Thursday, July 14, 2011

Genre coining time: Fauxbivalence, or the apathetic bride

Of all the unique-snowflakiness that accompanies the contemporary discussion of marriage - will a wedding be punk-themed or country-modern? do I want my dress to say "romantic" or "sexy"? - there's one manifestation of that tendency I find most irritating of all, and that's a genre I will call "fauxbivalence," with the caveat that the term sounds a bit like a claim that someone isn't really bisexual, so until I think of a better term, it's pronounced "bih". What it is, rather, is excessive hand-wringing - 99.9999% of the time on the part of the woman in a hetero relationship - about the institution of marriage. While this is sometimes about it being unfair that gays can't marry, it's rarely that, and increasingly less so as those restrictions wane. More often, it's couched in terms of a semi-articulated feminism, a vague sense that, as noble and natural as it is to want to be paired off with one other person, of the/a sex you're attracted to, the whole thing becomes tacky and pathetic, really, when the person wanting this is a woman, her partner a man.

And I get it - female sexuality is often assumed to be entirely about "relationships," more specifically about an end goal of marriage-and-kids, which can be annoying for girls and women who want something else. And once a woman does want to settle down with a particular man, she doesn't want her whole existence up till that point retroactively defined as having been all about getting there. And it's tempting, especially if your crowd are not ring-squealing-sorts, to play down enthusiasm for recent or upcoming nuptials, and play up the extent to which a marriage is about bureaucratic convenience.

But seriously, ladies, once you're at the point that you've been with the same guy for a long time, living together and everything, there is no wheel for you to reinvent. It is likely that if things are going well, making things official will make your lives easier, and will be a development pleasing to both parties. It's much easier to say "husband" than to go into a long story about how many years you've been together. It's shorthand that people recognize, which is why - along with the bureaucratic reasons - there's so much emphasis on the need for same-sex marriage.

But noooo. If it's me who's in that situation, it's different. I'm not like all those bride-y women. I'm well-educated! I'd never even consider a French manicure! I'm uncomfortable with "marriage," even if I'm fully comfortable with everything marriage normally entails. But you see, I operate on this totally different level, even though what I want, boringly enough, is a serious commitment, recognized by others, to a member of the opposite sex. Note: I am paraphrasing the genre, and fully own and see no reason to apologize for my own unoriginality in this regard.

In a recent contribution to this genre (via Patrick Appel at the Daily Dish) perhaps intended to ride the provocative coattails of Savage-via-Oppenheimer, Nona Willis Aronowitz, a 20-something woman, declares that she wishes she had not gotten married, even though things are great with her husband. What what? A young woman (from a super-progressive family, it seems) who has not dreamed since childhood of her princess wedding? I know, I'm also stunned to learn such a woman might exist. She must be a very eccentric person.

My first thought was, Aronowitz seems to mistake a wedding for a marriage. No one forces anyone to have the massive, traditional wedding, to be, as it were, that bride. (OK, some parents kind of do, but anyway.) If you're not up for that - and I was not - you can go another route. But elopement, City Hall, casual parties for friends (that I should really get to organizing, but this whole being in Germany thing...), irony if you're a hipster - these are about not taking the party seriously. Whether you go on "Say Yes to the Dress" or show up in Vegas in cutoffs, you leave married all the same.

Aronowitz insists, though, that her marriage is different, not just her blasé approach to its aesthetic trappings. It's a similar case as Dana Stevens (I think) made in a recent Slate Culture Gabfest - she's married, but uncomfortable with the terminology and institution. I'm telling you, this is a genre, almost to the point where you have to pick a camp - either you needed to be "princess for a day" or you were totally reluctant about tying the knot.

Anyway, I read Aronowitz's essay, and am not seeing what makes her marriage unlike anyone else's. In what way did she and her husband reinvent this particular wheel? One man, one woman, cohabitation, presumption of monogamy, presumption of duration, declarations of love. Not two friends marrying for health insurance. She has "no idea if we’ll make it forever," but legal (no-fault, esp.) divorce, and the inability to ever fully know the mind of another person, does anyone?

