It seems like we’ve been reading a lot about marriage these days. The royal wedding swallowed every women’s website (ours included) for what seemed like a hundred days on end. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie recently made headlines for saying they might finally cave in and marry, despite the fact that marriage is still a tool of discrimination against LGBT folk (their original reason for waiting), because their kids are asking them to. (Children! Making decisions for adults!) And now that George Clooney has split with girlfriend Elisabetta Canalis, press outlets have immediately jumped on the totally unconfirmed theory that her desire to marry was the ultimate “deal breaker” for the couple’s continued happiness. Not that they grew apart, began to get on each other’s nerves, didn’t love each other anymore, or any of the gazillion reasons couples break up all the time. She said she wanted to get married in an interview once, and Clooney said he didn’t in a separate interview he did a while back, so it must have been that!
“It looked like she was going to succeed where so many others had failed,” began the Daily Mail article on the breakup. “Succeed.” Like she’s playing a game of Super Mario Brothers II and Clooney is King Koopa, and she must defeat/castrate him in order to win the prize (Princess Peach=marriage, ‘natch). Because marriage=trapping a man against his will with your vagina=a woman’s only mode of success. How very adversarial! Even if that was the reason they broke up, it’s horribly depressing that this is the narrative the media decides to pounce on time and again. It’s the new millennium, people. Let’s try to be a little less medieval in our obsessions.
It’s not that I’m against marriage. My best friend since childhood married her boyfriend of eight years recently, and when I saw them expressing how much they mean to each other, I got downright misty eyed. I get it: weddings are nice, and some people like to have them. Personally, I don’t know if I’ll ever feel like getting married, but I certainly haven’t ruled it out. It’s a social act that works for many. But it also has a really dark history. Marriage used to be inextricably linked with the idea of women as property. A woman was her father’s property until she got married, at which point she would switch out her father’s last name for her husband’s, indicating that she had changed hands. “Giving her away” was not just a sweet tradition; her father was literally giving her to her husband, like he would give him a farm animal or a houseplant. And then there is the issue of discrimination. With the exception of a few states, marriage in the U.S. is a legal right that’s still withheld from a large portion of the population. I respect anyone who wants to reinvent this institution in modern terms and make it work for them, but it’s also not hard to see why some people would want to avoid it altogether.
Maybe this marriage obsession is a reaction to all the brazen harlotry that currently exists in our culture. The ol’ virgin-whore dichotomy. Sometimes, we even combine them into one persona (see: ’90s Britney Spears, child bride Courtney Stodden). If so, that’s another reason it bothers me. You see, women are neither “virgins” nor “whores” (even the ones who are literally virgins or whores), but nuanced human beings, just like men. This probably seems obvious to you, but it’s still tricky for some people to grasp.
I realize I don’t have to read about marriage if I don’t want to, but it’s just fucking everywhere these days, and it’s almost always reported on in a boring, gender essentialist way. Maybe we, the media, just need to pull back a little bit and try out some new narratives for a change. Maybe then, we can come back around to marriage not as the single culminating event of a woman’s life, but as something two people who love each other might decide to do together if it’s right for them. But I’m afraid that wouldn’t sell very many magazines.