Sunday, March 21, 2004

On First Ladies

This story was to be about the First Lady, Laura Bush, but I have a congenital loathing of the job of First Ladies, so I'm going to write about the job instead. First Ladies have a job which nobody acknowledges to be a job. They are judged on the performance of this job which isn't supposed to be one, and the criteria for judging them are not objectively determined, but whatever the observer happens to see as criteria. Moreover, they are not really judged as First Ladies, but as Archetypal Wives.

And being an Archetypal Wife is pure hell, as nobody agrees with her exact qualifications. She should be demure, sure, but she should also have the right opinions to support her husband. She shouldn't compete, no, but she shouldn't be a ninny either. She should walk exactly three steps behind her husband, yet make it seem as if she's walking by his side.
And under no circumstances can she have interests other than those that are deemed proper for the Mother and Wife. For example, physicians who don't quit their jobs to join their husbands election campaigns are never to be entered into the caste of Archetypal Wives. A good Archetypal Wife drops everything when her husband calls for her, whether it's laundry or patients that gets dropped.

Hillary Clinton, in a perverse fashion, served as an excellent Archetypal Wife. For many in the United States she was the Evil Wife: the woman who is quite possibly smarter and more energetic than her husband, the woman who will not shut up. She was used as a target for all those murky, half-perceived fears and rages that independent women still provoke in many men and women; as a societal scapegoat for the wrongs of feminism, or what its opponents see as wrongs.

Only her humiliation in the face of her husband's philandering saved her from being the Archetypal Witch. This humiliation struck a cord in many Americans, something that they recognized. Now Hillary could be reclassified: she was clearly the Long-Suffering Victim Wife, the woman who silently endures all for the sake of family cohesion. This was something familiar, something that many churches had supported for centuries. Not all observers switched their views on Hillary, of course, so that media comments about her later in Bill Clinton's presidency came across as if they were describing two quite different women. Of course they were really describing two different archetypes, neither of which is the real Hillary.

Even Barbara Bush, the comfy-looking silver-haired grandmother, suffered from not fitting an Archetype precisely enough for the audience. The one that was fitted for her first was the Gentle Granny archetype: the benevolent matriarch of a vast family. When it turned out that she was quite strong-willed and politically astute, her archetype had to change for some; now she was the Old Bitch.

Nancy Reagan was fitted into the Adoring Wife mold, though Reagan's political opponents also saw her as an example of the Wasteful Wife, the woman who will drive her poor husband to bankruptcy. I think that Nancy was one of those First Ladies who actually understood all about the Archetypes, and she played hers to the hilt, having been an actress. Thus she also earned the Treacherous Wife archetype.

And what about Laura Bush, then? What archetype would we like to have now? Hers is an easy one: she is the Good Wife to counterbalance Hillary Clinton's Evil Wife. She will never embarrass George in public debates, never disagree with him openly, never show him up as a loser. She lives for George.

Or that's how the archetypists would have her. Or perhaps as a Stepford Wife, if the archetypists don't like George's politics, a cold unfeeling woman all surface and no soul. What she's really like doesn't much matter in this game. Still, a recent article in the Chicago Tribune shows that Laura thinks her stereotyping should be changed. She's not really a homebody. In fact, she doesn't even bake cookies. And she even has political opinions different from those George holds so dear. However, she won't tell us what these differences might be.

Laura's attempts to change her public image will not be successful, simply because the Archetypal Wife is not allowed to define herself. That's against the rules.

It would be a lot easier if every male candidate for the presidency was equipped with a human-sized mechanized Barbie doll for a wife, and the real wife could stay at home and go on with her life. The doll could be given any archetypal qualities that are in fashion, and she could be programmed to say only approved things. Her body would always be perfect, and if body-fashions changed she could be recast. So much easier for everybody. Besides, Mattel could then launch a new series of First Lady Barbies for little girls: The Archetypal Wives.