Democratic Underground  

The Pursuit of Happiness
Febraury 18, 2004
By The Plaid Adder

Last week, the Massachusetts state legislature called a constitutional convention in hopes of passing an amendment to the state constitution that would ban same-sex marriage, and thus prevent the court from forcing the state to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

This week, Fox broadcast two marriage-related reality shows. One is entitled "The Littlest Groom." Promoted via the slogan, "Does Size Matter?", the show features "a young man who is 4'5" tall" who will date various women and choose one lucky winner who will become his "true love," and presumably become the littlest groom's bride. The suspense, apparently, comes from waiting to see whether the littlest groom will choose a similarly little bride, or a bride of average stature.

The other is "My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance." Here, the premise is that a 'real' person, in this case a 23-year-old woman named Randi, has been offered an enormous sum of money to play an elaborate practical joke on her family by convincing them that she plans to marry a big fat obnoxious guy - and by actually planning and going through with a (fake?) wedding ceremony. The show itself is playing a practical joke on Randi, who believes that her fiance is another 'real' person like herself, when in fact he's an actor who is being paid to be as nightmarish a prospective son-in-law as possible.

So, this is how the right sees things, apparently. People like me and my partner are a deadly threat to the dignity and integrity of the sacred institution of marriage. The Fox Network is not.

The coalition of right-wing religious groups pushing the Federal Marriage Amendment always strives to present the situation as if marriage has always been a pure and simple thing, and we same-sex couples are the ones who are trying to throw a wrench in the works. History does not bear this out; nor, indeed, does contemporary American popular culture. All you have to do is turn on the television to see that straight America is deeply conflicted, intensely confused, and really, when you come right down to it, pretty messed up about marriage already. An alien from another planet who had to learn about American culture based solely on broadcast TV could easily conclude from the continued success of The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, Joe Millionaire, Jessica Simpson, and now Fox's two new hatchlings, that the GBLT community contains the last people in this country who still take marriage seriously.

What the explosion of reality-marriage TV shows us, apart from the fact that television producers will do anything for a buck, is that marriage American-style is being shaken to its foundations by the increasing friction between two of its conflicting components: the idea of marriage as social obligation and the idea of marriage as personal fulfilment.

From the religious right's point of view, the way to save the institution of marriage is to return to the idea of marriage as social obligation and forget about the idea of marriage as at all related to your individual happiness. From my point of view, the best thing that could happen to the institution of marriage would be for American law to stop trying to enforce an archaic version of marriage that has for better or worse already been superseded by reality, and instead accept the fact that the ideal of marriage as personal fulfillment is much more consistent with both American ideals of liberty and justice and the current state of marriage as it is actually practiced in this country.

The idea of marriage as the culmination of an intimate relationship based on love, passion, and sexual desire between a man and a woman who have chosen each other freely is a fairly recent invention. Right up through the nineteenth century, for most people, marriage in the Western world was essentially a business deal whereby a man secured exclusive rights to the body and property of his bride in exchange for taking her off her family's hands. Marriages were arranged not by the individuals involved but by their families, who were more focused on how the deal would improve their respective financial and social situations than on whether the two participants actually wanted to be together.

As the presumptive wage earner and the one who would assume complete legal control over the couple's property, the man was in a better position to accept his social obligation philosophically; after all, his wife would bring a dowry with her, and if she couldn't satisfy his sexual or emotional needs it was easy enough for him to go to other women. The woman's feelings about her prospective partner were, practically speaking, irrelevant; the match her family arranged for her would be an offer she couldn't refuse.

Economic, social, and psychological pressures combined to construct marriage as woman's unavoidable destiny. For a woman to evade marriage would alienate her family and put her very identity as a woman at risk. Outside of marriage, she would never be able to have a sex life without risking an illegitimate pregnancy, and then there was the basic question of how she would survive economically in a world where women above a certain class status were severely discouraged from working outside the home. She would have to marry someone; and once she did, she was pretty much stuck with him. Since, as everyone realized, most marriages were not in fact based on personal affection and therefore liable to lead to a certain amount of misery for both partners, the best way to preserve these unions was to make dissolving them as difficult, risky, and humiliating as possible.

Partly as a way of making this undeniably raw deal attractive to the women entering into it, the idea of marriage as the culmination of an intimate and passionate romance between a woman and the man predestined to be her soulmate was developed in poetry, fiction, and drama, and ultimately became a staple of most of the forms of popular culture that were (and by and large still are) primarily consumed by women.

Before there was the explosion of reality-marriage shows, there was a brief craze for film adaptations of Jane Austen novels, in which the idea of marriage as romantic fulfilment is recruited to soften what would otherwise be a fairly bleak depiction of the effect that the marriage market has on the women who are forced into it. In Austen's world, social obligation and personal happiness can be reconciled because her heroines learn to fall in love with appropriate men. Pride and Prejudice would be a lot uglier if Jane Bennett didn't have the good sense to really love the rich man her mother is pushing her toward, or if Elizabeth didn't learn to love the even richer man whose fortune will compensate for the fact that Elizabeth basically cost the family their estate by refusing to marry the asinine, bootlicking hypocrite who is destined to inherit it. The message is that you can fulfill your obligations and still have your passionate romance - as long as you make sure you fall in love with the kind of man that your family and your society want and need you to marry.

