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The Spectatorship Role of the First Lady

Paper Outline

Spectatorship and performance and the connection with power relations

Ideologies on the image of the first lady as a representative of American women and culture

What Newspaper Articles Reveal About the Spectator Role of the First Lady In Relation To the Viewing/Judging American Public

The Spectatorship Role of the First Lady
The America first ladyship can be described as an institution, since despite the position lacking a constitutional significance, there exist unwritten law that the occupant is expected to display a particular character. There seems to be a widespread expectation from the American public on the roles the first lady is expected to perform and what she can not. Since independence, a pattern has been created and almost all first ladies act in an almost similar way depending on the prevailing circumstances surrounding them at the particular moment (Paris & Blair, pg.567). The first lady is always under close scrutiny of many parties ranging from the staff working in white house, cabinet appointees, the congress to the ever curious media and the general public (Parry and Blair, pg.576). By virtue of her position, the first lady has access to areas or information concerning only executive powers and this has always raised eyebrows among many stakeholders who may feel uncomfortable with her knowledge of issues she is not supposed to be involved in. The public particularly may feel shortchanged when a first lady demonstrates more influence than the husband they voted for. With all these forces surrounding the position, the first ladies seem to be enclosed in a closet (Wekkin, pg. 600). In this research paper I will argue that the first lady throughout history emulates the performance of that which is dictated by the domestic sphere due the expectations of her role and image to the spectating public.
Spectatorship and performance and the connection with power relations
Over the course of American history, the first lady continuously emulates the spectatorship roles dictated by her predecessors. Her performance is regulated by boundaries that are confined to those duties and actions most associated under the umbrella of domesticity. Depending on the prevailing environment in the American political and governance history, the first ladies at particular times have acted in an almost similar responsive way. An example is Margaret Taylor who decided to avoid politics and went into private life. She felt that her husband’s entry into the presidency had denied her a spouse and more so that the husband was assuming an unnecessary responsibility. Having been dragged into politics by marriage, she opted to concentrate only on her marriage and never appeared in public unless on the very special occasions. Mrs. Jane Pierce also avoided politics at all costs. She had sworn not to enter white house but she decided to later for the sake of her young son. The son however died soon after and she took advantage of the mourning to avoid any obligations at white house. The two ladies acted similarly, though at different historical times. Such a behavior would be most welcome to the executive members and white house staff but on the contrary the media and the public would accuse them of negligence of duty yet there is no constitutional role accorded to the first lady. This could even reduce the popularity of the president. The public expectations and pressure could force such a first lady to come out of her cocoon just to please them (Wekkin, pg. 603). A case in study is that of Mamie Eisenhower who after continuous criticism from the media for being inactive was forced to take up a social role leading the American Heart Association. This to some extent, shows that the first lady is supposed t wield some political influence as a part and parcel of the white house, which Americans consider center of power (Wekkin, pg. 604).
In other occasions, the first ladies have assumed the role of a shield, devoting herself to the wellbeing of her husband. This first lady will appear in public with the husband but mainly in non-political occasions. The first lady also is responsible for the employees, and supporters of the president always giving advice on political matters but not engaging in the policy making decisions of the husband as the president. Dolley Madison promoted her husband’s political agendas and is credited with being instrumental in her husband’s re-election campaigns. Mary Lincoln also played a role in protecting the husband from political rivalry by carefully assessing her husband’s political friends whom she deemed to have a hidden agenda. Another first lady who came out as a shield was Nancy Reagan who vehemently defended her husband from political accusations and even advocated the dropping from cabinet, ministers she felt were a liability. Such character traits are in the public eye seen as dominating and unacceptable and could work against a president’s overall influence (Wekkin, pg. 604).
