Politics incentivizes making simple questions complicated, so, inevitably, we will turn to asking whether Douglas Emhoff, a 56-year-old, robustly male American attorney who is permanently leaving his law firm for his wife's career, can handle the job of being married to Vice-President Elect Kamala Harris... which he already does.
It is not, in itself, a completely absurd question. Being the vice president's husband carries with it more burdens than the average lout married to more a capable woman; call it the Homer Simpson Continuum. There are more consequences to Doug than to the average husband of passing out on the lawn; he can't blast the Soviet national anthem from the grounds of the Naval Observatory to troll tourists; he must accept that his haircuts and suit designers, let alone which bands are on his weathered band T-shirts, will reflect both on him and his wife's office. "Risky Businessing" at the White House is totally out — unless it's a Twitter meme for charity, in which case Doug is permitted one full "Risky Business," as long as celebrity participation in the meme is more than a day old and the charity has a Guidestar Platinum rating. (I don't make the rules.)
In truth, though, the question of how Emhoff will handle being the first "second gentlemen" is less about the burdens of the role itself and more about the supposed psychological weight on his man-shoulders of holding down a supposed woman's gig, and whether it will fully crush his fragile male ego. That is also a fine question, if you've got a time machine, and we can go back to when we were all children, and women were women and men were babies who couldn't handle competition from them.
Perhaps this sort of dated panic is one of the side effects of American politics (and a lot of legacy media) being controlled by sexagenarians-and-up; thus, I sought my millennial brother's input on the question of whether we should worry about Emhoff. I'm not that much older, and he's not that much smarter, but he's much better looking, so people listen to him more.
There are many things that do need to be said about male fragility. First, that it is real.
I asked whether he would ever hypothetically accept a scenario in which, in exchange for being set for life — he'd always be able to find work in his field, live comfortably and travel — he would never be more noteworthy in his field or the culture than his wife.
He didn't answer out of contempt; I hope it was only for the question.
Of course, at some point, simply asking the question makes an argument for the existence of the narrative; it conflates something that some people are saying with something that needs to be said in a serious conversation.
There are many things that do need to be said about male fragility. First, that it is real — abundantly, lethally real. Alternately, one could note that marriages in which women are the bigger breadwinners have a 33 percent higher divorce rate than the other way round, suggesting that male fragility persists even in men who think it isn't a problem for them.
But if living in Kamala Harris's shadow was going to be a problem for Doug Emhoff, it probably would have come up during their first date, when she was the attorney general of California. And, honestly, when being married to the vice president of the United States would be an extremely good problem for anyone else to have, it's also probably a good problem for Emhoff to have.
If you grew up at the tail end of Gen X or are a millennial, you've already witnessed so many unnecessary male edifices being unbuilt.
Perhaps being second banana to a more successful woman is mostly a quandary for white middle class Boomers and early Gen Xers, who grew up in a culture that reified the "normative" state of a single-income family with a stay-at-home mom. (It likely feels especially alien to the old guys running media properties and shaping our sense of norms, who probably have no idea what it's like being occupationally subservient to a woman.) If that's your societal template for normalcy — and it started out as mine growing up, too — then maybe it would, however stupidly, sting to stand in Emhoff's shoes. Maybe it would feel less like breaking ground and more like declaring yourself an aberrancy in the nostalgia of your own culture.
But if you grew up at the tail end of Gen X or are a millennial, you've already witnessed so many unnecessary male edifices being unbuilt. Much of my life has already involved watching the active or passive dismantling of the world in which men were "men," and had jobs and two-martini lunches, and women were "women," and had chores and Diazepam. Nowadays, you need two jobs to afford the house and the Diazepam, and regular two-martini lunches net you an audit from the accounting department and a stint in rehab.
The younger we are and the more economically precarious our lives get, the more the idea that Doug Emhoff's life might be difficult to endure seems like the perverse thought-exercise of a diseased mind. Leaving aside his fantastically interesting wife and his proximity to power, this is the supposed conundrum he faces: He must live in beautiful public housing with excellent government healthcare, share in a six-figure family income and have no obligation to do anything other than meaningful charity work reflecting his values, all to be close to the woman he loves.
For more than a few men of recent vintage, I can't imagine another response: Don't threaten me with a good time.