This morning, the French newspaper Le Figaro made some waves ahead of the upcoming state dinner to mark French President François Hollande’s visit to the U.S., by publishing a story in which the photographer Pascal Rostain alleged that the Washington Post was preparing to publish a story suggesting that President Obama and Beyoncé Knowles-Carter were having an affair, and that President Obama and his wife Michelle were preparing to divorce. The story has since been rolled back: the Post has vigorously denied having such a piece in development, and Rostain seems to have acknowledged that the rumor he spread was some sort of attempt at humor.
I’m loath to give stories like this attention, or to give attention to people who try to elude responsibility for eluding stupid sentiments or innuendo by declaring that they were “just joking,” as if humor is a genre that has no standards whatsoever. But the substance of this particular rumor strikes me as interesting and important. The idea that Obama must be having an affair with Knowles-Carter comes from a significant and damaging idea: that men and women can’t be friends.
I’m not really sure what evidence was supposed to exist to support the idea that the Obamas’ marriage was cooling, that President Obama was infatuated with Knowles-Carter, or that she in any way reciprocated his supposed affection. Was it that the couples have done some socializing, and that Knowles-Carter has performed as part of both of Obama’s inaugurations? That Obama and Knowles-Carter’s heads have been captured in the same news wire shots, because we all know how candid photos magically capture the deepest secrets of our souls, rather than simply recording our random facial expressions? That Knowles-Carter is to our present moment what Prince was to the 1980s, and we are all inexorably succumbing to her sexual thrall?
Mostly, I think the rumor comes from the idea that heterosexual men and women are, on some genetic level, incapable of being friends. Nevermind that Knowles-Carter’s latest album is a raunchy celebration of marital love and sex that brings in her husband on a guest verse to attest to how much fun they have together. Nevermind that the Obamas seem perfectly happy together, and appear to enjoy the time they spend in each other’s company. It just seems impossible for some people to believe that President Obama could admire Knowles-Carter for her formidable talent while feeling no particular need to elbow her husband, Jay-Z, out of the picture. And according to this vision of gender relations, Knowles-Carter, presented with the leader of the free world, wouldn’t be able to resist getting her claws into him, no matter what her relationship to her husband has meant to her in the past.
It’s awful to think that relationships between men and women don’t involve any free will or ability to grasp complexity, but instead are subjected to biological and sexual determination. On a personal level, this sort of suspicion can curtail promising friendships between men and women, and risks poisoning marital and romantic relationships by making straight couples horribly anxious about each other’s opposite-gender friends. If all heterosexual women and all heterosexual men are constantly out to seduce each other, it’s hard to imagine double dating, or long-time couples building sustainable friendships with other couples.
And in mass media, it renders relationships between men and women awfully predictable, though in recent years, we’ve seen some valuable pushback in this area. One of the things that makes FX’s The Bridge stand out, despite other first season missteps, is the fact that it has managed to build two friendships and partnerships between men and women. Though even that show lacked the confidence to do so without putting up obvious barriers to romances between the couples, rather than simply trusting them to sell the value of their friendships and professional collaborations. Reporters Daniel Frye (Matthew Lillard) and Adriana Mendez (Emily Rios) aren’t a possible romantic pairing because she’s a lesbian, and Detectives Sonya Cross and Marco Ruiz seem unlikely to get together because of her presence somewhere on the autism spectrum.
Parks and Recreation has acted with more confidence in this space. It never made sense that overeager Parks Department employee Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) and her libertarian boss, Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) would have romantic sparks because their views of the world are too fundamentally different (as distinct from the kind of manufactured clashes that so often drive pop cultural couples together). But their canny observations of each other’s strengths and weaknesses have made Leslie and Ron formidable allies to each other, particularly when they’re helping each other succeed in their romantic relationships. Ron, rather than a member of Leslie’s family, ends up giving her away at her wedding to Ben Watt. And Leslie is willing to go to extraordinary lengths to protect Ron from his ex-wives when he’s trying to begin a romance with a woman who might finally be a match for him. Parks and Recreation and Leslie and Ron’s relationship would both be poorer if the show had given in to men-and-women-can’t-be-friends determinism.
So let’s root for Barack and Michelle Obama and Shawn Carter and Beyoncé Knowles-Carter to stay friends. I suppose it’ll move magazine covers to suggest that both couples stay in trouble. But it’s a lot more fun to imagine a world where the first couples of politics and popular music get to hang out, where Barack and Michelle get to give Jay-Z and Beyoncé parenting tips, where Malia and Sasha baby-sit Blue Ivy while all the adults hang out, where Barack asks Bey what he should do for Michelle on Valentine’s Day, and Jay-Z talks Michelle through what she might do when the Obamas leave the White House.