Tucker Carlson's breastfeeding jab at Pete Buttigieg is the epitome of homophobia – and of patriarchy

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Pete Buttigieg (EPA)

Remember that episode of The Office where Angela adopts a new cat? “This company still doesn’t recognize cat maternity,” she rants. “I mean somebody has a kid, oh sure, take off a year.”

“Cat maternity” is so patently absurd I guffaw every time. Paternity leave on the other hand – for humans, not felines – is hardly a laughing matter. Well, unless you’re Tucker Carlson.

The Fox News host and dimestore Dwight Schrute couldn’t pass up the opportunity to take a homophobic pot shot at Pete Buttigieg. The Transportation Secretary is coming back to work full-time after taking time off to spend with his husband and their two new adopted children. “Paternity leave, they call it,” Carlson smugly said, “trying to figure out how to breastfeed. No word on how that went.”

There’s more to unpack here than could fit on all the container ships Carlson could use to justify his homophobic quip. It speaks to how conservatives like Carlson view not only gay people, but the roles of women and men in the family and society. It shows the hypocrisy of elite conservatives like Carlson and his Fox News colleagues. And it underscores the need for paid parental leave across all sectors of the American economy.

A 2019 study by Pew found that the US ranks last out of nearly 50 nations when it came to parental leave. We are one of only three developed countries not to mandate paid parental leave, including maternity leave. Only five states and the District of Columbia require it at a subnational level. Because of this, despite the risks to women returning to work after giving birth – a physically arduous experience from which women require time to recover – one in four American women go back to work within two weeks after giving birth.

Clearly, when talking about paid parental leave, Americans are already starting from behind. Well, most Americans. Fox News actually does offer both maternity leave and paternity leave to its employees. Hosts Todd Piro and Jesse Watters both took paternity leave after the births of their children. “I used to mock people for taking paternity, I used to think it was a big ruse,” Watters said after returning from his own paternity leave. “But now, ya know, I wish I could take six weeks.”

I don’t recall Carlson having much to say about Watters or Piro. So why Buttigieg? Carlson would no doubt say that a public official – a cabinet secretary, no less – should be held to a higher standard than a television personality or everyday new mom or dad. We are in a time of crisis – I’ve written about supply chain shortages myself – and Buttigieg is a leader. He should be working for the American people, not at home with his family.

That’s fair – except Carlson didn’t say that. He made a joke about Buttigieg trying to breastfeed. Comparing gay men to women is a time-honored insult (though I don’t think being a woman is something insulting). This was not about container ships and supply chains; this was about homophobia and patriarchy, and Carlson’s desire to see what he perceives as the “natural order” of things restored.

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Let’s get real here. This “joke” was not about the Secretary of Transportation not doing his job; it was about a gay man pretending to be a woman.

There are two things men like Carlson can’t stand: uppity women and queers. They have rigid ideas of what the proper role for the sexes is, and a gay father taking parental leave to spend time with his husband and new babies challenges those ideas. It infuriates them because they see it as a violation of the natural order. To men like Carlson, women are God-ordained to care for the children and tend to home and hearth, while men are intended as breadwinners.

A gay couple like the Buttigieges challenges this notion. To see a man putting his children over his career, being nurturing, taking on the role of the primary caregiver upends Carlson’s worldview. It offends every backwards belief he has about gender roles and the labor women are meant to perform. Seeing Pete Buttigieg (or any man) feed an infant, change a diaper, or nurture a child demonstrates that men are just as capable of this as women. And if men can do women’s work, to a mind like Carlson’s, women might begin to think they can do men’s work – or worse expect men to help out with the “women’s work”.

Thus, the entire patriarchal order is shown to be what it is: a farce, a ruse, a lie. Fathers taking time off to nurture their children – and finding they enjoy it – goes against the doctrine of “separate spheres” that conservatives have been clinging to since the Victorian era.

It is tempting, I think, for us to consider this a product of a bygone era. Certainly, second wave feminism made great strides towards liberating women from effective home confinement. But in their landmark 1989 book The Second Shift, Arlie Hochschild and Anne Machung found that women of the late 20th century were not doing less housework as they began their careers. Rather, they were working an 8-hour day only to come home to have to still do a disproportionate share of household labor. Men found all sorts of inventive ways to avoid doing housework, including feigning incompetence and simply putting it off until their exasperated wives did it for them.

This phenomenon, known as “the double burden”, persists to this day. Despite nearly 60% of married couples both working outside the home, on average women still do two hours of housework more than men every day. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

And so to Carlson’s derision of Secretary Buttigieg. To him, a man taking paternity leave is not only absurd, but threatening, because he doesn’t want to be expected to provide that care. The notion that a man might want to care for his children, that he might want spend time at home in the domestic sphere, doing all the work that entails – to Tucker Carlson, that’s a ludicrous as taking maternity leave for a cat.

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