Michelle Obama and Ann Romney have been wooing the American public, particularly American women, visions of their respective husbands straight out of the 1950s. These are men, their wives are saying, who are tough in the world and soft at home. Loving and fearless providers and protectors. If the media and public response is any indication, we’re lapping it up. Why are we so sucked in? What makes us so vulnerable at the moment to the vision they’re both painting of the good man?
I have to admit that I fell in love with Michelle Obama a long time ago. I couldn’t help it. That big sexy brain, deep articulate sincerity and the best arms of any first lady ever. I was a goner from the start. Ann Romney, not so much. When Ann asked the Republican convention "Do we send our kids out into the world saying ‘Just try to do ok’?", the crowd roared "No!" and I thought quietly that I’m sure I’ve sent my kid out the door with those exact same words. Obviously I’ve set the bar too low to be a Republican.
Watch the first lady speeches if you haven’t yet. They’re fascinating. And as much noise as we’ve made about them being different (Michelle’s is better — no contest, Twitter says so) both women are doing something very similar. Both women are talking about their husbands the way so-called upstanding men used to talk about their wives. What the first ladies are showing us is that women have become the new good men.
With women still doing substantially more work than men both at traditional workplaces and in the home it’s no surprise that in the speech battle of the first ladies a great deal of time is spent filling the void many heterosexual women feel in the space where the idea of a good man used to be. It’s as if many women have missed that they have now become the fathers they always longed for.
The good men both women are touting are men with ideals from the past, when we had clear ideas of what it meant to be a man. When men were meant to work hard and to support their families. Now of course we know that men work less than women, earn more than women and are significantly better off financially than women, particularly following separation.
At a time when many women are stretched to breaking point, and everyone is working more, the appeal of a good husband and father is incalculable. When we’ve given up on working less, romance is our only solace. First ladies used to talk of their husbands as strong and fearless. Now we’re being told of their humanity, compassion, of their goodness and integrity. Now we’re being told about love. That they love their children and their wives, and that their wives love them fiercely in return.
These are speeches about what we’re missing. They’re speeches designed to appeal to what we desire and what we lack. Listen to Michelle talk about Barack and I dare you not to want some of what she says she has. Love, loyalty and a depth of trust in her partner that many of us would envy. Who doesn’t want to love and be loved like that? It’s enticing, arguably truthful and a wonderful foil for the fraught role of President of the United States.
Early in Michelle Obama’s speech, she tells us that for her husband, his commitment is personal rather than political. We’re meant to be reassured by this that he’s not part of the machine of government. That he’s not a political animal, he’s a real man with strong personal values. This reversal of the feminist slogan that the personal is political distracts us from the military industrial complex. Both women are running a show that looks real but that ultimately distracts us from the wheels of industry. Both ask us to keep working hard. Just get up and keep working like our mothers and fathers did before us. Like the 1970’s bumper sticker, we’re being asked to get in, sit down, shut up and hang on.
What this reversal of the personal is political does is to push our collective emotional buttons. Hard. An upstanding dad does make all the difference when you’re a kid, and many children are without one. A good partner makes life far easier and happier than a bad one and many are lacking in that department too. It’s not such a stretch to imagine that a good man in the white house will change the lives of the American people.
We want to believe that you can fix the present by addressing the wrongs of the past. Watch the tears in the audience as Michelle Obama speaks. They come as she talks of being left out, shut out and abandoned. They come as she promises that this will never happen again. She promises in some way to be the mother we never had. She promises that Barack will be the father we always deserved. Heady stuff.
This is what we wanted our mums and dads to do. We wanted them to help us navigate the scary machine of the world. We wanted protection, love and commitment. We wanted them to be truthful, upstanding and loyal. We wanted a dad like Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. And we especially wanted to know that when we came head to head with discrimination or cruelty, that our mums and dads had no part in it. Both women are promising us just that. And if we’re not careful, we’ll buy it.
ABOUT THERAPY FOR NEWS JUNKIES: Why does the news make the news? Why do certain stories gain such traction? Therapy For News Junkies is a regular NM column which looks at why audiences react so vehemently to particular issues. Zoe Krupka is a psychotherapist who uses her knowledge about how we react as individuals to better understand collective responses to the events of the day.
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