Spit out your coffee at breakfast much? The headline on Kathleen Parker's Washington Post
column on Wednesday is at least worth a double take: "Obama: Our first female president."
She judges the president's communication style as passive, conciliatory -- displaying "tropes of femaleness" -- not at all what Americans want in a commander-in-chief.
Agree or not, I usually appreciate the Pulitzer winner's particular take on things. She is an individual. So it surprised me how much she reverts to conventional thinking on gender and race roles in her essay.
Americans prefer assertive, tough, manly men, she asserts, sort of like George Bush on the deck of a ship, in flight suit, with a "Mission Accomplished" sign as a backdrop. Back in 2003, Parker called Bush "a stud muffin no matter what his other flaws, arriving on a testosterone bullet."
And we know how that turned out.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal
, former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and his buddies certainly let the guy chat flow in a Rolling Stone profile. It was all there save the towel-snapping.
And we know how that turned out.
I bristle at stereotypes, even when proffered by someone I admire. An honor of my life was introducing Toni Morrison
at a book festival. But why oh why did she ever say, even as a casual aside, that Bill Clinton was our first black president? (He wasn't, by the way.) The characteristics she offered -- "single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald's-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas" -- would mean a lot of black people I know, me included, have been living a lie (except, in my case, for the growing up working-class part). I grit my teeth while Parker references Morrison, of course, to make her own point.
In the same way, the model of woman as the nurturing consensus-builder, as opposed to the take-charge, orders-barking Alpha male, is a straitjacket, limiting to women and men. It was already a joke when Bruce Feirstein's silly and self-aware "Real Men Don't Eat Quiche" became a best-seller in 1982.
It's also insulting, though Parker insists that her premise is merely descriptive, made "in the nicest possible way." So, if a woman prefers changing a tire to baking a pie, she's a guy, and she better get used to it.
I wonder where the first lady lands in Parker's equation. Possibly in the middle of another stereotype; black women are strong, haven't you heard, and we crush our poor men in our smothering maternal embrace. (If you met my husband, you'd know what a joke that is.)
Parker doesn't think that the president's reaction to the BP oil spill was commanding enough. Then say that. Criticizing the president for policy or demeanor or anything else is fine. But emasculating him based on worn-out stereotypes is depressing. If he isn't the angry black man he must be a gentle white woman. We are all prisoners of what others have decided we must be. Might as well give our little boys trucks and our little girls dolls and forget about it.
Maybe we haven't come that far since Adam and Eve and are doomed to be categorized whether we like it or not. "Our enlightened human selves may want to eliminate gender norms, but our lizard brains have a different agenda," Parker writes. Ask Elena Kagan, who had to endure ridiculous speculation that had little to do with the law.
Despite the occasional setback, though, I somehow think we're better than that.