Ah, but with her it's different: "According to the black-and-white, 'til-death-do-us-part' rules of marriage, that’s just not acceptable." Where are these rules? Are we in France, prior to my imaginary friend Alfred Naquet's valiant and ultimately successful 19th C efforts at reinstating legal divorce? Are we all living in tight-knit religious-fundamentalist communities? There's already a marriage designed for people not sure if they want to be together forever, and it's called "marriage." I will join Dan Savage and other such social conservatives in saying that that's a poor attitude to have going into it, and that every reasonable effort should be made to stay together, especially if there are kids involved, but things happen. The institution of marriage as it exists is awfully close to the civil union Aronowitz says she'd prefer, far closer than many would like.

Aronowitz's official story is that she lacked all the usual 20-something-in-long-term-relationship thoughts about marriage being maybe not such a bad idea, and just went through with it to get her dude health insurance. As Appel suggests, she "makes the case for decoupling health insurance from employment rather than for heterosexual civil unions[.]" But I disagree with Appel insofar as it doesn't really seem like Aronowitz married for just one pragmatic reason. Her relationship is not in any definable way unlike a marriage. As much as marriage is too stifling for her and all that, she does kind of get why it's a better set-up for long-term couples such as hers, noting, "in bureaucratic situations, invoking 'husband' rather than 'boyfriend' or 'domestic partner' is highly effective." You don't say.

This bit, however, is probably the closest Aronowitz gets to explaining how her marriage differs from Marriage as we know it: "My coworkers from the suburbs had been hard-pressed to find anything to talk to me about, but now they were fawning all over me. Buried in their generic 'congratulations!' were little epiphanies—they’d finally found a way to relate to me."

Remember that it's Phoebe from WWPD here, head of the Cityfolk Anti-Defamation League, last person to be expected to come to the cultural defense of "Real America." But this... just... It's not as though there are on the one hand suburban automatons who think that marriage is important and exciting, and on the other interesting, original snowflakes who live in Brooklyn-or-equivalent who've reinvented the human-relational wheel. The reason your unironic colleagues who did not like or even know that band before they got big are excited is because this whole pairing-off thing is a universal experience. Beneath the layers of North Face or Beacon's Closet, Ann Taylor or American Apparel, once at home on the couch, their lives and yours are just the same. You don't get to declare the institution too bourgeois and boring for you if you've done nothing particular to make yours different, and if you're satisfied with an arrangement just like everyone else's.

Aronowitz says that when she tells her marriage story, "the marrieds get a little nervous," which I suppose would be flattering for someone who chooses to identify as too ironic or I'm not quite sure what for such a bourgeois institution. But I suspect she's confusing eye-rolling for something more profound. These "marrieds" probably think, here's someone who is, like ten zillion other people, married to an appropriate-enough partner of the opposite sex, after a dating courtship typical of those of her milieu and generation. Married people already knew, without Aronowitz spelling it out, that marriages sometimes end in divorce. The reason one doesn't hear this kind of thing - an early-marriage prediction of its possible demise - more often is that it's depressing to speculate on the end of a currently-good relationship. But it's depressing even if the relationship's not a marriage. If the author and her guy had been together for years and she was saying maybe it would work out, maybe not, that too would have induced a good cringe. All that a "married" is likely to take from this is that Aronowitz is less enthusiastic about her husband than they are, something that in no way threatens one's own marriage (quite the contrary, it might induce smugness). My own reaction, as a "married," was to hope the husband's OK with both his wife's lack of enthusiasm for their union, and her choice to share that with the Internet.

15 comments:

Britta said...

I've noticed over time that people who like to speak/write publicly about how complicated their life is in compared the pedestrian, conformist existence of others generally tend to actually have exceedingly ordinary lives and crave feeling special. I feel like if your life actually is complicated, it's usually kind of stressful and not something you want to have to open up to or constantly rehash all the time to strangers. Also, if your life actually is super complicated, you probably feel more envious of people who appear to have more straightforwardly happy lives rather than smug or superior.

