Two weekends after same-sex couples lost their right to marry in the state of California, I found myself in Maryland at a wedding ceremony officiated by a lesbian minister. “Throughout history, in every culture all over the world, communities have come together to affirm the power of the marriage bond to build strong families and to celebrate and support love like the love that [X] and [X] feel for each other. By your presence in this room today, you’re signifying your approval and support, not just of [X] and [X], but of marriage as an institution,” she said at the outset of the ceremony.
I squirmed in my seat, the same way I’d squirmed at an engagement party I attended earlier this year when the groom’s father raised his glass and toasted what he viewed “less as a marriage and more of a merger between two families.”
A few nights ago, I met up with my college friend Val. She lives in Philadelphia so I don’t get to see her as often as I’d like. She has a half-sleeve tattoo of Barbarella and recently completed a documentary film about selling her panties online. She also just recently got officially engaged to her longtime boyfriend, as in, they are actually making wedding plans, though they’re the low-key, friend-officiates-and-then-we-all-go-to-a-bar kind. “You don’t have to wear, like, a ring or whatnot,” I asked a few minutes after we first met up. I couldn’t see her left hand — it was was protected, by a mitten, from the wind that was shearing down Fulton St. towards us as we walked to buy wine to bring to the BYOB Senegalese restaurant.
“No no no no,” Val said. “Although sometimes I think I should. Like, I would get hit on by creeps less.”
“The kind of people who you don’t want to be hit on by aren’t going to be put off by a ring,” I said. “And you don’t want to be marked as a man’s, like …” and then we said, in perfect unison, “chattel.”
It was a bizarre moment because, like, how often do you say the word “chattel” aloud? Is it even possible to use it in any other context? “I’m moving, so I’m trying to get rid of a lot of my chattel.” You could say that, I guess: all ‘chattel’ actually means is ‘personal property that isn’t land or buildings.’ ‘Slave’ is only one of the things it could mean.
“That marriage is a failure none but the very stupid will deny,” Emma Goldman wrote in her 1911 treatise ‘Marriage and Love,’ a seriously amazing document that seems at first to differ from more recent takes on the subject only in the statistics it cites (“Since 1870 divorces have increased from 28 to 73 percent”) and in how rosily it imagines a society governed by free love (“Love needs no protection; it is its own protection. So long as love begets life no child is deserted, or hungry, or famished for the want of affection”). Goldman then goes on to indict marriage as an outdated contract that ought to have been displaced by the advent of industrialization, which made women part of the workforce. Now, she writes, women sentimentally cling to the idea that their work outside the home will be obviated by their marriage vows — even though, for all but the richest among them, their vows are just agreements to begin working two jobs instead of one. Women, Goldman reasons, can’t actually be such dupes that they’ll allow this baiting and switching to continue for very much longer! Marriage will be abolished altogether, she predicts, and the result will be Utopian: “What fancy, what imagination, what poetic genius can forsee even approximately the potentialities of such a force in the life of men and women!”
Almost a century later, poetic geniuses are still struggling to forsee a world without marriage, though some are getting closer. Writing about the importance, in the wake of Prop. 8, to transform the discussion about marriage into one about equal rights, the Gay Recluse eloquently explains why he and his partner of 10 years oppose marriage — not just for gays, but for everybody:
“In truth, we don’t ever want to get ‘married’; after fleeing the wasteland of suburban America — where every single house featured two people who were or had been married – we have no desire to return to that sad landscape of desperation and conformity. Along the same lines, we have never liked the words “husband” and “wife” and frankly never want them to pass our lips when describing our relationship partner, because these words are indelibly tainted by association with an outdated, homophobic, misogynistic and bourgeois mode of thinking (and society) that has absolutely no appeal to us (except in campy movies and teevee shows). ”
Heartening, right? But then there’s this kind of thing — from a novel set in contemporary Brooklyn that’ll be published this Spring by a woman whose author bio is careful to mention both her three college degrees and her husband and son. In this scene, a character wakes up in a hospital bed. She’s broken her foot in the terrible bar where she works a second job to support her crazy sister, and a Nice Jewish Doctor who she barely knows but who has had his eye on her and who happened to be in the bar that night has just proposed marriage to her, though they’ve never so much as had coffee.
“It was just unfathomable. Not, she suddenly realized, that he really, actually wanted her to marry him, but that her life could change in an instant, that the grim routines of the past few years — her whole adult life — could be erased in a moment, simply by saying yes.”
Reader, I don’t have to tell you what she decides to do. And she is deliriously happy for the remainder of the book, of course.
Since she’s a married lady — married to Jay-Z, duh! — Beyoncé can’t very well sing lyrics like “man on my hips/got me tighter than my Dereon jeans,” anymore, so she has had to create an alternate persona named Sasha Fierce. Sasha performs the half of B’s new double album that’s not treacly, wife-appropriate ballads, and the best of the resulting tracks, ‘Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)’ is not going to start getting played by wedding DJs anytime soon. It’s a feminist anthem! Well, sort of. If you want it to be. It’s a classic post-breakup eff you about being “up in the club” and dancing with another guy to make your ex jealous — “I could care less what you think,” ‘Sasha’ sings, which is always a funny kind of line because, hello, you are making it clear that you’re just acting this way for the dude’s benefit. (cf: “You probably think this song is about you” or “Thanks to you, now I get what I want.”) And then the chorus: an amazing, jumpropey chant of “If you like it then you should have put a ring on it.” In the video the chorus is accompanied by an amazing hip-twitching dance that’s capped by this move where Beyoncé and her backup dancers raise and revolve their left hands, flashing what ought to be conspicuously ringless fingers — “All the single ladies, put your hands up!” But Beyoncé doesn’t just have her famous 5 million dollar diamond — hey, what happened to ‘Sasha?’ — on hers, she’s also got on a whole metal-plated robot glove that makes ominous and addictive and comic-bookish kriiiing sounds when she twists her wrist.
‘Sasha’ wants to be up in the club, acting up, drink in her cup — but she also, badly, wants someone to put a ring on it, or at least she wants someone to want to. It’s like that other song, the Joni Mitchell song I think about every time I walk by that gown store on Atlantic Avenue with that really pretty strapless one in the window. This song is about moving to New York after a breakup and being confronted by all these symbols of happily-ever-after — and about the enduring power that those symbols have, even over someone who knows better. “The ceremony of the bells and lace still veils this reckless fool here,” Joni sings. Also: “the power of reason and the flowers of deep feeling seem to serve me, only to deceive me.”
There’s another song I really like with a great singalong chorus that shifts, from the beginning of the song, from “I’m gonna spend another year alone” to “I’m gonna spend my whole life alone.” When I first heard this song, in high school, I thought this line was just Liz amplifying her earlier point about wanting a boyfriend, all that stupid old shit, letters and sodas. But now I think that maybe this song is about how actually we’re all ultimately going to spend our whole lives alone, even if we’re with someone else. And maybe that’s the most offensive lie of wedding culture, the idea that chanting some spell is going to bind someone to you in a way that makes you permanently not-alone. We come into this world alone and we leave it the same way, and that’s a reality that no vow or dress or $5 million ring can change.
Still, though. Except. However. And yet.