What happens as women start to become more financially and socially independent is that they get less interested in tailoring their emotional and sexual desires to suit their social obligations. And it's once that happens that we start to notice the conflict between the romantic idea of marriage and the socioeconomic aspect of it.

The most obvious symptom of this conflict is the ever-rising divorce rate. The idea of marriage as a lifetime commitment to one partner was supported in the past by social and economic forces that made it difficult and dangerous for women to leave a marriage in which they were not happy. The reality, as we appear to be seeing, is that without external coercion, about half of the people who currently get married are unwilling or unable to sustain a happy and healthy relationship over the course of their lifetime, or even over the course of the next ten years.

The social-obligation model of marriage demands a permanent lifetime commitment from both partners; the personal-fulfillment model dictates that once the relationship is dead, the marriage should die too. If straight people didn't expect their marriages to make them happy - or at least not to make them unhappy - they wouldn't divorce each other once they started to make each other miserable. They would just do what the American Family Association says gay people should do: stay in their heterosexual marriages and suffer.

When it comes to marriage, as with everything else, then, there is a tradeoff between freedom and security. The more freedom individuals have to marry people with whom they are actually in love, the more flexible the institution of marriage becomes. On the other hand, the more effectively a society enforces the ideal of marriage as a permanent heterosexual bond, the more drastically it restricts the personal liberty of the individuals who are trapped in those marriages.

And it's precisely the conflict between freedom and security that fuels the reality-marriage shows, in which the contestants are controlled from outside by the premise of the show and the rules of the game, and put under tremendous pressure to make themselves produce "true love" for one of their preselected eligible partners. Those who succeed in conforming to expectations will then claim the cash prize that stands in for the financial and social benefits that have always been attached to heterosexual marriage. The whole interest of the show is in the question of whether the contestants can produce the happy ending that the audience wants by reconciling their personal feelings to the restrictions created by the game.

To that extent, reality-marriage shows are merely continuing the work that fictional romances have always done by convincing the American viewing public that it is not only possible but easy to have your wedding cake and eat it too, as long as you play by the rules. But the fact that these shows involve real people - and, if it gets far enough, real marriages - is an indication that the ideal of marriage being championed by the religious right in this counry has already been destroyed.

If everyone in this country agreed that marriage really was necessarily a sacred, permanent, lifetime commitment between one man and one woman, no audience would stand for a show that pushed people into it this arbitrarily. You'd like to think, anyway, that the pleasure that viewers derived from shows like Who Wants To Marry a Multimillionaire? or Married By America or the new generation of arranged-marriage shows would be dampened somewhat by the awarenss of what these people were really risking.

Would people be as excited as they are about Trista and Ryan if they knew that they were going to be stuck in that manufactured romance for the rest of their lives? It would be like watching Survivor knowing that there would really be only one survivor, and the losers would be killed instead of merely put on a plane back to civilization. No, the only reason that the actual marriages of real people can become entertainment is that everyone realizes the stakes have been lowered, and that the sacred institution of heterosexual marriage has been trivialized to the point where it can become a practical joke - as it apparently will on My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance.

So when you consider where marriage has been brought to in this country, you would think people would look at the push for same-sex marriage as one of the few signs of hope for marriage as an American institution. Here you have a group of people who want nothing more than to be allowed to help protect the idea of marriage as a lifetime and loving commitment between two people who have chosen each other freely. These are people who have already risked much to be with the people they love, and are willing to risk more in order to ensure that their relationships are treated with the dignity they deserve. The first lesbian couple married by the renegade mayor of San Francisco had been together for fifty-one years. That's since 1953, folks. Imagine what they've gone through to stay in love for that long. And yet somehow, according to the religious right, they don't deserve to have their relationship legally recognized, and Trista and Ryan do.

That just is never going to make sense to me. Perhaps I'm just too much of a romantic for a culture that seems determined to find out just how cynical it can get. I can't get past the idea that marriage should be about love, that if you love someone who loves you back you should both work like hell to keep that love alive, and that you shouldn't make promises about a lifetime of love and commitment to a stranger who was picked out for you by a team of television producers.

I believe that love is real, that it matters, and that it is something to celebrate. And I believe that any two people who have managed to protect love from all the selfishness and greed and hatred that works against it are doing something good in the world, and that it should be recognized and supported, especially right now when this country is starving for light, hope, and good news.


The Plaid Adder's demented ravings have been delighting an equally demented online audience since 1996. More of the same can be found at the Adder's Lair.


View the Adder's Archive

Printer-friendly version
Tell a friend about this article Tell a friend about this article
Discuss this article
Democratic Underground Homepage