

A different kind of story has been constructed to represent Chelsea Clinton, who was often chided for being an awkward-looking tween early on in her father’s presidency.3 Recently the press has congratulated Clinton for somehow developing a sense of grace and beauty. Despite graduating from Stanford and earning a high-paying consulting job in New York, all of the recent coverage of Chelsea has in some way centered on this ugly duckling narrative. In February 2008, ABC News profiled her turn in the spotlight while on the campaign trail for her mother, leading off with the words “Chelsea Clinton has changed dramatically from her days as an awkward teenage first daughter.” New York magazine referred to her as “Chelsea, who’d been sometimes seen but hardly ever heard since she’d moved into the White House as a gawky 12-year-old” in an article titled, “The Evolution of Chelsea Clinton,” that also appeared in February. In describing a campaign event for her mother’s presidential run last year, the author primarily describes the final result of Chelsea’s transformation into a fashionable “mascaraed” woman:

When Chelsea strode onstage, almost an hour behind schedule, the crowd erupted in applause. She waved and smiled—a full-lipped, camera-ready (Bill) Clintonian grin. She is tall and slim, with darkly mascaraed lashes framing blue-gray eyes, and glamorously straightened blonde hair. Her outfit—shiny black boots with spiky heels, jeans, and faux-military jacket, replete with epaulettes, over a black T-shirt–was appropriately fashionable. She allowed herself a theatrical grimace, punctuated by a comic eye-roll—provoking giggles—when Hillary youth-outreach director Emily Hawkins, Chelsea’s eighth-grade classmate from the Washington private school Sidwell Friends, encouraged the audience to “ask Chelsea whether it was her idea or her mom’s idea that Chelsea go to math camp.”4

That Chelsea was not a particularly rebellious daughter could account for the difference between the media narratives of the other first daughters and the media narrative circulating around Chelsea. Without the rebellious streak, the media could not spin a narrative about how Chelsea has become a sweeter, gentler young woman. It could also be that her life both in and beyond the White House has been conducted privately and as a result there is little information other than physical transformation for the press to focus on.

Chelsea campaigning

Chelsea’s image while campaigning for her mother, Hillary Clinton

However, dominant narratives expressed about these daughters (from Chelsea to Jenna, to now Bristol) are all connected in the sense that they deal in the language of transformation—and in these cases, a gendered transformation. In fact, this type of narrative arch is often linked to the Cinderella story, in which a girl is deservingly transformed into a princess. Cinderella stories provide comfort in their ability to show that even girls who are wild and rebellious enough to break the law (of their upbringing, as in Bristol’s case, or the actual law, as in Jenna’s case) can be tamed or groomed out of these ways and ultimately, star in a media-constructed fairy tale.

Like Tricia Nixon, Chelsea and Jenna became culturally palatable after they were seen as feminine, graceful, and most importantly, controlled—in Chelsea’s case, in control of her appearance and in Jenna’s case, in control of her behavior. Neither young woman is afforded much agency in this process of transformation, bringing up the question of whether this is self-control or something else all together. In fact, Jenna’s transformation is often discursively linked to her marriage, which is a particularly troubling representation because it connects femininity and domesticity in a way that has not changed since the Nixon Administration. Because of their parents’ prominence, these first daughters have been thrust into the role of cultural icon; when the media tells outdated, sexist narratives about these icons, they reproduce harmful patriarchal stereotypes that seek to push girls further to the margins of the public sphere.

Obama Daughters

Malia and Sasha Obama with their father Barack

The current presidential election has brought us a number of new potential first daughters, from the elementary-school-aged Malia and Sasha Obama to the 20-something Meghan McCain, and already narratives are being laid out in the pages of human interest stories from the campaign trail. The current narratives represent the Obamas as brainy and precocious, while Ms. McCain is represented as a hip fashionista with a blog about her dad. Granted, these narratives are not as dramatic as the ones about unwed teenage mothers keeping their baby and marrying the baby’s father, or a party-girl-turned-child-oriented wife, but if history plays itself out in the same way, then undoubtedly more dramatic and sensational narratives will emerge over time.

Instead of buying these narratives outright, we should continue to question both the political motives of those releasing information about these girls and young women. It seems unbelievable that an unwed 17-year-old mother could be thrust into the public eye as a shining beacon for the far-right-leaning conservatives who derided unwed single mothers in the mid-1990s for their lack of values and reliance on the welfare system. However, this clearly has happened in the past eight weeks as Bristol Palin has become the most talked about teenage girl in the public sphere. Even beyond this, we should simply stop accepting the dominant media narratives masquerading as inspirational transformation stories. After all, first daughters clearly have more to offer our culture—and the young girls who follow their lives—than Cinderella stories.

Image Credits:
1. Bristol garners national attention as the pregnant daughter of Sarah Palin
2. Bristol’s story: from pregnant teen to wife-to-be
3. A National Enquirer story on Jenna Bush
4. The transformation of Jenna Bush: from college drunk to domestic wife
5. Chelsea Clinton during her stay at the White House, posing here with Arnold Schwarzenegger
6. Chelsea’s image while campaigning for her mother, Hillary Clinton
7. Malia and Sasha Obama with their father Barack

Please feel free to comment.

  1. Davis, P. (1992). The way I see it. New York: Putnam Publishing. []
  2. Steindorf, S. (2000, Feb. 17). “What ever happened to … Amy Carter?” Christian Science Monitor. []
  3. Corn, David. (2008). “A Joke too Bad to Print?” Salon, June 25, 1998. Retrieved Sept. 24, 2008. []
  4. Grove, L. (2008). “Chelsea’s Morning: The Clinton heiress finally steps up to the mike.” New York Magazine. []

One comment

  • Fascinating article! You really hit on the ways in which the discourse of gendered transformation remains the dominant way of framing first daughters. I wonder how race also plays into these discussions. Obviously, it’s hard to draw comparisons to first-daughters of color since there aren’t any (yet!), but it seems that Jenna and Chelsea’s whiteness plays an essential role in their narratives. You point this out with Bristol, but I think it also applies to Jenna and Chelsea, albeit less dramatically.

    Regarding Bristol, I’ve found it fascinating that much of the commentary on her pregnancy has focused on the construction of the narrative. For instance, liberal bloggers have questioned whether Bristol’s engagement to Levi is genuine, wondering if the couple really wants to marry or if they have been pushed into the marriage for political reasons. While I find this line of questioning problematic since it assumes that Bristol lacks agency, I do find it interesting the way that the constructed narrative about Bristol is being questioned. Could this be a turning point in our understanding of the role of first daughters, or is the skepticism merely reinforcing assumptions about the wild teenage daughter?

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