Miss Self-Important said...

I *heart* the line about the suburbs! But I already knew from that Styles society clubs piece that NY brains develop faster than Wisconsin brains, so it makes good sense to me. Then I stopped reading b/c I figured the article wouldn't be able to top it.

As a speculating married, I offer the suggestion that the health insurance was just a cover for her to indulge in a little bourgeois fantasy that would be otherwise difficult to admit to. After all, if the insurance is such a big problem, can't the husband get himself a job that provides it? Or buy some private insurance? Spousal health benefits do still cost money; it's not as though this marriage got them a big free gift.

Phoebe said...

Britta,

"and crave feeling special."

Yes.

"I feel like if your life actually is complicated, it's usually kind of stressful and not something you want to have to open up to or constantly rehash all the time to strangers."

Yes.

MSI,

"I *heart* the line about the suburbs!"

It sure was something. If she's managed to get me worked up in defense of the non-urban, does this woman ever have magic up her sleeve.

"As a speculating married, I offer the suggestion that the health insurance was just a cover for her to indulge in a little bourgeois fantasy that would be otherwise difficult to admit to."

Yes. An acquaintance (in the traditional, not Google+, sense) of mine got married a while back "for insurance," and it was so that situation.

"Spousal health benefits do still cost money; it's not as though this marriage got them a big free gift."

True enough. The "big free gift" is she can now call her boyfriend her husband. But, but, that's just so limiting.

Miss Self-Important said...

Maybe our generation is just maladapted. When we start having children, are we going to write about how, "it was just for the private school parent networking opportunities"?

X.Trapnel said...

I'm broadly sympathetic here, but I think there's at least one thing missing from this analysis: the extent to which marriage has become, over the last two decades or so, a central focus in culture-war struggles.
You say that Ms. Aronowitz marriage is, well, just a marriage, like anyone else's. I tend to agree, but for nontrivial--and very vocal--segments of the population, marriage is more than just "one man, one woman, cohabitation, presumption of monogamy, presumption of duration, declarations of love"--it's the thoroughly value-laden seed of starting a family, which is inextricable from ideas about gender roles, how to raise children, setting down roots in a community, etc.
In other words, it's not just that the Aronowitzes of the world are obsessing about what precious snowflakes their relationships are; it's also that Focus on the Family and its ilk have been telling the Aronowitzes, for decades, that marriage is a very specific thing, a thing they have good reasons to reject.
In their attempt to come up with a justification for keeping gays out of marriage, the religious right has (attempted to, partially, add other qualifications) radicalized marriage. This radical version is easier to get excited about, but also easier to feel ambivalent about, or reject.

Phoebe said...

X. Trapnel,

"[...] Focus on the Family and its ilk have been telling the Aronowitzes, for decades, that marriage is a very specific thing, a thing they have good reasons to reject."

Commenters here are often reminding me how out of touch I am with Real America - often new commenters who don't know that, for a native NYer, I've had a good bit more exposure to it than might be expected, and, unlike what some might imagine, I was not raised by socialist intellectuals on the Upper West Side. My sense, having Googled the author, being reminded of who her (famous) mother was, and from her own bio including as gauged from this essay, is that, if the religious right has had approximately no influence whatsoever on my idea of what marriage has to be, this is not someone Focus on the Family is reaching, not by a long shot. The author is someone in whose milieu it is actually kind of bizarre to have been married for two years already while still in one's 20s. Social pressure on her to enter a "covenant marriage" or some such is nil. In acting like she's being asked to do this, she's really usurping others' fights, both gays whose desired union is in fact impossible federally and in most states, and straights who are, in fact, under the influences you mention. She could approach this question as an ally to both of those groups, but instead she claims that she has been oppressed, which I find utterly bizarre.

