By the time you read this, the 2010 World Cup will be well underway. The only home nation represented, England, may already have crashed out of the tournament in inevitably iconic circumstances. Perhaps Wayne Rooney’s temper will have again flared at the crucial moment; or the team’s collective fear of the penalty spot will have reared its head once more. Whatever does get the blame for England’s tournament exit this year, it probably won’t be the players’ wives.
Rewind to 2006, and that’s exactly where the fingers were being pointed. During that tournament, a group of the England players’ wives and girlfriends (soon rechristened WAGs) had descended on Baden-Baden, the quiet German town where the team was to be based. This party contained numerous women who were famous in their own right: pop stars Victoria Beckham and Cheryl Cole among them, as well as Coleen McLoughlin (now Rooney); and they quickly grabbed the attention of the celebrity-obsessed British media. Of course, placed under such a spotlight, the WAGs just couldn’t behave. Their outlandish designer spending and outrageous alcohol-fuelled behaviour drew criticism and plenty of column inches; the resulting distraction to the players was widely seen as a chief cause of their failure to advance beyond the quarter-finals.
Fabio Capello, the England manager at time of writing, decided that 2010 would see no repeat of the Baden-Baden fiasco. This time around, the WAGs were banned.
Which certainly wasn’t the case in the recent general election. It might be a little churlish to lump them in with the WAG set, but in 2010 the wives of Britain’s three main party leaders captured the media’s imagination to the same degree as Coleen, Cheryl and co did during that infamous German holiday. Sarah Brown, Samantha Cameron, and latterly Miriam Gonzalez Durantez (or Mrs Nick Clegg to you), each played a key role in their husband’s election campaigns, but unlike the footballer’s wives, were viewed as a positive force.
Told by the PR men to look less dour, Gordon Brown developed an election smile so unfortunately sinister that it made him look like the villain of a 1970s kids’ movie. Often lampooned on television panel shows, that smile was seen as a window into the vacuum of Gordon’s charisma. Enter Mrs Brown, armed with a million Twitter followers and a track record in compassion. With Sarah by his side, as she frequently was during the election campaign, Gordon began to look more and more human, taking on some of his wife’s reflected charm like an enthusiastic sunbather. It wasn’t enough to turn the election, but given how presidential this year’s contest turned out to be, one wonders if she significantly limited the damage inflicted on Labour.
SamCam may sound like the name of a CCTV company, but is actually a tabloid-coined term to refer to the wife of Britain’s new Prime Minister. A successful career woman of impeccable breeding, Mrs Cameron does little to dispel the idea that her husband is Actually Rather Posh. What she does however, is help to promote him as a sort of Upper Class Hero – a true family man who makes time for his children (and continues to make more of them), and places importance on his wife’s career. The other half of Britain’s new First Wives Club, Senora Clegg, plays a similar role – a devoted mother to three boys and a brilliant legal mind who, as atheist Nick was painfully keen to point out, keeps the family rooted in a firm Catholic faith.
She may have been playing the odds, but in the run-up to the election Miriam publicly declared that she would leave her job as a partner in law firm DLA Piper if her husband became Prime Minister. Samantha went one better, following through on a similar promise to quit as creative director of stationary firm Smythson of Bond Street.
So it seems that the idea of the supportive wife is alive and well. The woman who, in the face of her husband’s success, is prepared to park her own ambitions, raise the kids and look fabulous. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with playing the support role, provided it’s the role you’ve chosen. Moreover, the political wives have proved that old adage about the driving force behind every great man, as they played a key role in the foreground of the election. As many news commentators noted the dull similarities between their husbands, the fashion and lifestyle correspondents were celebrating the differences between these dynamic women.
One might suggest that we shouldn’t care half as much about Sam’s new haircut or Sarah’s latest tweet as we do about their husbands’ foreign policies. Yet leadership is about both personality and skills, and the wives gave voters a three-dimensional insight into who the potential First Families really were. The women added a vital element to their respective leadership campaigns, their willingness to play that support role becoming a critical part of the strategy.
You can’t help but wonder however, if the boot was on the other gender, how an ambitious man might deal with the role of ‘professional husband’. I term this the Notting Hill question.
Our only example of a First Husband so far has been the unintentional comic genius Denis Thatcher. His refusal to remain quietly in the background caused a number of political embarrassments for his wife, but at least this was a retired man who had already fulfilled his ambitions. It’s not easy to imagine a younger man playing the dutiful and supportive spouse to a younger woman PM.
There’s also an alarmingly long list of famous women who have seen their marriages to non A-listers fall spectacularly apart. Madonna, J-Lo, Kate Winslet, Julia Roberts – even uber-WAG Cheryl Cole...The list literally stretches on and on. Why is that? Is it possible that both men and women struggle with a dynamic where she is the star? Does this say more about some women’s inability to manage the pressures of fame, or some men’s failure to play the support role?
The gossip columns and political pages alike seem to take a Buy-One-Get-One-Free approach to their respective celebrities. When an individual is thrust into the spotlight of fame for whatever reason, it’s rare that their other half escapes similar scrutiny. While some have chosen that path, and even in some cases engineered relationships to propel their own fame, others are less willing. Journalists seem to have little respect for such a position.
It’s all a familiar story to anyone involved in a local church. The expectations placed on the wives (and sometimes husbands) of church leaders are often unrealistically high, as they are placed in the congregational spotlight by their spouse’s calling. Many ministers’ wives have spoken of the pressure as they are expected to play the support role, raise children, develop a super-human ministry of hospitality and maintain a rock-solid and doubt-free faith. Regardless of whether theirs is a role that they chose and now welcome, we should be very careful not to place a weight of expectation on the person whose job it isn’t. The pressure of the spotlight can be crushing; let’s remember that public faces aren’t necessarily public property.