In the latest episode of the Art of Power, host Aarti Shahani sat down with former President Barack Obama to talk about masculinity and notions of manhood.
For an hour, they talk about male privilege, marriage and how narrow definitions of masculinity limit boys and men.
Shahani talked to WBEZ’s Natalie Moore about the interview.
Moore: Why did you want to talk to Barack Obama about masculinity?
Shahani: Having lived through the Trump era, it left me very concerned that our country is going aggressively backward. And that era, in some ways, reminded me of my own very traditional family with lots of toxic notions about what it means to be a man. What I observed in Barack Obama in his first memoir out of the presidency, in his private events for his foundation is, Obama is thinking about this much like I am. And I’m not sure that any journalist has focused the conversation as such. His memoir is a very vivid depiction of the struggles he and Michelle endured and the balancing act they were going through during his political rise. He was very ungenerous to himself and quite harsh about the situation he put his family in. He left a door open for us to have a conversation that typically professional women have with each other but that we rarely have with men.
Moore: I haven’t read his memoir yet. But in reading Michelle Obama’s memoir, she talked about that political tension early on in their marriage. And at one point, she just decided she and her daughters wouldn’t wait on him for things like family dinner if he was late.
Shahani: If I would point to one moment that felt tense, it was when he was talking about that balancing act. And as you pointed out, Mrs. Obama mentioned the sacrifice she made and compelling her husband into couples’ counseling and making a decision about boundaries. In our interview, he talked about how with every decision he made Michelle had veto power. I do wonder to what extent veto power really existed or he thought it existed and she didn’t really feel like it was something she could do. Obama makes shorthand, self-effacing jokes, like he said Michelle wanted him to hang out with Bruce Springsteen because she feels like he’s a more self-aware husband. I was wondering, well, can you explain what you mean by that? What is the evolution you still feel you’re working on? I’m trying to get too deep into your personal life. Once you become Barack Obama, you’re no longer a private person, you’re a symbol for the world. He’s accepted that fate — he knows that. And so to some extent, I think that his personal journey is so reflective of some kind of collective journey going on. I’m hungry to understand more of it.
Moore: How would you say he has evolved within his own ideas of masculinity?
Shahani: To me, this is kind of the exciting part about chasing this interview and him granting it and being quite gracious with his time. In office, he spoke quite often and strongly about women’s rights. He was the first American president to call himself a feminist. He passed laws and pushed for proposals that enforced equal pay that upheld freedom of choice. And what I observe is particularly in the Trump era, and thereafter, he is being maybe less vocal about the rights of women and far more vocal about the inner life of men and boys. He made this point that the message to daughters is you can be what you want to be, you know, super feminine or tomboy, very assertive or quiet; be who you want. But with boys, there’s still a pretty rigid message, that you’ve got to be a man. And what that means is play sports, chase girls and make money. What he’s doing now is saying, hey, if we want this thing called equality, boys and men have to have the same permission to grow and evolve. And when you give them that, you’re gonna see, for example, in political leadership, maybe less focus on war, and more focus on a caretaking economy. There is this need for us increasingly to think about the ways that stories about masculinity as domination harm our partnerships, but also harm men — trapping them in notions that don’t feel good or balanced.