Confession time: I have a guilty pleasure. Some very smart, very sophisticated people I know watch reality TV. The ridiculously staged, morally questionable, emotionally manipulative kind of reality TV. I don’t. But I’ve always had a soft spot for America’s Funniest Home Videos – I’ll laugh shamelessly at other people’s misadventures, bloopers and pratfalls.
With Netflix, I rarely watch any television any more, and I can’t remember the last time I watched AFV. But thanks to social media, I still get a regular dose of funny videos.
What was I thinking, trying to do Important Things while being a mom?
A couple of months back, one video started appearing all over my social-media feed. I was busy, so I ignored it. But it kept popping up, so I eventually clicked on it.
There was a dignified man, speaking into the camera for a BBC news interview. The topic was a serious one: the South Korean president had just been forced out of office, and the man, an American academic and South Korea expert, was expounding on recent events.
But then, on the corner of the screen, a door opened. And a yellow-clad toddler bounced into the room, elbows swinging. Followed shortly by a baby merrily scooting in. Followed shortly by a woman speedily, if not effortlessly, removing both children from the room – a room that is now quite clearly not an office nor a studio but rather the spare room in the man’s home.
Yes, I laughed out loud. And I played it again and again. And I showed it to my mom, who was visiting, and she laughed and laughed. As did my kids. As did my husband. Within hours, it seemed, the entire world was laughing at – or let’s say with – this charming family.
NOT SO FAST!
Except some feminists, apparently.
Did you think this was a tragically funny moment that we can all relate to? Silly you. This is nothing less than a perfect illustration of white, male privilege.
Leave it to feminists to ruin our fun.
Laugh it up, they say. But what about the poor woman who skids in, a look of horror on her face as the gravity of the situation becomes painfully, irreversibly and universally apparent in that moment that will live in infamy? She grabs the kids and wrangles them out of the room. But the door. And so she must reappear, this time crawling on hands and knees.
What should we make of all this? Who is this woman? How should we respond after our fits of laughter subside? Is she the children’s mother? Or is she the nanny? Does it make a difference? Why would we even think she might be the nanny? Her youth? Her race?
What assumptions are we imposing on this series of unfortunate events? (She is, in fact, his wife. The agility with which she escorted her offspring out of the room should leave little doubt, but further research backs this up.)
Either way, does this scene provide us with the perfect illustration of The Patriarchy? Here we see a Very Important White Man engaged in his public life while behind the scenes lurk his wife and children. Until the curtain is pulled aside and they burst onto the public stage, where they most certainly and hilariously do not belong. And so they scuttle away.
Or is this feminist critique guilty of its own gender bias? What’s to say this woman doesn’t have her own public life? Perhaps she was even engaged in it at that very moment, allowing her children to slip away into the annals of internet fame.
Or perhaps there’s a problem in assuming that this man’s public work is of more consequence than his wife’s private work of childrearing. Perhaps the underlying problem is our own failure to validate caregiving, a failure to value the essential labor many women (and men) do on a daily basis.
OUR HIDDEN ASSUMPTIONS
And what about our own response? Might our collective amusement be shaped by hidden gender assumptions?
Here we have a White Man, in jacket and tie, expounding on Very Important Matters. Many of these White Guys who expound on Very Important Matters, it turns out, are also dads. Who knew?
If it weren’t for the prancing little sunshine who enters stage right, we wouldn’t have had a clue in this case. (Thanks as well to the little guy who glides in his walker, the kind made obsolete in this country years ago because of safety regulations; chalk up one more risk to infant mobility.)
So this Authoritative White Guy is suddenly unmasked as a daddy. And that’s kind of funny. His daddyness is further revealed by the remarkable poise he demonstrates while shoving his daughter aside, all while maintaining eye contact with the camera. Also pretty darn funny.
But what if we reverse the roles? Does the narrative remain the same if it’s the mother rather than the father in this position?
I think it’s safe to say we’d be deluged with debates over whether or not women can “have it all” right now. We might be questioning what sort of damage kids are incurring growing up in homes where mothers place work over family. (I’m not sure a picture of a mother shoving her kid in the face would play quite the same way.) And a man crawling on hands and knees, scuttling out of view? I imagine we’d be thick into a discussion of the emasculation of the modern man.
I’ve played this role reversal over in my head many times since I’ve seen this video, mostly because it strikes just a little too close to home. I, too, have done live Skype interviews with only an unlocked door between me and my three charming, terrifying children, children held at bay only by a series of dire threats. I, too, have calculated the costs, monetary and otherwise, of hiring a babysitter when asked to do a live national TV interview. Should I spend $40 for a Saturday morning babysitter or take my chances? (I opted for shelling out $40. Money apparently well spent.)
Having imagined a scenario similar to this one a time or two, let me add another gendered dimension: I think it’s fair to say that gender not only plays a role in the way this particular event unfolds and in the way we collectively respond but also in the way the event is experienced.
I don’t know this Authoritative White Guy, whose name, by the way, is Robert Kelly. He seems like a perfectly lovely person, and I can’t claim to know exactly what was going through his mind behind that enviably placid countenance. But I have a pretty good idea what I would have been thinking.
Like him, my immediate concern would have been maintaining composure and salvaging whatever train of thought remained. But I also would have been fighting against devastating little voices plaguing me with doubt: “This must look so incredibly unprofessional. What was I thinking, trying to do Important Things while being a mom? Did I really just shove my kid away on national TV? What will people think? I’m done. I will never, ever attempt anything like this again. Why even try?”
As my own writing on faith and politics has pushed me more and more into the world of public scholarship, I can’t help but notice that there are far fewer women than men inhabiting this world. Surveying the broader academic landscape, perhaps particularly the world of Christian scholarship, I see no shortage of bright, talented female graduate students and up-and-coming junior faculty members. But by their late 30s and 40s, just when many careers are establishing themselves and taking off, many of these women go quiet.
Because it’s hard. It’s hard to have children and keep up an academic career. Each and every day comes with tradeoffs. Do you hire the babysitter or try to keep the kids distracted with Netflix and Minecraft? Do you spend Saturday afternoon at the park or writing another blog post? Do you structure your life in such a way that you can drop everything at a moment’s notice to write the article right now so that it’s still relevant to the daily (hourly) news cycle?
All of which is to say, I can relate to Prof. Kelly. This could have been me.
And I still think this video is the funniest thing out there.
But it also doesn’t hurt to keep an eye on the way gender plays into this scene and into our collective response to it. And to remember this the next time, when it’s a woman whose children are intruding into her professional space.
And if my time ever comes, I’ll do my best to tell myself that everyone is really laughing with me.
This piece originally appeared on Patheos, The Anxious Bench Blog (March 11, 2017). Kristin Kobes Du Mez teaches history at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. She’s working on a book about Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Photo: gpalmisanoadm/pixabay, CC0 Creative Commons