But as to your broader point, of course there's nonsense, and arguably more dangerous nonsense, to complain about re: the right when it comes to marriage-related questions. (I've been semi-following all the Bachman stuff...) For the last couple decades, but also more or less always - I have yet to hear of an era in modern times when marriage was not politicized, and when social conservatives of the day weren't condemning any and all newfangledness. All of that, though, is another issue, separate from it being ridiculous that straight/straight-enough-to-want-to-marry-a-man women need to hem and haw over desires shared near-universally across sex and sexual-orientation lines. However, I might point out that part of where I was going with this (admittedly editor-needing) post was to note that marriage's specialness - not the right-wing idea, but the idea that it's not just living together - is why there is, in fact, that fight for SSM. Indeed, I'd argue that women such as Aronowitz, who are lucky enough to be happy in precisely the relationship society at large deems most acceptable, would do better to (dare I say it) acknowledge their privilege, than to claim some kind of unspecified personal identification with sexual minorities, to claim to somehow share in their oppression.

X.Trapnel said...

Too long for comments response, here.

Phoebe said...

Yours is a very generous reading of Aronowitz's essay, so generous, in fact, that I'm thinking it's your essay, a much stronger one than hers, on what Aronowitz ought to have written if she'd indeed written an essay worth being seriously grappled with. I mean, if Aronowitz had given reasons why marriage made her uncomfortable, reasons more substantive than the charming "suburbs" remark, if she had articulated the "liberal individualist" stance you ascribe to her, then I would not have been so quick to lump her in with the other snowflakes. I'll get to your critique in a moment, but I really do think this critique is yours, not hers. Hers, unfortunately, belongs to a category of writing and thought, popular, it seems, in recent years, in which a woman whose romantic desires are not unusual decides to identify as, in some unspecified way, Other. As I say in the post, I'm sympathetic, insofar as there is this expectation that women will have only the most predictable desires in this area. (This is, as I've mentioned before, why you'll have straight, not-at-all-transgender women saying they feel like gay men trapped in women's bodies.) But that's not reason enough to pretend that when predictable desires are what's at stake, something more interesting - and more challenging to societal norms - is going on. Unless what a woman wants really is outside the norm, her fight for justice in this area needs to be as an ally.

"I also think it’s a misleading [...] to talk about couplehood as universal, in the way you seem to here (and in other posts); the existence of sexual desire may be near universal, but the forms of relationships are anything but!"

Let me clarify, then, since that's not actually quite how I see things. It's not that we are are biologically determined to form marriages-as-understood-in-the-contemporary-U.S. It's that this arrangement - with a whole lot of range in what it ultimately means behind and sometimes not behind closed doors - ends up working for most people in our society, for at least a good bit of their adult lives. So yes, of course, there's a great range in how people express themselves romantically, but it's a bit much to expect state-recognized categories for every variation. If Aronowitz gets her "marriage lite," what about the religious types who really, really think marriage is forever? Does the state need to recognize that as well? What about the people who think marriage is forever but shouldn't impact your credit score? Those who think the reverse? The massive convenience of having a term that's shorthand for "partner," one that unlike "partner" does not suggest business dealings, and one that unlike "girlfriend" does not suggest adolescence and/or a fling, outweighs the fact that these descriptions are always imperfect, and what "wife" means to one man or, in some states, woman varies tremendously. Tremendously, but not infinitely. Which brings me back to the question of what makes Aronowitz's relationship outside the range of what "marriage" tends to mean in our society, other than that she has an aesthetic preference for speaking ill of the institution because it's so bourgeois.

X.Trapnel said...

I think you're right that I'm trying to give a generous interpretation--or rather, some thoughts on why such a genre might make sense now, rather than trying to examine the conventions of weaknesses of the genre as a literary form.

In defense of my generosity, though, I'd point out that in her case, this isn't just rebelling against bourgeois standards--it's also simply living the way she was brought up. If you grow up Lutheran in a Calvinist community, it may seem pettily nitpicky to insist that your way of worship is distinct and special and don't just lump me in as a Protestant, damnit, but from the inside it feels quite reasonable. If you're brought up by radicals who explicitly disavow the desirability of marriage, why *shouldn't* you feel uncomfortable with it, especially if you sold out for a mere 7k hospital bill?

