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Santa Only Brought Me the Blues:
Family Holidays, Old and New
Elizabeth H. Pleck. Celebrating the Family: Ethnicity, Consumer Culture, and Family Rituals. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000. ix + 328 pp. Photographs, notes, and index. $57.95 (cloth); $24.00 (paper).
Readers familiar with the historiography of the American family will find the title of Elizabeth Pleck's Celebrating the Family agreeably suspicious. Historians of gender relations have, in recent decades, shown how the family ideal justified patriarchy, set the stage for separate spheres, and (as Pleck's last book depressingly demonstrated) hid habitually brutal, intimate violence. The family did not, it appeared, deserve celebration: it required state intervention to make it habitable. 1
As Pleck writes, it was an "unhappy" picture (p. vii), one that professional historians had painted partly out of political concern. "A political and cultural shouting match began in the late 1970s, which invoked the much-disputed term, 'family values.' One side advocated a single standard of family life and sexual morality; the other held that Americans had to accept cultural pluralism and diversity of sexual mores and family forms" (p. 3). Proponents of "the traditional family" had been among the Equal Rights Amendment's most fearsome opponents. 2 Many historians of the family found that their work willy nilly became political fodder. Even to speak of "the family" meant taking a conservative stand: blandly to celebrate "the family" was something only the most cynical of politicians would undertake.
The proponents of "family values" descended to such buffoonery (including Vice President Dan Quayle's attack on the television character Murphy Brown) that they deserved no serious intellectual support, but some scholars nevertheless could not avoid a sense of disquiet at the pat dichotomy between anti-statist, traditional-family disciplinarians and welfare-state liberals who favored familial pluralism. Most notably, Christopher Lasch wrote with increasing frequency and heat to decry the encroachment of the state on family life. The advance of what Lasch called the "therapeutic state"--the family courts, the social workers, the state-sanctioned psychologists and counselors who regulated private behavior in the public interest--diminished [End Page 98] not only individual responsibility but our very humanity, reducing our sense of what was worth while to the most banal form of well-being--feeling good, preferably all the time. (The talking therapy was nothing compared to Prozac and Viagra, those chemical regulators of family happiness whose ascendance Lasch did not live to see. But his thesis makes the recent struggle for gender equity in sexual health--which is focused on getting female contraception funded on a similar basis with Viagra--thoroughly predictable.) Lasch recruited some intellectual allies--including Jacques Donzelot, whose Policing of Families looked with similar skepticism on the application of public good to private life--but such scholars were few. By 1996, when linguist George Lakoff tried to explain "what conservatives know that liberals don't" about the importance of family to all Americans' implicit social philosophy, the gloriously paradoxical values of the First Family had begun to drive public debate on sexual morals beyond the reach of subtle intellection into the passions of regicide. 3
With Pleck's "public shouting match" lately fallen into a temporarily embarrassed hush, academic family history speaks less directly to political concerns than it once did. But it has not yet reaped the benefits of political detachment, either. The Journal of Family History did not on its twentieth birthday in 1996 devote in-depth attention to the issues Tamara Hareven raised when she saw "family history at the crossroads" in 1986. What the field did at the crossroads--whether it went right or left, or sold its soul--remains unclear. Lasch's challenge has gone largely unanswered: has family really meant nothing to Americans without hegemony giving it shape? 4
Pleck takes up the challenge on behalf of certain groups--"Catholics, non-whites, and non-Christians"--not only, as she says, "to compensate" for past overemphasis on WASPs (p. 13) but also...