It was kind of an odd week for me to pick up, on Jessica Valenti’s recommendation, the polemic celebrating adultery and mocking marriage Against Love: A Polemic, by Laura Kipnis. The book is six years old, but the sacred cow that Kipnis attacks—romantic love, particularly “mature” married love—isn’t a teeny bit less sacred than it was back then. I don’t have much to add to Jessica’s review of it, so I’ll just say that it was funny reading it this week, for two reasons: one, the rumblings of a backlash against the Obama’s perfect-seeming marriage and two, making the perhaps poor decision to see “The Hangover”, to see if it really was as funny as the reviews made it out to be. (No.) Kipnis’s exercise in astounding cynicism—she doesn’t give love even a smidgen of a break, though she does remind the reader at the forefront that polemics work in hyperbole, because that’s what it takes when questioning sacred cows—really added a fun and darkly cynical spin to these two experiences.
First, the Obama marriage, which is being debated at Double X, analyzed at Salon, envied in the NY Times, and bitched about in Time. The complaint comes from Sean Gregory, who says that Barack Obama is making the husbands of America look bad, because they don’t put the effort into making date nights or looking at their wives like they’re still in love with them.
Amanda Fortini suggests that the Obama marriage is enviable because they actually put the effort and work into marriage that gets these results.
Who’s to say whether the Obamas have ever seen a shrink or read “Getting the Love You Want.” Like everyone else in America, though, they have spent the past two decades steeped in self-help concepts and ideas – like, well, that of date night, or the idea that one must consciously “make time” for one’s spouse. Indeed, while they appear to love and admire each other, their marriage does not seem accidental or organic. They appear to think about and tend to it, presumably pulling weeds when they arise.
But reading Kipnis’s book gives me a much different spin on this. Kipnis puts a great deal of effort into mocking the American work ethic of relationships, and really, it’s probably the funniest part of the book. (I actually struggled more against the idea that adultery is some sort of rebellion, which is a contradiction since adulterers are the people who are often the most interested in keeping up appearances, or they’d just end unhappy relationships. Ending an unhappy marriage without doing something so dramatically fucked up it has to end is a much more creative rebellion, in my opinion.) It’s so fundamentally true, and yet it tends to pass us by—who wants your love affair to be work? It wasn’t work when you got into it. It morphed from being your escape from work into a second shift. Who wants to clock out from the office only to come home to more work? Indeed, Kipnis dredges up evidence that one reason people are putting more hours in at the office than they used to is that some of them are trying not to go home to do the unpaid labor of trying to hold together their relationship that has somehow turned from bliss to prison.
I’d argue that the reason the Obama marriage provokes such fascination isn’t that they do the hard work, but that they don’t actually seem to be working. Yeah, they schedule it in, but shit, they’re busy people. But they give the impression that they go to each other to get away from it all, that it’s not a second shift, and that is what people envy. It’s not “working on your social life” to schedule drinks with friends, it’s just taking a break from it all and having fun. By contextualizing time spent with your partner as labor done to keep the relationship from crumbling, though, you run the extremely high risk of draining the fun out of it. People don’t envy long-married couples going through the motions.
I’m not turning on monogamy or anything, and Kipnis’s book was more fun to read than mind-blowing, mostly because I’ve been a long-time fan of saying fuck you to the Marriages Take Work mentality. Some people think it’s superstitious to be hostile to marriage, as if the only reason to think a wedding could change everything could only be true if you’re weak and undeserving of love, and perhaps if you’re insufficiently willing to do the hard work of marriage. I will say that Kipnis renewed my enthusiasm to say, “Yeah, and so what?” The enormous amount of guilt and pressure applied to get people into marriage should be a signal that there lies dragons. Things that are as delightful as advertised don’t need to advertise so damn hard. Sex sells itself, but marriage requires a major P.R. division, with weddings getting entire cable channels all on their own.
Kipnis spends some time dwelling on the pop culture manifestations of the unspeakable dissatisfaction with marriage—horror movies about murdering your spouse, sick jokes about the same, dreary sitcoms about shrewish wives and loveless marriages, New Yorker cartoons—which is funny, because I saw yet another example of this the other day when we went to see “The Hangover”.
I know, I know. I bitched about the trailer. I wrote an entire post about how Hollywood has constructed a malevolent matriarchy, so that men who want to dwell in male entitlement feel justified in it by pretending they’re actually rebels against the powers that be. But I also like laughing, and the reviews were good, and I don’t want to judge a movie by its trailer, so I went.
I don’t know what the reviewers were smoking, because this movie was not funny. It was unbelievably derivative, and it didn’t even have the good sense to avoid aping jokes from classic movies that own those jokes. There are many, many examples much-hashed over by myself and my friends who also enjoy being haters, but the most glaringly obvious one was the ongoing joke about the classic car that costs a fortune and is owned by the father-in-law who would kill anyone who fucked it up, especially his no-good son. Do I need to remind you what movies owns that joke?
I won’t say I didn’t laugh. The movie did have some really absurd stuff that was funny, and if it had stuck to that, it would have been better. But no, as advertised, this movie was a textbook story of how a bunch of men thwarted by the malevolent matriarchy rise up (or fall down, really) against it by getting completely shit-faced (though it’s not their fault!, which was actually kind of funny) and what? I was hoping, actually, that there wouldn’t be a moral to the story, which would redeem it in my eyes, but no. At the end, they have to right the world again and put women at the mercy of men. The good wife of the bad boy is shown being perfect—silent, uncomplaining about the fact that he up and disappeared for a couple of days without telling her where he was and sticking her with the kid. The bride is shown some mercy, in that it’s not actually cool that they show up late to her wedding, but in case this mercy seems like it’s giving women too much power, we’re given a scene where her father congratulates his new son-in-law for having such a crazy time in Vegas he almost breaks his daughter’s heart. Yeah, right—bros before hos doesn’t stretch to son-in-laws before daughters, even in the most Maxim of fantasies. Ed Helms’ girlfriend, however, sets a new record in shrewish, controlling, evil bitch behavior. But even so, you can’t get past the fact that her one infidelity is harped on, but his is excused, not because fair’s fair, but because when women cheat, it’s emasculating.
Against the backdrop of Kipnis’s polemic, though, all of this bullshit seems to make a smidgen more sense. The malevolent matriarchy seems like such an obvious fantasy that it’s hard to imagine why movie-goers flock to see movies based around that premise. The way they pull you in is the bait-and-switch. They speak to audiences through their dissatisfaction with the matrimonial prison. And they do it well—Helms’ girlfriend is like a sum total of every complaint about having your wings clipped by marriage that Kipnis gathers from a multitude of friends. He’s required to call her as soon as he gets to the hotel. He has to lie about going to Vegas, since that’s clearly against the rules. His friends are on the verge of being banned. His wardrobe, sleep habits, diet, Rogaine schedule? All carefully and shrewishly regulated by his girlfriend, who shows him no affection, a shorthand for his sexless existence. It’s every resentment people have about domestic life comically exaggerated.
And then blamed on women for not knowing their place. Which is a lot easier than doing, as Kipnis does, a more nuanced, realistic examination of this particular grievance of modern society. Women aren’t the right target—Kipnis gets a lot closer when she talks about the Protestant work ethic and the American fear that there’s something immoral about having too much fun—but women are a much easier target.
Hey, if women don’t like it, they can get their own Hollywood, right? Sure, we hear that women aren’t exactly happy about having their lovers turn to captors, either, but who gives a shit, because no one is going to finance that story for the big screen.