There’s a moment in John H. Richardson’s August 2010 Esquire profile of Newt Gingrich in which a former wife of the political comeback artist and serial adulterer is described as having “shockingly little bitterness.” Later, the author is more explicit: Marianne Gingrich is “not angry at all.”
Richardson, of course, is talking about the dramatic and humiliating end to Marianne’s marriage of 18 years, the details of which were resurrected during a brief media tour last week, just as her ex-husband was surging in the polls.
Marianne Gingrich’s media appearances seemed calculated to deliver a devastating, if not entirely fatal blow to her ex-husband. (They didn’t have much of an effect: The former House speaker went on to win the South Carolina primary and is, of this writing, hot on Mitt Romney’s tail in Florida.)
They also felt strange and dissonant, at odds with her professed equanimity toward her ex. I have a hard time believing that a woman who devoted herself to the care and feeding of an ambitious, raging megalomaniac for close to two decades only to be cast aside for a younger, blonder model— a few months after a devastating diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, no less — would not be “angry at all.”
No doubt Marianne Gingrich is a more forgiving, pious woman than I. But it’s also likely that she’s keenly aware that female anger simply doesn’t sell, that it is regularly used to discredit and dismiss serious and real frustrations by women. In the myriad of personal and professional ways females have achieved parity with men over the decades, freedom of expression is not one of them.
The issue of female anger, and the learned, delicate dance of communicating dissatisfaction while not coming off as a bitter complainer, has been on my mind ever since the Jan. 10 publication of “The Obamas.” Despite its title, New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor’s much-discussed and ultimately disappointing book is less a sweeping portrait of a high-profile modern marriage than a pixelated snapshot of one member of that marriage: first lady Michelle Obama.
Many, myself included, found Kantor’s characterization of the first lady frustrating. Michelle Obama is often presented as a reactive, not active, participant — in her marriage and in the White House. To be fair, the limitations of the office have a lot to do with this. (As columnist Kathleen Parker pointed out on Jan. 13, if the first lady gets frustrated from time to time, who can blame her?) But Kantor’s repetition of Obama’s alleged resentments gives one the sense that the first lady is in a state of perpetual annoyance. Salon’s Joan Walsh described the book as “problematizing” Michelle. CNN’s Soledad O’Brien charged Kantor with portraying Michelle’s stint as 45th FLOTUS as “akin to being stuck on a chain gang.” The day of the book’s publication, Michelle Obama was prompted to respond to its characterizations in an interview with “CBS This Morning’s” Gayle King, explaining that rumors of interpersonal dramas and dissatisfaction were greatly exaggerated, and that “people have tried to paint [a picture] of me since the day Barack announced, that I’m some angry black woman.”
Although Kantor denies that she depicted the first lady as an angry black woman, her assertion that there’s no suggestion of animus in the book rings a bit hollow. It conveniently ignores societal taboos against expressions of female frustration or rage, and the fact that the range of acceptable female emotions does not include animosity or enmity. It also skirts, perhaps inadvertently, real stereotypes about black women, what Tulane professor and MSNBC contributor Melissa V. Harris-Perry, in her new book, “Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America,” calls “the myth of black women’s emasculating anger.”
“This stereotype does not acknowledge black women’s anger as a legitimate reaction to unequal circumstances,” writes Harris-Perry, adding that this falsehood nonetheless leads many black women to “feel pressured to calibrate their directness and assertiveness . . . to make the men in their lives comfortable with and confident in their manhood.” (According to Kantor, Michelle’s husband is so intimidated by her potential disapproval that he enlists his advisers to pass on bad news to her.)
The fear and dismissal of female anger along both gender and racial lines, has roots that go deep — “It is better to dwell in the wilderness than with a contentious and angry woman,” alleges Proverbs 21:19. (Studies suggest that, unlike men, women who express anger or lose their tempers in the workplace are seen as less competent and therefore less valued.) Females learn to curb their hostilities from a young age, and when female aggression is deployed, it has to be tiptoed around, gussied up with a shiny coat of lip gloss, an updo and a wink or, as evidenced in many a junior high school hallway, communicated passively, along back channels and in whispers.
What is all the more infuriating about such prohibitions are the breathtaking hypocrisies they contain. Sometimes it seems that those most likely to mock anger as a means of dismissing and silencing legitimate female claims of dissatisfaction are those most likely to utilize the politics of resentment and victimization for personal or ideological gain.
Take Newt Gingrich. On Jan. 19, the same day that this newspaper published an interview with Marianne Gingrich reiterating the trajectory of her marriage, the Republican presidential candidate enlisted an adviser to undermine his ex-wife by describing her as “probably very bitter.” Later that evening, when Gingrich was asked about the allegations at a debate moderated by CNN’s John King, he refused to entertain or engage the issue.
It was stunning: Instead of graciously acknowledging that the split with Marianne had been difficult or painful, instead of expressing regrets about the role he played in it or allowing that his version of events differed from that of his ex-wife, he all but called Marianne a liar and launched into a self-righteous tirade about his own victimization at the hands of the mainstream media. The assembled South Carolinian crowd ate it up.
That the first lady of the United States felt compelled to defend supposedly unflattering characterizations is unfortunate but not entirely discouraging. The CBS interview is the first time Michelle Obama has made explicit, public reference to accusations of ungratefulness and unhappiness, often racially based, that have dogged her for years. The best defense, after all, is a good offense. As writer Litsa Dremousis asserted in “I’m Mad at You Because You’re an Idiot, Not Because I’m a Woman,” a recent and highly trafficked post on the women’s Web site Jezebel, it’s “time for more men to understand our behavior isn’t aberrant, and for more women not to feel ‘guilty’ for not staying in the narrow range of traditionally accepted emotional responses.” (Full disclosure: I used to edit the site.)
On Tuesday, Elizabeth Warren did just that. The Senate candidate and Harvard professor, appearing on “The Daily Show” to discuss the state of the American economy, didn’t skip a beat after her ire over corporate lobbying in Washington was called into question by host Jon Stewart. “For a second, it does seem like you’re a little mad at me,” interjected Stewart, leaning away in apparent discomfort with the zeal on display.
Warren responded by tilting her head to the side — as if to say, “I’ve heard that one before” — then delved into an animated discussion of Chinese vs. American infrastructure.
Stewart didn’t interrupt her that way again.