Deposing the Man of the House: Terry McMillan Rewrites the Family

By Ellerby, Janet Mason | MELUS, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

Deposing the Man of the House: Terry McMillan Rewrites the Family


Ellerby, Janet Mason, MELUS


In Terry McMillan's first novel, Mama, Mildred's husband is holding fiercely to his notion of being the "man of the house" within the nuclear family:

Crook...found his thick brown leather belt.... Then he made her drop

her coat next to it, then her cream knit dress, and then her girdle. When

all she had on was her brassiere and panties, he shoved her into the

bedroom where she crawled to a corner of the bed. Crook kicked the

door shut and the kids cracked theirs. Then they heard their mama

screaming and their daddy hollering and the whap of the belt as he

struck her.

"Didn't I tell you you was getting too grown?" Whap. "Don't you

know your place yet girl?" Whap. (7-8)

I juxtapose this disturbing scenario with the following from Jean Bethke Elshtain's Power Trips and Other Journeys in which she writes of society's need for the re-instatement of conventional nuclear family values:

Familial authority...is...part of the constitutive background required

for the survival and flourishing of democracy. Family relations could

not exist without family authority, and these relations remain the best

way we know anything about to create human beings with a developed

capacity to give ethical allegiance to the background presumptions

and principles of democratic society. (54)

This is not from a Pat Roberson supporter. Elshtain, who explicitly identifies herself as a feminist (xiii), makes a case for "the family"--a specific household arrangement of mother, father, and children. She is talking about traditional, mainstream family values--firm, unchanging entities--as the means to secure democracy. Ironically, her stance puts her in the camp of the socially conservative right, those who cheered George Bush when he maintained that we need a nation closer to The Waltons, who applauded Dan Quayle's condemnation of Murphy Brown as a single parent, and who want the Legal Defense Fund abolished because it helps poor women get divorces.

McMillan, however, resists following the script written by mainstream American discourse that imposes the cultural ideals of White patriarchal domesticity across the borders of race, class, ethnicity, and sexual preference. In her first three novels, Mama (1987), Disappearing Acts (1989), and Waiting to Exhale (1992), this hegemonic discourse is reconfigured, and her families look nothing like the Waltons. Despite Bush's endorsement, the Waltons represent a damaging American myth, one that idealizes the patriarchal family as the necessary configuration for emotional security and psychological health, the sine qua non for a smoothly functioning, moral democracy. As this myth denies racial, ethnic, and class diversity, it encourages debilitating feelings of guilt, betrayal, and rage, since both minority and mainstream American families often cannot or refuse to conform to the myth's prescriptive ideological values.

The monolithic family values the Waltons represented in the 1970s were reinscribed in the 1980s by the Cosbys, another idealized, intact family with professional parents whose first priority was always their well-dressed, Waltonized children. McMillan's polemical novels reject the dominant patriarchal family values reinforced by the Waltons and the Cosbys and propounded by the Christian right. However, such values are an historical arrangement, a construct that is neither "natural, biological, or `functional' in a timeless way" (Thorne 4), nor, indeed, descriptive of the majority of families in this country. McMillan's fiction promotes alternatives to the dominant by reconfiguring family arrangements--what they are and what they might become. Her work is important because it depicts Black family life outside the norms idealized by the White middle class. Furthermore, she refuses to define the Black family as a pathological unit that can do nothing more than sustain the conditions of its oppression.

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