Is Bill Clinton Our New Model Husband?

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Illustration by Rory Kurtz

Win or Lose on Tuesday, Hillary’s husband has taken a supporting role in his marriage. Should You? What all American husbands can learn from one of the worst husbands ever.

Hi, guys. Can we talk? No? Tired of talking? I get that. You’ve probably heard more than enough about how you’re doing as a husband — how well you’re balancing earning money, contributing at home, and not acting like an entitled jerk.

So let me start with a story instead.

One recent Sunday night, while in our compact hybrid — which my husband calls our vagina car — driving to a friend’s for dinner, I reminded Dan (said husband) that I was leaving on a work trip the next day and that he’d need to attend back-to-school night by himself. This was, I knew, horrendous news, and sure enough, he stopped the car, turned toward me, and his face became a 3-D GIF, looping through paroxysms of pain and nausea. His You’re-fucking-kidding-right? face.

I know that face well — it’s the man-face of our times. Now, Dan will surf triple overhead waves and dangle off cliffs, but he’s crippled by certain domestic obligations. Among them: sitting in a classroom, being treated like a sixth grader. He’ll snap and yell or decide his life is worthless, then tumble into his default mantra: You suck you suck you suck.

I feel for you guys, really I do. The American Husband is tiptoeing through unmapped, land-mine–filled territory. More is being asked of you, and you’re doing it, sometimes brilliantly, sometimes awkwardly. And of course sometimes you’re falling behind. Your status has declined a bit lately — like, say, that of a certain former president who may soon be serving tea to the wife of the Uruguayan president — and still you’re getting feedback (so much feedback!), reminders that you’re still blithely exploiting male privilege. But if you veer too far into domesticity . . . then men, perhaps yourself included, will think you’re a compact hybrid–driving wuss. There’s no comfortable place, no known haven. Your wife thinks you’re an oaf, and your inner monologue says you’re whipped and you’re exhausted by — to borrow the phrase women are profoundly sick of — trying to do it all.

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“Women started talking about ‘the second shift’ when they went into the workforce in large numbers and their role at home didn’t change much,” says Gayle Kaufman, a sociologist at Davidson College. “Men are now experiencing that, in reverse. They have this work role, and now they’re taking on a family role, and it adds a lot of stress.”

This has already been a rough decade for the American Husband. In 2012, Hanna Rosin declared in her pointedly titled The End of Men that men are the new ball and chain. The demise she outlined was a many-pronged fork stuck in the American male ass. One tine was economic: Men lost far more jobs than women did in the 2008 recession. Another was educational: Women now earn more college degrees than men do. A third tine was psycho­social: The world changed, and women embraced it. (Thanks in part to an endless supply of think pieces — verbal grenades tossed across the front lines of the gender wars — intended to shine a blowtorch on how screwed women have been for human history.)

Over the past decade, we’ve seen the rise of the superheroic American Wife, who accomplishes more before 9 a.m. than her husband does all day. An expert multitasker, strutting around in her the future is female T-shirt, she seems to update her OS daily and is now capable of doing approximately 10 bazillion things at once. Meanwhile, you’re overwhelmed, possibly nostalgic (though your cargo shorts are not yet hipster-retro), sputtering along like a Commodore 64.

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For years we’ve seen this in pop culture, the American Husband portrayed as a dope. He’s the guy who doesn’t know how to turn on the washing machine or who needs his six-year-old to tell him how to pack her school lunch. The caricature has persisted and now seems not just ungenerous but downright cruel.

The change is disorienting, as until quite recently, husband was the far better gig. Master of the House! He had all the money, all the power; he threw a baseball around with his son in the driveway because he wanted to, not because he was “on duty.” The couple’s lives revolved around him. But that old model has given way to what’s known as the companionate marriage, in which men and women marry their equals, for love.

Now, as Kate Jennings writes, “When I think about the dynamics of our marriage, sumo wrestling comes to mind.”

Great, you want a smart, strong wife. You’re all for equality, philosophically. You maybe even have daughters, and you’ll breathe hellfire on anybody who tries to keep them down. Still, your wife’s rise makes it feel like you fell. You don’t get any top-dog perks. No one gives you sympathy, let alone a scotch, as a reward for a long, hard workday. Instead you’re handed a toddler. Or a text: “Hey babe, running late. What’s for dinner?” Your sex appeal is based on . . . what? Choreplay? A 2016 study on housework and intimacy defined a truly oxymoronic-sounding new eroticism of fairness. Couples who share domestic duties equitably have more sex. And it’s not just quantity: Women report more sexual satisfaction in egalitarian relationships than in so-called conventional ones. Exhibit A: Porn for Women. It’s filled with photos of shirtless men vacuuming and changing toilet paper rolls, and it has sold a half-million copies.

Swiffer, anyone?

Marriage is exhausting, which you doubtlessly know, but the particular kind of exhaustion we’re facing right now can be chalked up, at least in part, to this idea of fairness and the endless accounting toward it: Who’s up, who’s down, who emptied the dishwasher, who moved to what city for whose job, who interrupted whose sister six times at Thanksgiving, who mansplained, who manspread. Some infractions are obvious, others not. Take Matt Lauer. He’s an ass? Yes, he’s an ass. That toxic male culture is the fog you grew up in, and you’re trying to see your way through it, but it’s still easy to get lost in the miasma.

Which brings us to Bill Clinton, the man to lead us out of the marital murk.