Britta said...

I think a part of it, drawing from Phoebe's and X. Trapnel's comments, and from my own experience growing up in a lefty West coast city where marriage was optional, is how strange it is that she has such vehement feelings towards marriage. Being raised Lutheran, I get and appreciate X Trapnel's comment, but I am wondering where she would be getting the need for defensiveness or to mark distinction from. Being raised by Jewish socialists in NY, I doubt she spent much time around people who thought marriage was the only option and everything else was sin, or where she was ostracized for being countercultural. If her only desire is to make sure that people know that she is not some poor sap with a house in the suburb who, you know married for love, then she's just a giant snob.

Phoebe said...

X. Trapnel,

"some thoughts on why such a genre might make sense now, rather than trying to examine the conventions of weaknesses of the genre as a literary form."

In that case, I think you may have overshot the mark when it comes to generosity wrt this particular essay. The problem I had with it was precisely that it, like others of its kind, never articulates why "marriage" is a problem for the author. I hope I made clear, in my last comment, that the issue isn't that I think all people in all times, or even our own, want marriage, but rather that those who do don't get to claim that what they want is something radically different. If they did, then you'd be onto something, and this would be a genre that has a point. But they don't, so it isn't. My sense, from Aronowitz, from Grose, etc., is that what they want isn't a civil union but a MyMarriage, in which their uniqueness is recognized. Meanwhile, if, as you suggest in your post, we take Aronowitz very literally at her word, and it was all about health insurance, and had to be dealt with ASAP, then, as Appel suggests, she ought to have written an essay on how screwed-up the health care system is. But it doesn't appear, to MSI, Britta, or me, that she really did marry just for that reason. This is because, still taking at her word, she herself admits it has its plusses. And even, to give your Focus on the Family example, I fail to see how Aronowitz's marriage is unusual, not just within her own milieu, but how it would be unusual even in "Real America." She's in her 20s and married to one man. So she doesn't have a kid yet - maybe she will next year.

"In defense of my generosity, though, I'd point out that in her case, this isn't just rebelling against bourgeois standards--it's also simply living the way she was brought up."

Here, I can only add... Britta said. Which is, I think, something I also addressed in my last comment - who, precisely, is making Aronowitz uncomfortable with the idea of marriage? Yes, it was (to be generous here) foisted upon her by the need to get her bf health insurance. But its meaning could have been whatever she chose. Indeed, perhaps the only option not open to her, if she's to be true to her origins, is just getting married and being excited rather than ambivalent about it. That she's not rebelling against anything makes me think that's perhaps more the issue - this is someone whose desires are too bourgeois for what she's comfortable with.

And it does come across, to give an interpretation less generous than my snowflake one, but Britta has a point, as snobbery. Aronowitz doesn't consider that the non-urban, non-hipster contingent also have marriages that are each unique arrangements.

Britta said...

Here's another entry in a similar genre (also involving Jessica Grose), this one about "Potter virgins" http://www.slate.com/id/2299131/
A mildly amusing construct was totally ruined by the participants' repeated over emphasis on how aloof and out of touch they are from a mass-cultural phenomenon. As a commenter pointed out, the whole first half was them repeatedly pointing out how they know nothing of HP, a fact which was already made evident in the title, and actually had very little substantive about their impressions of the movie. Instead of being a funny outsider's take of the movie, it's an obnoxious bore designed to show (off) how little they care about HP.

Phoebe said...

Britta,

I know the genre you mean, and having skimmed that, see how it fits. It's kind of like on Slate's Culture podcasts, whenever anything at all pop-culture comes up, and this tone of cringe-inducing condescension mixed with hipster-irony ensues. It also seems like a feature that used to be on Jezebel (Grose's last home publication), where two hipsters got stoned and gave relationship advice - I suspect that's implied here, esp. given Grose's emphasis on her hipster-who-likes-pot-ness in the workout article (the bachelorette party with pot and "Clueless"). If the entire world were 11th grade, she'd score major points for this.

