Scenes from an induced misery culture
I’m a day late on “Mad Men”, but will have a review up tomorrow.
From Jezebel, I discovered the sort of article that really reveals what Ambrose Bierce meant when he said, “Marriage, n: the state or condition of a community consisting of a master, a mistress, and two slaves, making in all, two.” (Don’t worry, defensive married people! I promise this isn’t a marriage-bashing post. Feel free to read ahead with hackles down.) The article presumes that monogamous couplehood naturally results in time-consuming paranoia and endless vigilance, of the sort that really explains why some people simply decide that the whole thing is too much work. In this case, it’s about the dangers to monogamy presented by social networking websites that carelessly allow shackled people to install members of the opposite sex into their networks. Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace shamelessly allow people who’ve previously dated to friend each other, all without notifying the proper authority, who seems to be the user’s spouse.
We need new rules now.
How about these? You can look, but don’t make contact. Strike an agreement with your current partner that you will each disclose any Facebook friends you have slept with. Or, like Katie Robinson, limit your online “friends” to people of the same sex. “It is hard enough to have a relationship without the intrusion of people from your past,” says Ms. Robinson, a 33-year-old artist in Memphis, Tenn.
Some couples share their passwords. “If your bank accounts are common, why not your Twitter and Facebook accounts?” asks Clemson Smith Muñiz, a Spanish-language sports announcer in New York.
Naturally, what this results in is a “hilarious” story about a man who found that his Twitter list kept shrinking, because his wife was sneaking on and deleting any female followers. Ah, love. Without mutual hostility and distrust, how could live without it?
Well, easily, I’d think. This doesn’t seem to me to be a way to live. Presumably, we get into romantic relationships because they make us feel happier, and because we value having that kind of intimacy. Monogamy is part of this for most, but by no means all, of us, but monogamy’s main attraction is that it’s consensual and based on trust, or so I thought. My feeling on cheating paranoia has always been this: If your partner is in fact cheating, it’s going to hurt like hell when you find out no matter what, so why waste your precious time on this planet worrying about it? Control over another person is ultimately an illusion, which is why trust is a much better option. It may feel like maintaining a paranoid, suspicious mind will somehow take the edge off the pain when the time comes that you find out about the cheating, but it won’t. And if they’re not cheating, then you’re making your and yours miserable for no good reason. And if they weren’t inclined to cheat, your suspicion only ups the chances that they will. A lot of people think, “If I’m going to get punished no matter what I do, I might as well enjoy it.”
From a lot of corners of our culture, I see variations on this argument for monogamous relationships, which seems to be: “Sure, love is a miserable trap, but what other choice do you have?” Which is a weak argument, because the alternatives are hardly unknown in a country where a slight majority of adult women live without a spouse and the divorce rate has been as high as 50%. Take, for instance, this rash of romantic comedies that seem to be about how men and women can’t be expected to like each other or get along very well, but that they nonetheless need to pair off and proceed to hate the rest of their lives nearly as much as they fear making any changes. At least the most popular examples of this—“Knocked Up” and “High Fidelity”—are enjoyable right up until the “happy” ending where two mismatched people look at each other and say, “Hey, it’s better than being alone, or if it’s not, at least we’ll tell ourselves that.” But now it seems that rom coms are dispensing with the entertainment part and going straight for the cynical, depressing crap. Lauren Bans saw “Couples Retreat” so you don’t have to, and she reports back on a lighthearted comedy that will make you want to join a nunnery.
Do you want to avoid eating at Applebee’s alone? Seriously. (And also, spoiler alert!) This is what Jon Favreau asks himself when the men reach the party island and he sees his wife dancing it up with a Fabioesque twentysomething. Keep in mind the two haven’t said a word to each other the entire vacation and are ready to divorce as soon as their daughter goes off to college, but one desperately frightening idea changes all of that: eating at a chain restaurant alone. Favreau confronts her, they fight, confess to cheating on each other, confess to hating each another, and then he says: “I don’t want to eat at Applebee’s alone.” Davis replies: “I don’t either.” Thus their marriage is saved. They’re not, how do you say … happy, exactly, but God, isn’t better to be an unhappily married person than one of these desperate dancing people out searching for the first offer that comes their way? And that’s the slightly depressing conclusion of Couples Retreat: Take what you have. Being alone is worse.
As a cynical person, I hate to see cynicism misused this way. Cynicism is about puncturing people’s illusions, but the idea that men and women can like each other, and that they have more to offer each other than respite from being eating alone is an evidence-based assertion. I don’t know about you, but I know a lot of happy couples that actually like each other. This world painted by the WSJ article and “Couples Retreat”—where miserable couples stay together solely because other miserable people might pity them for what? not glowering at a hated spouse over the dinner table?—simply isn’t my experience. Oh, I believe it exists, which is one reason I have repeatedly protested the institution of marriage that encourages the idea that love is trap instead of a choice. (Though of course many married couples actively resist that, and view their relationship as a choice.) But I just don’t understand why people get so caught up in the idea that this is how it has to be. It doesn’t. Married or unmarried, the world is thick with couples who actually like each other, proving that it’s not to much to ask.
Fundamentally, this view that love is a trap is a sexist one, as it’s based on the idea that men and women are simply too different to get along. Usually, especially in these Hollywood comedies, it’s also based on the idea that the difference is that men are fun and interesting, and women are tedious, status-obsessed bores. In the movies, men have friendships, a sense of adventure, and an ability to opine at length about rock music, and women have a strong desire to wear wedding dresses and look aggrieved at these baffling men, with their baffling lives that they want to live for reasons beyond simple-minded women. In real life, however, you see that it’s completely possible for people to fall and stay in love because they find each other genuinely interesting.
My sense it that these movies are being made because there’s a demand for them. The resolution where two people agree to set aside mutual animosity and live together because that’s what you do seems like a really obvious rationalization, and the only question is whether the movie-makers are rationalizing their own miserable marriages, or if they’re responding to a strong public desire to see bad choices rationalized. The obvious answer is, “A little of both.” A screenwriter who rationalizes his boring ass relationship will write a more authentic script that will speak to people in the audience making the same rationalizations, though of course it’s always possible that cynical screenwriters in passionate relationships are just very good at imagining what the audience wants to hear, and cranking that out.
Frankly, I’m more interested in watching some more “Mad Men”, which deals with a couple that feels trapped in their marriage without trying to rationalize it as all for the best when it’s not. Which is what I’m going to go do now.