I was channel surfing last night and saw a familiar-looking room getting decorated for the holidays. I paused and realized where it was — First Lady Laura Bush appeared on screen looking perfectly coiffed and dainty, hands folded demurely in her lap.
Ah. Yes. The Lady’s House.
I had found HGTV’s special on the decorating of the White House for the holidays, an apparently immense affair that filled Laura will no small amount of joy, this being a chief first lady duty this time of year.
And it got me to thinking about what a perfect first lady Laura Bush is. She’s just got it all down: stay in the background, push appropriately lady-like programs like the education of the young (yes, there’s a devaluation of “women’s work” – note our American incompetence when it comes to education). Give substanceless but uplifting speeches about women being able to vote in Afghanistan. Smile. Wear heels and knee-length skirts. Never, under any circumstances, raise your voice. Host tea parties.
She’s a brilliant woman, I’ve gotta give her her props. You won’t find Laura heading a committee on healthcare reform and getting lambested the way Hillary was. You won’t find her raising her voice like Hillary. And you sure as hell won’t ever hear her tell somebody to “shove it” like the admirable Teresa Heinz Kerry.
So what’s wrong with this image of the first lady as cookie-baker and White House decorator? What’s wrong with the image of Laura in her proper wifely role as nurturer and house-beautifier? After all, Martha Stewart made an entire industry of her own out of it.
I was watching Laura Bush smiling warmly and speaking about all of the Christmas displays, the “vingettes,” and coyly implying how clever she was to put the vingette of “I saw mommy kissing Santa Claus” underneath the portrait of former first lady Barbara Bush, and I thought, “This is all fake.”
All of it? No, of course not. But it’s fake in the way it matters. That house has been full of ballsy women, from Eleanor Roosevelt to the amazing Abigail Adams, to Nancy Reagan (who ruled the White House for better or worse), to Hillary “I don’t bake cookies” Clinton. And I just don’t buy that all of them are real keen on giving teas. Hilary was the first one to actually say so. Laura, though, Laura knows her place. She knows the part she has to play, she knows *she* wasn’t elected, just her husband, and she’s happy to play the lady and be America’s wifely role model.
But you know, I believe in the power of images. Seeing Laura give her little speech about the holiday decorations, I wondered what else she would rather be doing than supervising the decorating of the White House, which is likely down to a science by now and doesn’t really need her to direct it anyway. I know that if I was First Lady (oh, let’s be realistic – I’d be president before I’d be first lady), I’d have other stuff to do around the holidays than talk to HGTV about what a perfect homemaker I was, but I’d have to tow that line, I’d have to mince around and hold a bunch of White House teas, cause that’s what First Ladies do, and if I didn’t do them, then I’d be the antichrist, like Hillary Clinton.
You know who I wanted to march around playing First Lady in the White House? Teresa Heinz Kerry. I liked her better than her husband. Teresa’s the sort of woman I’d love to go out and get drunk with. She’d be table dancing by 2am, and we’d flirt with outrageously younger men and do tequila shots and fall out of our limos onto the sidewalks in front of our respective houses sometime around 5am, and wake up the next morning with hazy snatches of memory that included the smeared visage of some hot guy named Enrique. I wouldn’t be able to find my shoes, I’d have some bruises from falling off the table, and I’d call up Teresa sometime that afternoon and ask when we were going out to party again.
And she wouldn’t say something like, “I have to decorate the White House today, sorry.” She’d say something like, “I’d love to, but we’re planning on passing a universal health care bill today, and I need to be on the floor. Also, I’m flying off to Zimbabwe with the Secretary of State to talk about election reform.”
I’d turn on C-Span, and there she’d be, ushering in a universal health care bill before flying off to Zimbabwe while I was still nursing my hangover. She’d be wearing a sensible pair of pants and a floppy hat and good shoes. Maybe she’d say something in French just before she left, to really piss people off.
Images are powerful things. Halle Berry knew this, which was among the many reasons she broke into such hysterics when she was the first black woman to win an academy award for best actress. Sure, you know, rationally, that this is a possiblity: you know that there’s no *legal* reason a black woman can’t win, but you’ve never actually seen it done. And it was a huge deal for her to show black women: See. Look at me. It can be done.
And when I look at the images of First Ladies that they feed to us – however truthful or not they are – I think, nobody realizes how different it could be. Everybody sees these women sipping their tea and pretends not to notice how important they really are, the power they may have, because we have to hide behind all these feminine accoutrements that make people think that this is the only way women can be. And we think that because we haven’t seen anything else. All we know is First Lady tea parties and holiday decorating tips, and because such women’s work has been so derided, we look at these First Ladies and assume that this is it: this is the pinnacle of womanhood, and no, really, see, she doesn’t have any power! She bakes cookies, for goodness sake! As if baking cookies eclipses the fact that she’s got the ear (and a lot more) of the President.
And it pisses me off. Everybody knows that she’s got to be an image, a symbol, and it’s gotta be played the happy hetero-Christian patriarchy way.
I wish people would have left Hillary alone. I wish they’d just let First Ladies be powerful. Not behind the scenes, but right there, in your face.
If they’re powerful, let them be powerful.
I want an anti-First Lady.