The institution of the first lady has also been characterized by courtesan type of individual traits. These first ladies have solicited favors and influence from their husbands out of their roles as president. An example is Julia Grant who is said to have caused numerous dismissals of ministers and their replacement with her close allies. Such first ladyship is seen as a recipe for bad public relations by the oval office especially if her machinations are known to the public. She is responsible for creating tension between the president and the staff or other executive officials. Depending on the prevailing political climate, however her interference could be beneficial particularly if the president demonstrates laxity in cracking the whip against uncooperative or liability officials (Wekkin, pg. 605). Some first ladies have even taken up the roles of president assistant always performing the role of a counselor to the president. For instance, Mrs. Adams is said to have influenced her husband’s decision on the Alien and Sedition Acts but always kept her influence in advisory matters out of political environment. Jimmy carter even confessed publicly of his wife, Rosalyn as being his most trusted advisor. This consigliore type of first lady can have all the influence on the husband’s presidency role without raising suspicion as long as she performs the advisory role privately (Wekkin, pg. 606).
Some first ladies have demonstrated the care giving character particularly in case where the husband is incapacitated or taken ill. Such ladies have displayed leadership abilities and can be described as regents. These first ladies have been involved in the official functioning of the president to an extent of influencing major decisions on an equal ground with cabinet members. An example of this class of first ladies is Eleanor Roosevelt who is said to have argued and contradicted the husband and other cabinet members on policy development, a particular one being the social policy. She was actively involved in so many political decisions and was often seen consulting with cabinet members and congress on issues of policy. Such first ladies only succeed in their mission if they have enough political resources such as support from politicians or the media. The public may judge them as competing with the presidency but the president may not display this publicly and therefore tolerance would be paramount. Such first ladies may end up creating rivalry among president’s allies due to the divided opinions expressed. Eleanor’s influence, for instance resulted in resignation of some official who felt she was interfering with their functions (Wekkin, pg. 607).
In one occasion, the first ladyship in America seemed to have taken a different role as was demonstrated by Hillary Clinton who seemed to serve as a co-president. This attracted wide spread criticism from the media. Clinton displayed a character of a level headed politician who could make decisions of national magnitude without necessarily consulting or enrolling the need for advisors. Her influence was demonstrated she took full control of the health care reform policy task force (Kohrs, pg. 14). This kind of first ladyship is characterized by collisions with external forces such as the media and other institutions since feeling sprouts concerning her role as a president’s wife. By being directly involved in governance such a first lady exposes herself to ridicule and judgment by the public in case any thing goes wrong concerning her involvement in policy development. The first ladyship as an institution in America can not be taken as a pushover as demonstrated by the roles assumed by the occupants in various times in history. At different times, the first ladies have either attracted popular support or reservations from the members of the public and the fourth estate fraternity. It is almost a norm that a first lady can not only be a president’s wife but must demonstrate a concern for the challenges affecting the American populace. Any president’s wife who shows more influence than the husband has always attracted negative attitude from the Americans who interpret this as going against the democratic process (Wekkin, pg. 608).
Ideologies on the image of the first lady as a representative of American women and culture
Dominant ideologies are constructed and distributed in the process of constructing and observing the image of the first lady as a representative of American women/culture. There is a wide spread assumption surrounding the institution of the first lady whereupon people have a misplaced concept of the title to an extent of looking at the occupant as masculine and placing on them, demands that can be said to be a burden. First ladies such as Hillary Clinton have faced enormous challenges to establish themselves in public. Criticism is always level against the first ladies when they try to advocate for better living standards of the people. In most cases it is interpreted as being a feminist activism. For instance, Hilary’s work in children’s rights and her failed attempts to bring reforms in the health care sector in the 1990s rubbed many stake holders the wrong way since they felt that she was overstepping her mandate as a first lady. Her decision to shift from first lady to vie for a senator’s position in New York prompted further opposition in the public arena (Jackson, pg. 692).