As for how it fits with fauxbivalence, this is definitely also about being in some kind of cool clique into adulthood, when this kind of thing really no longer matters unless you decide it must for you personally (the 30-ish married hipster, oxymoron?), and definitely comes from the same kind of people. But with fauxbivalence, as X. Trapnel's response suggests, and as I also suggest with the paragraph in the post about how "I get it," there's a kernel of genuine discomfort. Note, for example, that it's only women who write these things, not men. It's not simply about feeling too bourgeois - it's also about there being an assumption in the culture at large that women only ever want marriage. This genre you point to is pretty much entirely about mocking the insufficiently hip.

Britta said...

True, that's a good point. There's far more social pressure as a woman to get married than to like Harry Potter (though...I like picturing their condescension as stemming from a "kernel of genuine discomfort" towards pressure to love Harry Potter, rather than just thinking themselves too cool for school ;)

Ted said...

My partner and I aren't married because marriage is too patriarchal for us.

X.Trapnel has it right.

I wouldn't have put it quite that way, because I think the reason Focus on the Family etc. have been doing this is because they already felt that way about marriage. And it's the large number of people who already felt that way about marriage who made me unwilling to get married.

Marriage involves other people pushing gender roles on you.

It does. There have been books about this. You get married, and suddenly people see you differently -- not as you but as A Wife or A Husband. YOU see you differently; you've internalized those gender-based social roles, and now you're A Wife/Husband and there's a part of you that feels you should be enacting that role. That pushes that role on you. Even though you consciously dislike it.

You turn into the couple in /The Handmaid's Tale/ when the "husbands own their wives" law is passed. Remember how his attitude changes when the law does? :two-hour search: OK, here it is:

"Women can't hold property anymore, she said. It's a new law.... Luke can use your [debit card] for you, she said. They'll transfer your number to him, or that's what they say. Husband or male next of kin....

"[S]omething had shifted, some balance. I felt shrunken, so that when he put his arms around me, gathering me up, I was small as a doll. I felt love going forward without me.

"He doesn't mind this, I thought. He doesn't mind it at all. Maybe he even likes it. We are not each other's, anymore. Instead, I am his."

It's the same when a straight couple gets married. Not to such an extreme degree, not today, not when women can hold property etc. But it's the same in kind.

Don't forget the root of the word husband. You husband a piece of land. What once was a human being is now a piece of land to be owned, and tilled, and planted. I don't know about you, but that viscerally repulses me.

So: "So then what happens if someone who’s always felt that way suddenly finds not-marrying no longer a costless expression of cultural identity but a significant financial sacrifice? Well, this particular couple married. And now she’s finding that she was right to think there was a significant difference between Married and Not, because she feels uncomfortable—mislabeled—as Married."

Well, of course!

Most people who dislike those gender roles would rather get married anyway and just have a marriage where they [strike]struggle vainly against[/strike]choose not to enact those roles.

I strongly support them if they can pull it off.

As for me, though, I have a domestic partner instead.

Our relationship isn't a precious snowflake or whatever. Marriage is just too patriarchal for us. And that's that.

"Let’s take her at her word: they got married because they were faced with an unexpected 7k hospital bill if they didn’t."

Oh, ouch. We almost did something similar. In the end we couldn't bring ourselves to do it. We went into thousands of dollars of debt instead.

TBH, Phoebe, I'm really shocked that you don't see this, that you don't already understand this. I mean, that you don't is a good sign, I guess; it's a sign that your conception of marriage isn't so patriarchal. But until the rest of the country agrees with you...

:reads actual Aronowitz essay:

She honestly made her point pretty clear: "[Domestic partnership] gives you many of the benefits of matrimony without all of the accompanying cultural expectations."

I'm really not sure why you're not grasping this. Cultural baggage = cultural baggage; what's so hard about that? You're basically doing a "but the Yuletide Secret Santa story exchange isn't *Christian*!"