Courtney praised this new book out called A Little Bit Married: How to Know When It’s Time to Walk Down the Aisle or Out the Door by Hannah Seligson, and I put my skeptical assumption that this just more backlash stuff on hold because of it. Even thought the cover is offensive, painting the essentialist, misogynist picture of women eager to marry while men are eager to ignore to avoid it. But then Seligson went on Sex, Really, and now I’m going to have to protest for real. Seligson doesn’t fall into the trap that Laura Sessions Stepp lays out for her—no way is she going to get into that “don’t let him have the milk for free, ladies!” narrative that Sessions Stepp promotes—but the interview still paints this misleading picture of marriage as something women want and men have to be pushed towards.
There you have the marital readiness gap, where women are ready to get married before men. It used to be that men had to get married because it was too dangerous to have sex outside of marriage and women needed a base of economic support, and those factors are no longer there. I heard from a lot of women that they were ready to get married before the men were.
This is the same narrative as the hand-wringing about the “hook-up culture”, just moved a few years into the future. But the image is always, always of women chasing and desperate and men running away. And it’s always, always contrasted with this past where men supposedly didn’t run away, because marriage was the only access to sex they had. (At least without paying for it, though the enormous decline in prostitution that occurred as women became more sexually liberated is rarely noticed or remarked upon in these pieces.) However, it’s way more complicated than that. I had trouble finding the statistics online, but if I recall correctly, marriage rates in the 19th century were incredibly low. Right now, the marriage rate in England and Wales is getting as low as it was in 1862, but that’s only because (as is noted in this interview) that Western Europeans in general are rejecting marriage in ever-higher numbers. The U.S. isn’t even close to touching how low the rate of marriage was 100+ years ago for us.
But I digress. The image of women chasing and men running away makes intuitive sense, because men enjoy a higher social ranking than women. Which means that marriage means that she gets validated as a worthy person chosen by her social superior when she marries (or for the younger set, obtains a boyfriend), but all he gets at best is having to reduce his sexual options and at worst, he feels the emasculating pain of having people think he cares about girly stuff like commitment. That’s not what I think is actually happening, but it’s the underlying narrative of this assumption that women are eager for commitment and men aren’t. And I do think in some circles, there’s probably truth to that, especially if young men are getting a lot of “bros before hos” social pressure. But as I’ve noted before, that fades as you age, so suggesting that couples that are living together are generally stuck in the she’s chasing/he’s running mode doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.
Indeed, I pick up a whiff of fudging in the suggestion that because men marry an average of two years later in life than women, that means women are “ready” sooner—that women are chasing and men are running until they apparently collapse from exhaustion. Likelier to me is that these numbers simply reflect the fact that men are more likely to marry someone younger than women. Again, the stats are hard to find on Google, but if I recall correctly, Susan Faludi talked in Backlash about how there were all these horror stories about eager women and disinterested men, but the actual statistics showed that men were more, not less, likely to express a desire to get married. Which makes sense—marriage is correlated strongly for men with better mental and physical health and higher salaries, whereas women don’t get these benefits and sometimes even see a decline after marriage. And even when it comes to housework, married women do more of it than those of us who live in sin.
I don’t doubt that Seligson is right in looking around and seeing her female friends wanting marriage with guys who are whistling and pretending they don’t know what this “proposal” thing is or why anyone would want to hear one. Selection bias could be a huge factor, though—you’re not going to hear complaints from women whose boyfriends didn’t make them do the humiliating “just propose already” wait. Also, women have a little more social space to want a wedding for itself, whereas men have very little reason to speak out loud about their desire to get married until they meet the one. It’s not men who are encouraged to buy bridal magazines just to fantasize over them. It’s not men who have stereotypes of themselves as single and desperate littering every romantic comedy. These things distort our perceptions.
More feminist analysis about why women are constantly being coaxed to dream about the big white wedding dress validation would be nice, instead of less worrying that women aren’t getting that big white wedding dress validation as soon as humanly possible. I honestly do think a lot of women probably feel like losers if they aren’t married, and they are eager to get that validation checked off so that stigma is erased. And that’s because there’s a shit ton of money involved in drumming it into women’s heads that you’re nothing without a man publicly choosing you, preferably in the gaudiest way possible. The party you throw after a man validates you with a wedding ring is still the biggest party thrown in a woman’s life to honor her—and even couples who try to make it about both of them and their love and all that jazz tend to bend over for the fact that it’s All About The Bride. She gets the bigger cake, the better clothes, the march down the aisle. My feeling is that it’s because he doesn’t need a public display of social validation, since he’s the one bestowing it. I can’t blame women for wanting that validation, but those of us who take on the role of cultural critics probably shouldn’t just be rolling over and acting like there isn’t something fishy going on here.
And that’s why I have such an annoyed reaction at phrases like “a little bit married”. No matter how you moderate it, the implication is that women are doing the hard work of relationship maintenance and not even getting the pay-off of the diamond ring and the wedding dress. I don’t like that men have that much power, to take single women and validate them socially by choosing them in a big public display. It’s so very Victorian. I’m at a loss of what to do about it, of course. I’m not interested in bullying women and telling them they’re bad if they recognize that power and want to bask in it and enjoy the rise in status that comes with being chosen. And of course, I don’t think that’s all there is to marriage—the idea of a public commitment and declaration of love is compelling in and of itself, and can appeal to women who also feel weirded out like I do by the whole ‘OMG SOMEONE CHOSE ME I’M A HUMAN BEING NOW” wedding culture. All I can do is just point out the underlying assumptions and narratives, and explain how I personally find the idea of being chosen in such a public manner as mildly degrading, because it makes me feel like the other things I’ve done with my life count less than the judgment that a man finds me good enough to marry.