When you’re in a relationship,” says comedian Chris Rock in his 2018 special Tamborine, “you’re in a band… sometimes you’re the lead singer, and sometimes, you play the tambourine”. And, when it’s the latter, it’s important to play that tambourine well for your partner. Douglas Emhoff, the soon-to-be first Second Gentleman of the United States, is about to become one of the most famous tambourine players in the world.
Spouses of politicians in the US have traditionally had to play a supporting role as a matter of course. What makes Kamala Harris’s spouse a little more news-worthy than his predecessors is the fact that he is a man, and in some sense, is set to subvert the traditional roles of husband and wife in public life. He is, in fact, set to take a teaching position at Georgetown University to be able to devote more time to his duties as the Second Gentleman. The question, though, is why Emhoff any more important than any of his predecessors? Twitter, for example, has made quite a big deal about giving him access to the “first Second Husband official handle”. The cynical — perhaps rightly so — answer might be that men tend to be applauded for characteristics that society takes for granted in women: Second Ladies are rarely feted, or even as widely known, as the first Second Husband is bound to be.
The true import of the symbolism surrounding Emhoff’s new position is for men. For the last four years, the version of masculinity that has emanated from the White House — and from other muscular leaders — is a diminished, misogynist, homophobic and insecure one. To be decent, articulate and supportive — to play the tambourine with pleasure and dignity — is an example many American men, men in general really, would do well to emulate.