Did anyone else catch the witty banter between Steve Croft and Barack Obama a few weeks back in the “60 Minutes” interview in which Croft asked Obama about his mother-in-law moving with the family to the White House?:
Kroft: There’s been a lot of talk about [that] you talked about your mother-in-law. Is she moving in with you?
Mr. Obama: Well, I don’t tell my mother-in-law what to do. But I’m not stupid. That’s why I got elected president, man.
Kroft: She can if she wants to.
Mr. Obama: But, she sure can if she wants. I think it’s fair to say that Marian Robinson is one of the unsung heroes of this campaign. We couldn’t have done it without her. ‘Cause she retired, looked after the girls, gave Michelle confidence that somebody was gonna be there when Michelle was on the road.
She’s just been an unbelievable support for all of us during this process. And you know, she likes her own space, you know. She doesn’t like a lot of fuss around her. And, like it or not, there’s some fuss in the White House. But we hope that she comes.
Kroft: So you have a new dog and your mother-in-law moving in.
Mr. Obama: Steve, I’m not gonna compare my mother-in-law to a new dog.
Kroft: You’re much more excited about your mother-in-law
Mr. Obama: How do you get in long with your mother-in-law man? You know, the way these questions are going I think I need to give you some tips.
Mother-in-law jokes are the consistent butt of male humor in patriarchal cultures. Say the words “mother-in-law” around men and what’s supposed to come to mind are things like “interfering critic,” “meddling thorn in the side,” and “sexless battle-axe.”
There is a lot of talk about the fact that the Obamas are taking Marian Robinson, Michelle’s 71 year old mother, with them to the White House as part of the First Family. The First Grandmother is her new title. It makes you wonder why everyone seems to find this strange. Have grandparents become that obsolete or insignificant to family life that no one can imagine why a couple would take a grandparent along with them in a move to a new city and new job? For many working families, grandparents are an integral part of a family’s childcare support system. In a study done back in 2000, childcare experts found an estimated 2.4 million grandparents are taking care of their grandchildren full-time, a 55 percent increase since 1990. I bet the Obamas were prepared to beg Mrs. Robinson to come along with them to the White House, if it came down to that.
I’ve been reading a book lately on comedy and social difference that’s titled, Because I Tell A Joke or Two: Comedy, Politics and Social Difference. One of the writers explains why mothers-in-law are such complicated figures in our society and make great fodder for male comedians:
The question that needs to be asked is why is the wife’s mother (and significantly not his mother) such a potent figure for comic caricature?There are a number of possible interpretations for this. The wife’s mother is often a lone surviving matriarch, having outlived her spouse to become, in a male defined cosmic universe, a frustrated old battle-axe. As an older woman whose domestic and sexual functions of childbearing and servicing male desire have long since ended, she has a lowly status in patriarchy. In search of a new role for herself as a lone, older woman, she is often coded as ‘interfering.” But domestic necessity often dictates her continued, if antagonistic, relationship to the husband.
In a society where a woman’s worth is tied to her body, its ability to arouse desire and to breed babies, women over, say, 50 are expected to step aside and recede into obscurity. Older women whether mothers or not traditionally are considered superfluous to the patriarchal household. Until they are needed to shore up the patriarchal agenda. As we witnessed in this past Election in which we saw John McCain trot out his 96 year old mother, Roberta McCain, to prove that longevity runs in his family and Obama bring up his maternal grandmother “Toot” who in his now famous race speech is proof of Obama’s, shall we say, white, hardworking, bigoted, working-class roots.
As is the case with so many of my blog articles, I start off writing about one thing but half-way through find myself writing about something else. The something else is the what’s really on my mind. In this case, it’s our society’s insistence upon rendering older woman invisible, useless, and superfluous.
Perhaps you’ve noticed: after age 30 women start disappearing from television. Being a woman compounds the discrimination already heaped upon older people in electronic media. The few older women characters on TV tend to be peripheral (not a main character) and are characterized as past the most useful and important stages of life. They serve not as heroes and leaders; the women are primarily in comic relief and victim roles One of the few exceptions to this on tv for a long time was the sitcom Golden Girls. I recall the various photos of 60 year old Hillary Clinton that bloggers and others in the media used to lampoon and decry her candidacy. Photographers were kinder to John McCain who in his 70s looks old as dirt. Leave it to conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh to sum up the misogynist point of view. After observing that “aging makes men look more authoritative, accomplished and distinguished,” Limbaugh registered his distaste about the prospect of having to watch Clinton shrivel up in the White House. “Will America want to watch a woman get older before their eyes on a daily basis?” he asked. The fundamental point of democracy and the reason ours exists is about representation. But the fact is that we live in a society that penalizes older women for outliving their sexual use by men even though women over 50 represent a significantly large demographic block in this country,.
Evidently Barack Obama likes his mother-in-law and appreciates the strength and stability she brings to the family. He talks in the “60 Minutes” interview about sitting next to her on the couch on election night and holding hands, wondering as the election returns were coming in what must have been going through her mind as a black woman of her generation who grew up on the South Side of Chicago. What was a black woman of Marian Robinson’s generation thinking as she sat watching a black man elected President of the United State. Her son-in-law, no less! Obama’s comments about his mother-in-law showed a lot of insight and sensitivity on his part. Marian Robinson, a former secretary — widowed in 1991, retired last year — was the primary caregiver for Malia and Sasha when their parents were on the campaign trail and will help provide stability, intimacy, and sanity to the children and entire family as they transition to a new city, a hectic schedule, and the presidential spotlight.
Barack and Michelle Obama are lucky to have Michelle’s mom around and are lucky to be able to convince the matriarch of the family to give up her life in Chicago and move with them across country to start a new life filled with political intrigue and wild emotional swings. Where the Obama’s are going they’re gonna need the strength, stability, and groundedness of a matriarch to help steer them emotionally and spiritually. There are some things that only come with age. Experience is one of them. Wisdom is another. But getting a prayer through to God– now that’s something only matriarchs, old women in the family, can do best.