October 10, 2012

Gush & Awe: How American Politics Reinforces Stereotypes of Wifehood



Some weeks ago, I watched two prominent women in the national spotlight, who spoke to American audiences in their roles as longtime partners of the men contesting the 2012 Presidential election.

In speeches that were televised across the United States to an audience of millions, first Ann Romney and then Michelle Obama took center stage, not as individuals or simply female partners, but as ‘wives’, and spoke of, and I quote, “love”. They shared the personal angle of a life lived supporting their respective men’s dreams, and how their bond and family life made their lives of initial struggle and later success picture-perfect and superbly marketable as the American Dream.  Both women spoke of caring, nurturing, supporting, and harked back to their early dating days with the candidates, one the current President, to crowds at the Republican and Democratic National Conventions respectively that seemed to lap up the mush, soothed by the candy floss wedged between the hard facts and statistics left to the men folk.

They peddled soft values and mushy speeches to a nation recovering from recession, still enmeshed in one war, and one that can barely see the sky from where the national debt stands. Logic, cold numbers, reform and the “real” debates were left to the Boys, and I was left feeling vaguely offended.

I’m fairly certain both ladies’ speechwriters knew their audience and catered to it with perfectly crafted sentences hitting the right emotional spot. Despite their staggering 60% divorce rate, Americans still believe enthusiastically in the institution of family to the point where not having one to portray a picture of completeness can be detrimental to your rise up the political ranks. Think about it. When was the last time an American president was unmarried? It was in the 18th century and there has been only one President in the country’s history to never have tied the knot—James Buchanan.

Hence, very strategically, the women who addressed this 21st century audience were projected as ideal foils for their hard-hitting, much-achieving husbands, and I use the word ‘husband’, not ‘spouse’, intentionally.  The message was that of a supporting, emotion-evoking role with a clear niche that perpetuated Stepford Wife stereotypes, another textbook example being the First Lady bake-offs, where candidates’ wives have a cookie-baking competition.  Ironically, this competition isn’t an archaic tradition from the 1950s. It began as recently as 1992, its origins explained by this article over at Jezebel.  And every time chocolate chips and macadamia nuts trounce M & Ms, the loser is the opportunity to define a changing role for female partners.

We aren’t discussing unintelligent or poorly educated women. Michelle Obama has degrees from Princeton and Harvard universities and has worked as a lawyer and city administrator.  As the First Lady, she is an independent advocate for many causes, nutrition and poverty awareness among them. Ann Romney is an accomplished amateur equestrian, in spite of a multiple sclerosis diagnosis. She has been both a daughter-in-law and spouse of State Governors and is intimately familiar with the political life. Both women are perfectly capable of explaining their support and defense of their respective spouse’s policies, agenda and projections for the future. But neither significantly did. They spoke about their relationship to their respective Presidential candidate and his attributes from that one lop-sided lens. Ann Romney harped on about the ‘boy she met at a teenage dance, married very young and had 5 children with’ and Ms. Obama scored only a shade better with a few lines in-between their rusted car date story, neither of which I’m convinced will help us understand how either man will accomplish the monumental task of getting this nation back on track.

Perhaps I’m viewing the election process through a pin hole. But theoretically (because as a foreign citizen I’m not qualified to vote), if I’m looking to elect a person to run a country and clean up a disastrous foreign policy, resurrect an economy, and generate trade and innovation, I want to know how the person I give my vote to is qualified to effectively go through this checklist. What he does at home, how much his children love him, and how burstingly proud his partner is of him matter squat to me. Having a family doesn’t make you morally superior in my eyes, making good your election promises when you’re sworn in does.

And of course, as always, I’m in the minority, because the home of the brave and the land of the free laps up the shiny-happy show-and-tell, television ratings soar, and yet again, a female spouse is typecast of her own will in the role of supportive, loving wife, one who trips down Nostalgia Lane, peddles warm fuzzies, and plays second fiddle not just to her spouse’s political aspirations but also to plain common sense.

Right about now, a move to France looks more tempting than ever. Though I admit I’d miss a good old American cookie.

8 comments to Gush & Awe: How American Politics Reinforces Stereotypes of Wifehood

  • Lajja shah

    I agree with most of your comments in this post and yes inspite of these women having a strong background they hid behind their motherly and wifely image. I however don’t see anything wrong with that. They are supporting their men when they need it and what better way to win a First Lady race than to support the American public emotionally when they most need it, especially considering the economy or other factors are not helping.
    Once the President is over his 8 yr term guess who is running for next election? Their beloved wife’s. So yes there is the stereotype but these women are smarter than we think for once in power always in power.

    A great read though.

    • Sorab

      I don’t think either one of these women will run for election. If they do it would be great but they won’t. The only former first lady who has actually tried to win her party’s nomination is Hillary Clinton and we saw how that went. Supporting your partner is fine but as Dilnavaz points out supporting and explaining his programs to people would be a better way of showing support rather than gushing about love and all that.

  • ketaki

    I am an Indian currently living abroad, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading your article. I agree that this dishing up of the female good wife stereotype is annoying, but lets face it, America has had some real tough cookies as their Secretary of State – Madeline Albright, Condoleeza Rice and now Hilary Clinton….. these women having been amazing and have gone a long way in creating a space for women to lead the discourse on foreign policy etc.

  • The two ladies seem compelled
    They couldn’t possibly have rebelled
    Oft times i’ ve felt,
    Maybe below the belt,
    That Western women are equally hidebound and quelled!

  • Dilnavaz Bamboat

    Thank you all for your comments.

    Lajja: I understand that you are pointing out that these women are savvier than they let on and have a well-considered agenda, but playing the system for mass appeal does have negative effects, one of which–as highlighted here–is gender stereotyping. Given the immense positions of power these ladies find themselves in, it is a shame they’re resorting to these ways of engaging with future generations, for whom they serve as role models.

    ketaki: At no point did this piece say that women do not occupy positions of power. It was a critique of the ways some women–specifically, the two mentioned above–harness that power. Loved your pun on “tough cookies”, by the way. 🙂

    Gulshan: Patriarchy exists globally. The Western hemisphere is hardly exempt. And I disagree about the women not being able to “rebel”. It shows them in an even poorer light if they can’t portray themselves as using their god-given brains.

  • Ketaki

    Dilnavaz, I completely agree with you and I see this supportive role that many wives and daughters play in Indian politics too.
    What is also annoying is that men who aspire to be in politics one day also expect ‘supportive’ wives.
    On the other hand, what makes this patriarchal power more obvious is the lack of husbands boosting their wives in power. Do we hear about husbands of women in power telling the press about how wonderful it was to date her? All we hear in that case is how the woman in power fails in certain circumstances to hold a ‘family’ together: she cannot manage her children, she does not give them time. Where are the supportive husbands then?

  • Dilnavaz Bamboat

    Ketaki: In answer to your question “Where are the supportive husbands then?”, I have to say “Typically six feet under.” 😉 Nearly all women political leaders in South Asia rose to power to step into the shoes of their fathers or spouses. Think Sonia Gandhi, Benazir Bhutto, Indira Gandhi, Menaka Gandhi, Jayalalitha, Sirimavo Bandaranaike.

  • Sorab

    You forgot Brinda Karat as an example. Of course we also have Mayawati who has made it mostly on her own and Sushma Swaraj (I wish she hadn’t made it). One example of a supportive husband for Ketaki is Dennis Thatcher :). Typical no the most regressive of the lot gets the supportive husband

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