Sunday, October 13, 2013

Matt Walsh's Angel in the House

Matt Walsh is a conservative blogger and radio host. He has a strong readership. I've talked about him before. He wrote a letter to his son in the wake of the Miley Cyrus-Robin Thicke VMA show, which assumed his son would be heterosexual, find one woman, marry her, and worship her forever.
I wrote:
Victorian scholars write about the "Angel in the House," the idea of the perfect woman which Victorian male writers held up as ideal, but which feminist critics later ripped apart (famously here, by Woolf, in 1931). And so I return to Walsh's widely-read letter:
1. His view of women renders them as angels - passive objects to be venerated and protected. 2. His view of masculinity depends on having women-objects to protect.
Disclaimer - I know Walsh is trying to do a good job as a parent here and is teaching his son to be a good man. I say, Walsh is teaching his son to be a patriarch - not a slut-shaming patriarch, not a woman-demeaning patriarch, but a patriarch none-the-less. He writes about respecting women, but he's just telling, not showing. What he shows is objectification.What follows may come off as hostile. I know Walsh's heart is in the right place. But I also think our blind spots need to be illuminated, sometimes (not that I expect him to read this post).
I also don't expect him to read this post. I'm actually no longer so sure his heart is in the right place.

Walsh's blog is filled with varying kinds of stories: How dads are incompetent at dealing with poop, how Obama is a petty dictator, and often about his wife. I don't read him regularly, but a friend pointed out this latest post on Stay At Home Moms called - "What do you DO all day?"

In it, he positions the SaHM as a position under attack by society, a move often taken by the American Right: American Christians? Under attack. White people? Under attack. Masculinity? Under attack. Rich people? Under attack. Christmas? Under attack. Mothers? Under Attack. Apple pie? DO NOT MESS WITH MY PIE.

At any rate, it's a useful rhetorical move, because from a position of defense, you can counter-attack. In reality, though, what White, male, right-wing, pie-making Christians are defining as victim-hood is really a tiny chink in the crack of over-arching privilege. It's not fun to lose privilege. It's easy to mistake a loss of privilege as turning you into a victim. But the people with the most power in our society are not, in fact, victims.

In this blog, Walsh describes two conversations in which he felt his wife's decision to stay home was demeaned by other women, and then decides to "kick our backwards, materialistic society in the shins and say, “GET YOUR FREAKING HEAD ON STRAIGHT, SOCIETY.” He writes:
 The people who completely immerse themselves in the tiring, thankless, profoundly important job of raising children ought to be put on a pedestal. We ought to revere them and admire them like we admire rocket scientists and war heroes. These women are doing something beautiful and complicated and challenging and terrifying and painful and joyous and essential. Whatever they are doing, they ARE doing something, and our civilization DEPENDS on them doing it well. Who else can say such a thing? What other job carries with it such consequences?
No one, in fact, should be put on a pedestal. Everyone should be able to make meaningful choices about how to organize their lives. And Walsh acknowledges that some women can't make those choices. What he doesn't acknowledge is the shifting nature of the wage-based economy in which even most white-collar wages cannot singly support a family in the current economy, mandating both partners work. In fact, I'm not convinced he really understands the link between work and identity for many people (or is being disingenuous):
It’s true — being a mom isn’t a “job.” A job is something you do for part of the day and then stop doing. You get a paycheck. You have unions and benefits and break rooms. I’ve had many jobs; it’s nothing spectacular or mystical. I don’t quite understand why we’ve elevated “the workforce” to this hallowed status. Where do we get our idea of it? The Communist Manifesto?
He has not, I think, read the Communist Manifesto. But I'm much more struck by the way he praises the mother. I've pulled out some hyperbolic quotes from their context to list them one after another below:
If your mother quit her role as mother, entire lives would be turned upside down; society would suffer greatly. The ripples of that tragedy would be felt for generations. If she quit her job as a computer analyst, she’d be replaced in four days and nobody would care. 
She JUST brings forth life into the universe, and she JUST shapes and molds and raises those lives.  She is JUST my spiritual foundation and the rock on which our family is built. She is JUST everything to everyone. And society would JUST fall apart at the seams if she, and her fellow moms, failed in any of the tasks I outlined. 
Yes, she is just a mother. Which is sort of like looking at the sky and saying, “hey, it’s just the sun.” 
The more time a mother can spend raising her kids, the better. The better for them, the better for their souls, the better for the community, the better for humanity. Period. 
We get a lot of things wrong in our culture. But, when all is said and done, and our civilization crumbles into ashes, we are going to most regret the way we treated mothers and children. 
This is the Angel in the House. She is responsible for holding society together. If she is demeaned, it will be the end of us all. And if you just skim Walsh's piece, like his previous work, you might react positively.

He's saying nice things about women, just like he was saying mean things about Robin Thicke. I want to say nice things about women. I do not like Thicke (let me tell you someday about Blurred Lines playing at a roller rink to which my 7-year-old neighbor had invited my 4-year-old daughter).

But this is the power of positive patriarchy. It praises. It elevates the woman, the mother, onto a pedestal. It masquerades. And it traps.

 In Walsh's world, mothers are the only people who can do save society. And therefore, the mother MUST do it or society collapses. What about families with two dads (I suspect homosexuality is not an option for Walsh, but I don't know)? Or single dads? Or communal living? Or stay-at-home-dads? Or working parents with childcare or grandparents? Do they get all the praise that Walsh heaps on stay-at-home-moms? I know many SAHDs who are spectacular caregivers and often feel isolated in our patriarchal society (the solution, as always, is more feminism). What about women who just don't want to define themselves as moms, first and foremost, but who do have kids? The list of "what abouts" could go on indefinitely.

Are we, people who by necessity or choice pattern our lives in ways that do not conform to Walsh's, responsible for the ills of society? In Walsh's world, I think so. And while Walsh is not a particular;y powerful voice, he is well-read and his views are widely reflected in our culture.

My goal is to advocate for a multi-faceted society that fully embraces all the possible ways to organize life and family. The dad who works and the mom who cares for the kids is one way. It's perceived as normative, although there never was a "traditional male breadwinner" - it's a model that emerged mid-20th-century. But it's a good way to organize a family, potentially; it's just not a default setting.

It doesn't make the planet revolve around the sun.

But it can be filled with praise. It can look sweet. It can look attractive. And then the trap closes.

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