The XX Factor

President Obama Jokes That It Takes a Wife “10 Years to Train a Man.” Ha?

President Obama with his wife and daughters.

Photo by Shawn Thew-Pool/Getty Images

Policywise, it’s easy to argue that Barack Obama is a feminist president. The first bill he signed was for equal pay. He launched a White House task force to fight sexual assault and ensured mandatory contraception coverage in Obamacare, a decision he has had to fight for. So why does the president keep making sexist jokes casting his wife in the role of the mommy who has to take care of him?

The Obamas celebrated their 22nd anniversary last week, an occasion the president noted during a visit to an Indiana steel plant with a joke recorded by Rebecca Sinderbrand of the Washington Post:

It’s far from the first time Obama has made himself the man-child to Michelle’s nag. Last year, he joked that he quit smoking “because I’m scared of my wife.” In a 2013 interview with Vogue, Michelle Obama said her husband has taught her to relax more. He replied by saying, “And what Michelle has done is to remind me every day of the virtues of order. Being on time. Hanging up your clothes. Being intentional about planning time with your kids.”

All couples have their shtick, of course, but as Kelsey McKinney of Vox notes, “This is the kind of quip that reveals that, as with child care and household chores, there are subtle social expectations that put more of the responsibility for maintaining a good marriage on the woman.” It’s not that women are just born to be more responsible. It’s that men feel less pressure to grow up on their own when they’re told they’ll have a wife one day who can fix them. (This line of thinking has the distinction of being insulting to both women and men.)

The idea of the man-child paired off with the mommy-wife has become quite a cultural phenomenon. A.O. Scott recently described the impact the image has had on comedy:

In Sandler’s early, funny movies, and in many others released under Apatow’s imprimatur, women are confined to narrowly archetypal roles. Nice mommies and patient wives are idealized; it’s a relief to get away from them and a comfort to know that they’ll take care of you when you return. Mean mommies and controlling wives are ridiculed and humiliated. Sexually assertive women are in need of being shamed and tamed. True contentment is only found with your friends, who are into porn and “Star Wars” and weed and video games and all the stuff that girls and parents just don’t understand.

Of course, men can play video games and be into “Star Wars” while also fulfilling adult responsibilities. Many do! But the more we “joke” that men are unable to practice basic hygiene without the firm guidance of a good woman, the less it seems necessary to change that “classic” dynamic. Obama may mean well, but even jokes like this one signal to girls that they have to lower their standards and sacrifice a big chunk of their own lives in order to “train” a man.