Tuesday, November 30, 2021

First Ladies Get No Respect

Well, evidently Jill Biden is a failure, at least according to about 50% of the folks online: her Christmas decorations are boring and ordinary. Her holiday decorating skills pale in comparison to Melania Trump, whose Christmas decorations were elegant and beautiful. Or not. According to about 50% of the folks online, Melania's Christmas decorations were gawdy and ostentatious. "Tacky," said one critic.

I'm Jewish and I don't much care about Christmas decorations, but as a media historian, I do care about what is written or said about First Ladies. And even though it's 2021, it certainly seems like we still hold First Ladies to an impossible standard. People criticize what they wear. People criticize the charities they favor. And if they make a comment about current events, people criticize their opinion-- or say they should keep it to themselves.    

None of this is new, of course. Back in the 1860s, Mary Todd Lincoln was accused by critics of being greedy and selfish, someone who cared more about spending money than setting a good example for thrift and prudence.  As popular as Eleanor Roosevelt was in the 1930s, she had detractors who accused her of trying to get too much attention from the press, rather than staying in the background.  Fast-forward to the 1980s, and accusations of being a big spender were often made about Nancy Reagan (who was also mocked for her belief in astrology). And when Hillary Clinton was First Lady in the 1990s, her critics said she wasn't ladylike, and they accused her of being pushy, manipulative, and dishonest.  

And I notice that Kamala Harris, our first female Vice President, is being subjected to the same kinds of critiques on social media as First Ladies often receive.  She was recently criticized for buying an expensive cooking pot (the same brand, I might add, that I bought a few years ago-- it does a wonderful job). I truly don't recall male vice presidents getting their purchases critiqued. Does anyone know what Mike Pence bought? Did anyone care?  

On the one hand, we have made some progress-- Dr. Jill Biden (who has also been criticized for wanting to use "Dr.," her professional title) is the first First Lady to hold down a paying job in addition to being First Lady. I'm fine about First Ladies working for pay-- there were many in years past who had excellent credentials but were never allowed to choose whether to work or not. The fact that Mrs. Biden still teaches at a community college is not as controversial it might have been as recently as a decade ago.  

And yet, some folks insist on having a debate over whose Christmas decorations are best, and I wonder why that's even a thing worth discussing. Frankly, I don't think it is. Nor do I think comparing which First Lady is "more glamorous" is useful.  I think these social media discussions are simply a proxy for whether some folks prefer Joe Biden or Donald Trump. 

As for me, I just want to see First Ladies get some respect. Theirs is not an easy job: they get all the scrutiny and criticism, yet they aren't elected, they don't make policy, and their own popularity is often tied to their husband's. In this holiday season, I don't care if Melania or Jill or whoever else wears nicer clothes or hangs up nicer decorations. I just want to see people take a break from sniping and criticizing, and focus on helping others and being kind. Historically, First Ladies haven't always been treated with kindness. Maybe this year is a good time to start.

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