Five Men Missing from Whitehouse Photo
The image is striking: glamorous spouses of NATO leaders standing to attention in a familiar choreographed display of pageantry. The reason this particular example, taken during Donald Trump’s Big Boisterous European Vacation in Brussels, got so much sensational media coverage was because of two things: it was the first such photograph of a gay male spouse, Gauthier Destenay, the husband of Luxembourg prime minister Xavier Bettel, and the fact that the initial White House social media sharing of the image omitted all mention of him.
What wasn’t commented on in all the viral frenzy is that there should be actually be not just one, but five men in the photo: missing are Philip May (Teresa May’s husband), Joachim Sauer (Angela Merkel’s husband), Jakov Kitarović (husband of Croatia’s Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović), and Sindre Finnes (husband of Norway’s Erna Solberg). Why do male spouses generally not turn up at these photo opportunities?
Political leadership is increasingly about image, partly because of a visual media culture and instant social media access, and partly because the personal is the political: it’s not unreasonable to want to know how our elected representatives comport themselves. Consumerist celebrity culture encourages us to live vicariously through iconic representations of power and wealth, and residual monarchism entices us to attribute quasi-divine characteristics to our superiors and their consorts.
There are still not enough women in public life, or in positions of political leadership, but there are more than the misleading impression this photo gives.
That said, why are these spouses in the image mostly women, and why do the husbands generally not show up? I suspect it’s because (although many of these women contribute to public life in their own right), most men would find it demeaning to be defined in relation to their powerful spouse, whereas for women it’s expected and celebrated, and their own achievements and personalities are diminished accordingly: they are the object, the powerful man is the subject.
Until we decouple the salacious interest in decorative spouses from engagement in holding power accountable, demand more functional and serious media (and support it where it exists), and spend more time discussing vital issues instead of personality and celebrity, we will continue to be distracted by the trivial, and attribute meaning and significance to the insubstantial. A pretty photo of a token gay husband doesn’t change that.
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