I know, I know: counterintuitive choice. In his autobiography, My Life, he writes that “nothing in my background indicated I knew what a stable marriage was all about.” His father married four times (and died at 28). His mother married five times. Bill’s stepfather abused Bill’s mother, and Bill still loved him. Then, of course, there was the infidelity. So much infidelity. So much lying. A nation forced to picture certain acts that are impossible to unsee. This was a horrendous husband performance. On top of that, Hillary had to stand by his side, humiliating herself in that special way only politicians’ wives seem to endure.

But now this famous marriage fuckup could well become America’s First Husband. By all rights this should be a disaster. Our First Gentleman is a megalomaniacal, power-tripping dirty old man. But did you see that speech he gave at the convention? He looked wizened, sure, a tad too vegan, and he did some rambling, but he nailed it.

He did the single thing that working American women — which is to say, pretty much all American women, since they make up 47 percent of the workforce — have been wanting their husbands to do for years: He told the world in painstaking, occasionally boring detail that his wife is slaying her career and that he’s 100 percent behind her promotion to the most powerful position in the land — because she’s earned it. She’s the best person for the job. No discussion of gender required. The next day the headlines came out saying Bill, while delivering his convention speech, looked fetching in his navy pantsuit — payback for the decades of brutal fashion policing perpetrated on Hillary. But the teasing was fine. Fine. Bill returned to the stage the following night and looked not just unperturbed but thrilled by the entire experience. He marveled at his wife, the nation, the miracle of balloons. Never have you seen a husband happier to be attending his wife’s work events.

Bill has been reticent about the possibility of a title change. He doesn’t talk about being the first First Man, or Adam, as some like to call him. The closest Bill has come to admitting in public that he, along with Hillary, is a gender warrior poised to take American husbands into an unmapped future, was at a rally in Des Moines in late 2015.

“There has been a lot of talk about breaking the glass ceiling,” he said, warming up the audience for the headliner, his wife. “I want to break a ceiling. I am tired of the stranglehold that women have had on the job of presidential spouse.”

Femininity is a bitch: You’re frigid or you’re a slut. You don’t smile the right amount. Your body has the half-life of a cake in the rain. But masculinity is a bitch, too. “What we call masculinity is often a hedge against being revealed as a fraud,” writes Michael Kimmel, a sociologist at Stony Brook University and author of Guyland and Manhood in America: A Cultural History, “an exaggerated set of activities that keep others from seeing through us, and a frenzied effort to keep at bay those fears within ourselves.” Masculinity, in other words, is a fundamentally defensive posture that you have to prove again and again.

Earning money, or rather, earning more of it than your wife, has been de rigueur. And this breadwinning component of masculinity is where a lot of men are now getting into trouble. If their wives outearn them (God forbid), men feel emasculated, and when men feel emasculated, you get Mike Tyson.

Researchers at Stanford University gave male subjects feedback suggesting they were feminine. And? Those subjects overcompensated with extreme displays of masculinity, expressing increased support for the Iraq War, more homophobia, and newfound desire to purchase SUVs. At the University of Connecticut, sociologist Christin Munsch also found that when men earn less money than their spouses, they overcompensate, too, in some less attractive ways, namely by cheating on their wives. “Their theory is: I’m already feeling emasculated, I’m not making a lot of money, I’m not going to clean the toilet, too,” Munsch told me. (Erotics of fairness be damned.) At the same time, women who outearn their husbands overcompensate as well — minimizing their accomplishments, deferring to their spouses, performing more housework. In short, they act extra feminine, says Munsch, “to maintain their own gender conformity, decrease interpersonal conflict, and shore up their husbands’ masculinity.” Oof.

The way out is forward. Retrenching helps no one, not even you guys. The state of feeling threatened is awful. So is feeling desperate to make more money. More to the point, a husband uncomfortable with his wife’s achievements comes across as pathetic. Sad to revisit it now, but in Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg wrote that people often asked about her husband, himself a tech CEO, who died at age 47: “How is Dave? Is he okay with, you know, all your [whispering] success?”

No man wants such whispers. Besides, the pity is misplaced, at least for younger men. Primary financial responsibility is a burden — that’s just a fact. The pressure takes its toll. Among millennials, men who make significantly more money than their wives are worse off physically and psychologically, while women who make more are happier. Still, the tradition of valuing men’s careers over women’s persists. A study of  25,000 Harvard Business School graduates found that women reached their professional goals less frequently than men do. The reason? Even among this powerhouse crowd, husbands’ jobs took precedence over their wives’.

Note: This doesn’t mean the husbands won. This means their wives are pissed.

The past few years have been disorienting for men and women, husbands and wives: up, down, action, reaction, action, reaction, the seesawing oscillations growing faster and more violent. She’s a bitch; he’s a wuss. Women are put out; men are stuck. Everybody’s rebounding; everybody’s trapped. Some claim this is intrinsic to marriage, that marriage is all about power dynamics, who’s got the upper hand. That it’s basically a competition for whose needs get met. As Michael Vincent Miller writes in Intimate Terrorism, “Marriage consists of two people trying to make a go of it on emotional and psychological supplies that are only sufficient for one.”

But that’s an outdated story, a theory that might have represented the best thinking of its day but which time has proved wrong. That zero-sum game serves no one well now. Winning isn’t possible in the battle of the sexes. The whole match is doomed. The only available victory is to change the terms of the game. And now weirdly, almost miraculously, we have just the guy to do it, a man to guide husbands out of the wilderness — a man so secure in his masculinity that he’s ready and eager to quit his job at the foundation he built, no less, to support his commander-in-chief wife.

Gentlemen, your new hero: Bill Clinton.

I look forward to the inaugural pantsuits.

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