In search of Dr. Phil’s wife

I hate to admit it, but I occasionally watch “The Dr. Phil Show.” I like to think it keeps me up-to-date on what’s happening in the psyche of America’s middle class. Many times it’s hard to stay tuned, but I’ve developed an “I love to hate the Dr. Phil show” attitude. Dr. Phil is not a bad man. He wants to help people. Trouble is, he projects the notion that only he knows how to fix people, enabling them to heed Dr. Phil’s taped message at the beginning of every show, “I want you to get excited about your life.”

What I find troublesome about this scenario is that Robin’s life appears to be submerged in her husband’s.

The camera often zooms in on Dr. Phil’s wife, Robin, who sometimes shares the stage with Dr. Phil. On one such show we saw Robin sitting on a sofa with “abused” women as she tried to “empower” these women to “take back their lives.” This is not a bad thing to do except that much of the language used to get people “excited about their lives” is tired, trite, built on shibboleths and therefore ultimately ineffective.

What does it mean to “take back your life”? Does it mean to live your life in a way that is consistent with your values? Then say that! But that’s just the beginning. What are your values and just what, exactly, are values? Are these values appropriate as you live in the context of a wider community? Who decides what is appropriate?

Already with these few questions we’ve gone far beyond the scope of what can be handled effectively on a TV show that’s interrupted every whipstitch for a commercial break.

Robin has written a book titled “Inside My Heart: Choosing to Live with Passion and Purpose.” To promote her book, she again shared the stage with Dr. Phil, explaining that she wrote the book to let people know “who I am.” In spite of Dr. Phil’s announcement on that show that “Robin has become America’s new sweetheart,” do we really care? Would we even know Robin if there were no Dr. Phil show? I doubt it.

Robin wrote her book “as a woman.” Duh! How else could she write it? Dr. Phil has written several books. I’ve never heard him say, while promoting his books, “I’ve written my books as a man.” That sounds weird. Why doesn’t it sound just as weird when Robin (or any other female author) says she writes “as a woman?”

Robin’s life revolves around “being a woman first, then a wife, and then a mother.” In other words, being a woman, a wife and a mother take up all her time. She noted that a woman she spoke with recently was surprised to discover that Robin attended every taping of “The Dr. Phil Show.”

Robin was astonished that the woman thought it odd “that I would support Philip by attending all of the tapings.” What I find troublesome about this scenario is that Robin’s life appears to be submerged in her husband’s. We know that Robin has run an efficient home and taken good care of her children, deriving a lot of satisfaction from her role as mother. In addition, according to Dr. Phil himself, “Robin has been my soft place to fall.” All of this sounds very nice. But who is Robin? Would we ever hear Dr. Phil (or any other man) say, “I’m a man first, then a husband, and then a father?”

Even more troubling was seeing a woman on that show who found no satisfaction in having become a mother. Dr. Phil had Robin “speak” to this woman. What did Robin say? “Honey,” she said – and I’m paraphrasing – “you must get your hormones checked.”

This isn’t the first time Robin has talked about the importance of women monitoring their hormones, particularly estrogen and progesterone. That’s not bad advice, but haven’t we gotten over being reduced to our reproductive biology?

For centuries women were kept from taking part in the public sphere because of the fact that their wombs wandered around their bodies making them prone to hysteria (the word “womb” comes from the Greek word hyster).

Save us from hysterical women in the public sphere! Work in the public sphere belongs to rational, level-headed men.

Robin, speaking from her heart “as a woman” makes me think we are taking a giant leap backwards. It’s easy on some level to glorify the June Cleaver stay-at-home, support-your-man kind of woman when you have the means to do so (as Robin does). Most women can’t afford it.

But even if they could afford such a lifestyle, why would anybody choose to live a life submerged in another’s? Don’t we balk when we see that, noting that he (or she) needs to “get a life”?

The exception seems to be wives living as conduits for their husbands. Does Robin not have a wider vision of the world than her own family and her role of woman, wife, and mother? Who is she? I want her to get excited about her own life-not some version of her husband’s.

Esther Nelson is a religious studies instructor at VCU.

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