Tuesday, Jon Stewart did what he does best. He used intellect mixed with humor to cut a politician down to size. In this case, the victim was former Arkansas Governor and perennial presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. The issue at hand? Huckabee’s denunication of Beyoncé and her husband Jay-Z—or more specifically of the First Couple’s association with them.
Huckabee’s gripe is simple. Beyoncé is not an appropriate role model for children, and as such the Obamas have not set a good example for their own children and other Americans by treating her as one. Stewart responded with a compelling argument, which is essentially this: Why does Huckabee have a problem with the Obamas hanging with Beyoncé on the campaign trail but have no problem hanging with singer Ted Nugent, someone who is himself certainly not a contender for the gold in the role model Olympics?
Stewart was right of course. Huckabee’s hypocrisy represented political sloppiness at best, political cynicism at worst. Nugent, after all, has a particularly troubling reputation given his previous on the record thoughts regarding sex with teenagers. (He has a song called “Jailbait.”) But of course Huckabee’s Beyoncé crusade isn’t really about Beyoncé at all but about the brewing culture war that will determine who will win the White House in 2016.
Believing that little girls deserve a role model who keeps her clothes on and doesn’t build a career predicated on sex is not a right-wing or conservative position. I dare say that most Americans, including Stewart if given a choice, would probably rather their daughters aspire to a career that involves keeping their clothes on and relying on their minds as opposed to their bodies and sexuality. (It’s worth noting that white children have far more role models in the public eye than black children do, meaning it’s possible Stewart can’t fully appreciate the role model issue in the black community.) I am someone, however, who believes strippers can be proud feminists and prostitution should be legal.
But I also wouldn’t advocate inviting a stripper, porn star, or paid escort to speak at an elementary school for career day. Not because I consider them bad people but because I would think we want our children to aspire to something greater. Don’t we all?
Someone can be a decent person and a talented entertainer and still not someone that you would call a role model. The president’s reference to Beyoncé as a role model was unbelievable—and when I say unbelievable I mean no one actually believes he meant it (or would have said it about someone who wasn’t raising lots of money for him.) No one genuinely believes that the President or First Lady would be proud if their daughters imitated Beyoncé by appearing in a homemade video dancing suggestively in their underwear like she did in her recent hit 7-11 or doing a graphic bump and grind as she did to “Drunk in Love” at last year’s Grammys.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t all have Beyoncé songs on our iPods. I do. It just means that in the same way we would have found it alarming had President Clinton invited Adina Howard, the R&B chanteuse behind one of my favorite guilty pleasures from the 90’s, a song called “Freak Like Me” to the White House, we should be equally alarmed Beyoncé was invited to sing at the inauguration. Because in an age in which children are being sexualized younger and younger and exposed to sexual content more than ever before, it is not unreasonable for parents to want to see lines drawn between entertainment and entertainers that are for adults and entertainment and entertainers that are for children. This is not an exclusively Republican or Democratic idea.
Saying you like someone’s music but don’t consider her role model material doesn’t make someone a “hater” or a radical conservative extremist. And when those on the left attack someone for expressing a common-sense opinion on cultural issues it just makes progressives look more extreme and out of touch, particularly to those Americans who may support the President’s efforts to provide economic relief to the middle class but may also take some “conservative” positions, like believing that marriage is better for children and families than out-of-wedlock births, or that our culture has become too hyper-sexualized.
To be clear I don’t think Beyoncé should be forced to perform dressed as a nun. If it makes her happy and feel empowered, she should strip down as much as she wants. But if that’s the image she’s going for maybe she should have followed Charles Barkley’s lead and disavowed the role model moniker. Ultimately she’s an entertainer. I don’t expect much from her.
I do expect more from the President. He should not have called her a role model, and Huckabee was right to call him out on it. (President Kennedy hung with the Rat Pack but I doubt he ever called Sinatra a role model.) The real question is whether the 2016 Democratic nominee will show more courage than the President by discussing cultural issues more honestly, and if not, whether conservatives can capitalize on the growing cultural divide all the way to the White House.