This is an indication of the challenges women face in a culturally male dominated environment when they try to stand on their own. A woman in such a position, according to the feminist theory of politics, faces a higher challenge since she represents the needs of an entire community which in political circles may be taken in a skewed way. The American woman’s entry in the political environment creates conflicts and frictions due to the attitude that over time has always looked at a woman emerging from the people and not as a support for the people (Jackson, pg. 693). The predicaments portrayed by Hillary’s ascend in the political arena is a perfect example of how a first lady’s position can be misjudged as female inadequacy (Jackson, pg. 704).
As demonstrated by Jane Adams, the first lady who was awarded a Nobel peace prize for her efforts in reforms and international peace indicates that the first lady has the power to influence and or contribute to the development of the American agenda by the virtue of her position (Jackson, pg. 705). Though widely successful in her efforts, she faced resistance and was accused of supporting the creation of a dictatorial kind of female authority. The advocacy for social welfare as presented by Hillary have been connected to the eventual adoption of social welfare programs by the federal authority and other legislations that address issues that were hitherto not very dominant in public circles (Jackson, pg. 706). The image of the first lady as displayed in public is faced with numerous hurdles since it contains components of authority, public welfare and gender-related aspects which may be difficult to handle by one individual (Jackson, pg. 711).
Many factors influence public attitudes towards the first lady. The attitudes reveal the expectations of public performance by the first lady. A general agreement is that gender norms function by observing certain ideals of masculinity for the male species and femininity for the females. These roles together form the heterosexual bond that exists between the two sexes (Campbell, pg. 2). The attitude of animosity directed at Hillary Rodham was linked to her style of public advocacy which was described as “totally unfeminine”. Many writes claim unlike other women, she never shows emotion, either in speech or deeds. From many of the biographies written about first ladies, there seems to be a preformed judgment on the institution of the first lady; she should be feminine. This seems to be the reason Hillary’s first ladyship was faced with reservations since she was seen as aggressive, intimidating, blunt and tough (Campbell, pg. 12).
What Newspaper Articles Reveal About the Spectator Role of the First Lady In Relation To the Viewing/Judging American Public
With reference to newspaper articles, the spectator role of the first lady has been clearly brought to the fore. From, the New York Times, November 8, 1886, the description of President Cleveland’s wife is given. The article explains mostly on the feminine part of the president’s wife. It describes how, upon hearing of her visit to a local church in Boston, people came out in droves to witness her beauty (“The President’s Wedding” Para 1). After attending a church service in the area, the writer describes how women were scrambling for space just to catch a glimpse of the first lady. This is an indicator of the perception the American population has towards the institution of the first lady (“The President’s Wedding” Para, 3). Another article in the New York Times of June 2, 1886, “The President’s wedding” describes the interest the president’s wedding arouses in the public.
According to the article, ‘the wife of the president is an official personage in he united states. The people of America have a special reverence for the first lady and everyone wishes well of her and always want to know something concerning her welfare. Her life differs markedly from other wives since her environment is already determined for her by the predecessors and the general public. It says that the social success of the administration depends ore on the first lady as opposed to the president (“The President’s Wife” Para, 2). An article in The Reliable Source, of January 25, 2011, a perfect example of the restrictive environment and controlled behavior of the first lady was revived through a debate over Michelle Obama’s choice of a London-designed dress to a dinner and not an American designed one. Fashion moguls cried foul that, her decision could have a negative effect on the prospects of American designers in the competitive environment. This clearly shows that the behavior of all first ladies irrespective of time is under restriction as determined by the predecessors and public perception (The Reliable Source, Para, 7).
            From all the analysis of first ladies described above, there seems to be a clearly defined trend in terms of presentation and obligatory roles for the first ladies. From the first ever first lady, to Michelle Obama, their actions demonstrate certain spheres in which their image is constructed for a viewing audience. An unwritten rule seems to indicate that their performance is regulated by boundaries that are confined to those duties and actions most associated under the umbrella of domesticity. The laws of the country should be amended to increase the responsibilities of first ladies.

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