Let's pause for a moment to reflect on this past week in American Womanhood.
All over this great nation of ours, legislators are hard at work giving a clump of sub-microscopic cells that may or may not ever develop into a baby the same legal rights as a full human being, thus reducing women of childbearing age to the status of incubators.
Politicians are arguing that women shouldn't mind being forced by the state into having medically unnecessary transvaginal ultrasounds because they didn't mind having something stuck "up there" to get pregnant or have an abortion, or that women shouldn't have amniocentesis because they might abort a baby of they learn it can't have a full or healthy life.
Meanwhile, one commentator holds forth on how women in the military should just expect to be raped by their fellow soldiers and suck it up (so to speak), while others argue that women can't be allowed into combat positions because these same male counterparts that are raping them at a prodigious rates will suddenly go all Sir Lancelot on the battlefield and get themselves killed trying to protect us dainty damsels.
In this environment, it's not too difficult to rub the frayed nerves of gyno-Americans the wrong way. Presidential historian Douglas Brinkley managed to do it with just two words:
This was how he defined Jodi Kantor's "The Obamas" in the New York Times Book Review this weekend. "Call it chick nonfiction, if you will; this book is not about politics, it’s about marriage, or at least one marriage, and a notably successful one at that." The phrase touched off a mini Twitter-storm yesterday that seems likely to continue into the week.
Much of the criticism of Brinkley's critique has so far focused on the perceived diminishment of Jodi Kantor. While he says her style is "fortunately...more Sally Bedell Smith than Kitty Kelley," he also describes the 36-year old journalist as a "reportorial wunderkind" with the "gumption" to get the dirt on the First Couple -- framing her as a kind of erstatz Lois Lane who weaves together "strange gossipy moments that hardly hold up as serious journalism, but provide insight nonetheless."
“Recognizing that most books on the Obama White House have largely been about policy, she sensed an opening,” he writes. The result? “Mostly, she illuminates, in breezy prose, how the first lady sets the tone and tempo of the current White House. Kantor’s admiring portrait of Mrs. Obama, a hug really, shows a marvelous mother, an acerbic political strategist and a strong-willed spouse.”
“My suspicion is that if a male reporter had written a detailed, well-researched, revealing book about the First Marriage, it would have been praised as a serious work of journalism," novelist Jennifer Weiner sums it up to Marc Tracy at Tablet Magazine. "However, when the old, pernicious double standards still apply, if it’s a lady doing the investigation, the personal can never be political … it can only be gossip, and the writer, however skilled a reporter, is still merely a chick.”
Brinkley’s submerged “eww…girls are icky” attitude towards “chick nonfiction,” of course, colors his reading of the book itself. As far as he's concerned, there's no there there. Only other women, he seems to believe, would want to read a book about something as trivial as a presidential marriage.
Putting aside that women buy more books than men do, by a ratio of almost three to one, one can imagine other audiences. A presidential historian, for example.
While Kantor may be writing towards a general audience, “The Obamas” is prime first-draft-of-history stuff. However “breezy” or huggy the tone, the subject is dead serious.
Michelle Obama was never a typical political spouse; she was a thoroughly modern career woman. Then her husband decided to run for president and she was suddenly the political spouse, forced to abandon her career for a role in which she had no training and little guidance. A passionate, smart woman with substantive ideas on how to tackle any number of tricky political issues, that side of her has been edited out of her public image, while outsized importance has been given to what she wears and how she looks. More than mere biography, Kantor’s portrait of Mrs. Obama illustrates both how far women have come and how hidebound the attitudes towards us remain.
Modern First Ladies are showing themselves to be powerful political players, one of a select few who live inside the increasingly tight bubble around presidents in our security-obsessed eras. (Even Laura Bush, as passive a presidential spouse as we’ve seen in decades, was able to push policy in as critical an area as Afghanistan.) They have their own power base, their own approval ratings, and they can bestow their favor on other politicians at their discretion.
Someday, historians will have to look at this evolving role of presidential wives on the structure of the presidency. Hopefully, they'll do a better job than Doug Brinkley has done here.