Barack Obama is a ball-busted man. To anyone who has seen how he acts whenever Michelle Obama is around — or even at the mere mention of her name — this is beyond dispute. The man lives in terror of his wife, who, unlike her husband, is actually from the streets of South Chicago.
But I have come to defend — somewhat — the ball-busted man, not to mock him.
The evidence that Michelle is the boss of the Obama household, and of her husband, came early. In 2007 she referred to her husband as “just a man” and claimed he didn’t even know how to put socks in the dryer — a quip that even Maureen Dowd found “emasculating.” She then said, with a powerful undercurrent of harnessed rage, that her husband’s success was the first time she had felt proud of her country. This was not someone who was going to bat her eyelashes at her man and smile at his dumb jokes.
At times, the first lady looks frighteningly grim and severe. But it is not the free-floating and diffuse dyspepsia of some of the modern left, which seems livid at, well, everything. Michelle’s toughness is coiled, focused — a sharp weapon in the boot rather than a random explosion of deadly gas. It is the anger of someone who has read books and taken seminars on social change. It also explains President Obama’s body language whenever the boss is around — overly solicitous, jittery, cowed. In what seems a form of self-protection — or perhaps a cry for help — he is always joking about who’s the boss — “I do NOT want to leave Michelle waiting,” “if I didn’t pass this I would be sleeping on the couch,” etc. Then there was this quote from Andrew Romano in a 2009 issue of Newsweek: “I think it’s the Obamas’ willingness to act in public much how they act in private — open, informal, flirtatious — that has incited most of the swooning. At the Youth Ball, I noticed the president do something that’s impossible to imagine any of his predecessors doing: resting his head, eyes closed, on Michelle’s shoulder.”
Still, within limits, the ball-busting wife (or girlfriend) is not necessarily a bad thing. The brilliant social critic Christopher Lasch once praised the value of jokes about the opposite sex. Seemingly hostile, these quips, as Lasch saw it, actually allow us to celebrate the differences between the sexes while venting some frustration and anger about same (just listen to the blues). It only gets unhealthy when it becomes pornographic or dehumanizing, and when it loses any trace of self-deprecation by the joke teller. The joke about wanting to die in bed and your wife saying “What — again?” is far different from calling her the b-word or worse.
The problem is that modern feminism is so angry that it leaves no room for self-deprecation or admission of the differences between the sexes — sure, the president doesn’t know how to do laundry, but let him say Michelle can’t change a tire, and watch the White House and media go into the outer stratosphere. For their part, conservatives fail to see that there can be something very charismatic and sexy about the ball-busting woman — and something brave about the man who takes her on. The explosion in pornography over the last several decades has made a lot of men lazy. It’s easier to sit home and enjoy a fantasy about a beautiful and willing sexual gymnast whose job it is to service you than to go outside and risk something complicated and potentially painful with the real thing. H.L. Mencken called women “the only grand hazard that man ever encounters.” The man who avoids them because such encounters involve risk is “a puling and a tacky fellow.” A man with courage can even use his wits to beat the ball-buster at her own game.
Again, it is important to make a distinction between a harridan who is a humorless ideologue and a strong woman who can take you out with reason and wit. One of the false assumptions made by feminists and liberals is that any talk of the ball-busting woman is an attack on “strong, intelligent, independent women.” Those who make that claim miss a crucial distinction — the ball-busting woman is not necessarily an intelligent woman. Some girls are angry just for the plain, mean-spirited hell of it. They are either ignorant about politics and culture, and their cruelty has no basis in reason (sometimes they are gorgeous and are just tired of men approaching them for only one thing), or they are rage-filled radicals.
As incredible as it may seem, Woody Allen, who has a seriously problem respecting women’s mystery and sexual power and thus has to denigrate it, gave American culture two highly attractive and intelligent female characters who are not ball-busters. Both were played by Diane Keaton. Her character in “Annie Hall” and, even more powerfully, in “Manhattan” are literate artists who enjoy sex and masculinity yet can destroy a man in argument.
Another strong female character is in Spike Lee’s movie “Do the Right Thing” — the movie that Barack Obama took Michelle to on their first date, and the one that convinced Michelle that Barack was “down with the cause” — that is, a lefty. The movie is about a New York neighborhood that explodes with racial tension, largely due to the volcanic rage of an angry black “revolutionary.” One of the few voices of calm belongs to a beautiful young woman named Jade played by Joie Lee, Spike Lee’s sister. Playing Jade, Joie Lee strikes a perfect balance between intelligence and a soft ball-busting of Buggin’ Out, the hysterical black pseudo-radical who wants to raze a pizza joint because the owners are Italian. In one scene she tells him to keep cool, then gently mocks him — you know as well as I do that you’re being a fool, her bemused smile tells him. And for the only time in the film, he seems to admit it to himself. You could imagine Jade going to a sermon by Jeremiah Wright, and, while feeling solidarity with her black community and its struggles, realize five minutes in that she was listening to ridiculous horseshit, laugh, and never go back.
It’s a shame Michelle Obama seems to have been more inspired by Buggin’ Out than by Jade. While obviously an intelligent woman, the first lady’s left-wing politics has caused the humorlessness of the zealot — THIS is what we will eat in school lunches, period — and a certain offense at male sexuality itself. Thus her comment about her husband being “just a man” who couldn’t even do laundry. Most men would take it as a matter of pride that they didn’t know not to put the dark socks in with the white blouses.
Mark Judge is the author of A Tremor of Bliss: Sex, Catholicism, and Rock ‘n’ Roll.