As Cultural Studies buzzwords dance flippantly over my head, I abandon my lecture for sanity in the form of online news reports. First, BBC tells me that Obama is predicting more bank failures, and The New York Times confirms that John Updike is still dead. Hanging my head in remorse, I make a prayer for old rabbits and proceeded to The Washington Post home page. The news is almost worth bringing up in class.
“This just in,” the article opens, “Martha Washington was hot.”
In a lecture about phallic symbolism in advertising, I was astonished to have stumbled upon information that seems less relevant to my everyday life. This article wasn’t in the “only read in a waiting room before getting teeth pulled” section, nor the “buy on your way out of a grocery store” section. The author goes on to explain that historians concerned about the visual misrepresentation of Martha Washington in text books have asked forensic anthropologists to create a computerized age-regression portrait of Martha in her mid-30s. This explains the two pictures of Miss Washington included in the article. In one, she looks like Paula Dean; in the other, she looks like a young Paula Dean post gastric-bypass surgery and cosmology lessons.
Contrary to popular opinion, asserts the author, Martha Washington was not just a “double-chinned Old Mother Hubbard” when she married George. Like the woman in the second photograph, Martha was a fit, 18th-century bombshell. Men who met her had hoped to “arouse a flame in her breast” and when good ole’ George met Martha, she was busy stealing someone else’s heart.
I scan the article looking for an explanation as to why, 250 years after her death, historians have decided to re-imagine Martha Washington as a more attractive first lady. How this can be considered news is another question altogether.
“What’s happening now is revisionist,” says Edward Lengel, senior editor at the Papers of George Washington project at the University of Virginia, “But I think it’s a whole lot closer to the reality of what she was.”
There’s no question that America’s respect for presidential figures has increasingly depended on their appearances. When a debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy aired on television in 1960s, the presidential fight was over. Kennedy had wooed the American voters with his youthful swagger, and Nixon had repelled them with his profusive sweating.
Today, beauty’s hold on its voters is seen best through the rags that feed its myth – take the paparazzi’s fascination with topless, hunk-of-a-President Obama, for instance. I’ve seen Bush’s features grow more and more disproportionate in mainstream political caricatures (The Economist dedicated a whole article in December about Bush’s flaring nostrils), while he’s fallen out of political favour. The morality of the aesthetic shift is rudimentarily obvious. A good man with good politics is good-looking. A bad man with bad politics is not.
But here I am concerned with the president’s woman.
America, the land of dreams, is a country whose legend depends on its maintaining a certain vision of success. In this vision, Jackie O is the ideal first lady and Michelle O is her modern successor. The idea is the same as that mentioned above: behind every great president is a great first lady, and both figures must be beautiful in order to be great.
This is why I find it suspicious that the historians involved in the “revisioning” of Martha Washington claim to be motivated by the desire to “set the record straight.” Their inquiry’s deeper motivation is more likely to erase the negative shadow Martha’s original image might be casting on her husband’s noble status in the American memory. After all, if we know that Jackie Kennedy and Michelle Obama are part of a natural legacy of “hot” Martha’s, can’t we finally really say, “This is the real America,” and this is it as sexy and moral as it always has been.
Into revisioning presidential appearance? Send Ms. Mortimer a lil’ prayer to email@example.com. Together, together, you’ll be in her heart and she will love you, forever.