Marriage and Motherhood; Patriotism and Progressivism

I’ll confess I haven’t read the article on the Obamas’ marriage in this week’s NYT Magazine, but Kate Harding’s response at Jezebel resonated very much with me. Harding says:

I voted for Clinton in large part because I regarded her as long-overdue proof that a little girl from the Chicago suburbs could grow up to be president, and it still irritates me to see her held up primarily as a symbol of the establishment, rather than a swift kick in the establishment’s shriveled white nuts. (I think she and Obama are both about 50/50 there.) But it’s also because the false equivalence continues to go unquestioned, just as it did in the campaign — we’re meant to accept that becoming First Lady is basically just as momentous for a woman as becoming president would be. Which… you remember that Hillary Clinton is one of the people in this equation, right? And seriously, every time I heard that shit about a little girl from the South Side growing up to be First Lady, all I could think was, “What little girl dreams of being married to the most powerful person on the planet?” I don’t know, maybe some still do in the twenty-first century, but I certainly didn’t in the late twentieth. I was heartbroken when I learned in elementary school that being born in Canada makes me ineligible for the presidency; it took many more years before it fully sunk in that my vagina does, too. And sadder still is the fact that little African-American girls are faced with even less evidence to suggest they could ever scale those heights. Michelle may have Bill’s charisma, Hillary’s toughness and Barack’s brains, but with racism and sexism both working against her, she couldn’t have made it as far as any of them if she’d wanted to.

I hope things aren’t as bad as all this; I would like to think that an African-American woman would have a viable chance at the presidency in my lifetime. But I find myself sharing Harding’s concern about this sense that being the First Lady is equivalent to being the President. It’s just not. The First Family is an idealization of the modern American nuclear family, a reflection of the conception that’s persisted since the end of World War II that a father who works and a mother who keeps house and takes care of the children are the most American way to envision a family.

I’ve just started watching season 1 of Mad Men this week (I know, I’m a little behind the times), and to me the way we’re applauding en masse the Obama marriage is not entirely different from the way traditional gender roles are made to seem sexy and exciting in Mad Men. I know that the TV show means to critique and expose as flawed those roles, but my sense from having seen half of the first season is that it doesn’t do so nearly as effectively as it could. Mad Men is TV—its depiction of history is going to be inherently romanticized, and not a balanced historical analysis of the way gender and power relationships function(ed) in middle-class, white, urban and suburban America. Likewise, the First Family has its cult (or not-so-cult) following; the Obamas are not only celebrities, but representations of America by virtue of the President’s office as head of state. Even in 2009, being a full-time wife and mother and making it your career to further your husband’s is a patriotic good.

Don’t get me wrong on any count: I believe there is nothing wrong with choosing to make spousehood and motherhood your career. And I admire Michelle Obama deeply; she’s a smart and savvy woman whose history with and views about my university resonate particularly with me. But the way our media and our culture are celebrating her wife-and-motherhood and the moral good of her marriage to her husband just don’t sit right with me. I know this is a contentious statement to make, but I don’t believe that the Obamas’ marriage—as happy and fulfilled as it may make them—represents a higher moral good. I don’t know that we should be celebrating their marriage—and Michelle O.’s wife-and-motherhood—more than the lives and careers of people who do not have spouses and/or children.

When I say “we,” I’m talking about the left, the progressive community. I perceived a tendency over the past year-plus for progressives to valorize the Obamas’ marriage despite professing disagreement with cultural conservatives’ pronouncements about “family values” and gender essentialism. I think that we have a tendency to assume that because the Obamas themselves are progressive, because the implication is that both husband and wife made the choices to assume the roles they did, that it’s okay, and that therefore we can celebrate the degree to which Barack and Michelle reflect a somewhat updated but nevertheless (to my mind) Mad Men-esque hyper-American patriotic ideal of the nuclear family. Reader, this makes me profoundly uncomfortable.

Marriage is for some people and not others. Getting married is a perfectly reasonable thing to do, particularly if you have children, or one of you is from a different country, or for whatever reason you want access to however many thousand benefits it is that marriage gives you. But marriage should be a choice, not a patriotic duty, especially where 21st-century progressivism is concerned.

When I sit down and think about it, I don’t see myself as a particularly radical person—farther to the left than average, certainly, and probably farther to the left than the average Democrat. For instance, I do vote Democratic. I am willing to make concessions to the political mainstream to accomplish things. I believe in the greater good of certain cultural institutions, particularly those enshrined in the Constitution. I am an intensely patriotic person. I kind of want to feel as if my country likes me back, as if the political ideologies with which I ally myself are willing to be inclusive about my life choices. In our cultural moment surrounding the life of the 44th President and his family, I don’t see that happening, and it leaves me profoundly ill-at-ease.

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