Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Let no man tear asunder?

I went to a beautiful wedding last year. My friends had been together since secondary school, their kid was old enough to carry a bunch of flowers very nicely and young enough to be extremely cute. M and I were dolled up to the nines, hanging on the arms of handsome young men and drinking extra hard to mark the special occasion. When the lights dimmed and the bride and groom started to dance we clutched hands and held back tears. At some point before we had to start worrying about last trains back to civilisation (why can’t people tie the knot somewhere easily accessible, like East London?), I’m sure I gazed at my date through my beer goggles and indulged in a brief fantasy in which he figured as a minor character behind mounds of white tulle, giant cakes, and everybody knowing that it’s my special day... Afterwards M and I were too starry-eyed to indulge in our usual benevolent character assassinations of everyone present. (We never say anything vicious about anyone, but we are fond of feeling deeply sorry for people’s manifold faults, and blaming any untoward behaviour on their secret sorrow/ insecurity/ as-yet undiagnosed mental health problems.) ‘It was just... magical,’ we sighed. ‘The bride was stunning.’ (She was.) ‘The whole thing was... perfect.’ That’s the problem with criticising marriage- weddings. They really are lovely. On the other hand, I went to a Catholic church service on Good Friday. A man in a purple dress, flanked by a bunch of suspiciously innocent-looking pre-adolescent boys, chanted in Latin about the events leading up to Jesus’ alleged crucifixion for three hours. It was lovely. I was secretly disappointed that the friend who had dragged me there couldn’t come back for the grand finale on Easter Sunday, so we could find out what happened next. (Like watching The Matrix and Matrix Reloaded and not Matrix Revolutions- is he alive? is he dead? are they going to save the world at the end? Actually I never bothered watching the last Matrix film, but I’m sure it all turned out just as happily for humanity as the New Testament did.) My somewhat heavily made point is: just because it’s beautiful and moving doesn’t mean it’s not deeply sick and wrong. People aren’t idiots. You want to fool them into accepting an exploitative and enslaving institution, you got to put on a bit of the old razzle-dazzle. I’m pushing on now into my mid-twenties, and while that couple was not the first of my set to tie the knot, they had a child young and came from a very Caflic background. Now more and more of my friends are settling into couples, and I’m shocked and disturbed that no small number of them are contemplating marriage in one way or another. As M said recently (rose-tinted wedding-y glow now wholly worn off) ‘Even the feminists are getting married!’ We shared some smug pity over the sad plight of our clueless acquaintances over a cup of tea. So why on earth are people doing this? I don’t buy the ‘We want to share our love with everybody’ crap. No, you want to conform. In a big white dress. You want a party, have a party. Buy champagne. You want a wedding dress, buy a wedding dress. I have one. I have even worn it in public (on Halloween). You want a ‘special day’, wear the wedding dress in the street. Everybody will look at you, and probably think you look ‘glowing’. Where do the ceremony, ring, vows and licence fee come into sharing your love? I have regular parties to share my love. When I find a man that knows how to share his love in the same way, I’m gonna hang on to him. Double parties! ‘It’s not about the party, we want to commit to each other forever and getting married seems like the best way.’ When I was a teenager, I remember being very impressed that Fat Boy Slim and Zoe Ball just wandered down to their local registry office, clutching cowboy hats and a bottle of whisky, and pulled in a couple of strangers off the street to witness their marriage. ‘That’s real love- that’s not just for show- they’re only doing it for each other,’ Well, committing is not something you do for five minutes in front of someone with a really big desk. Committing is something you do every day, and all the time it’s because you choose to do it. It’s hard, I can tell you as someone who did it for a bit and then decided I wasn’t up to the task. Doesn’t anybody ever think for a minute about this? Why the fuck have women (and men) been getting married for thousands of years? Uh, duh- because they weren’t allowed to have sex, live together or have children unless they did. Why not? because keeping people in small family units managed and controlled by the ruling powers was an important part of the feudal system, which remained useful to said ( albeit slightly different) ruling powers after industrialisation.
“The worker is the slave of capitalist society, the female worker is the slave of that slave.” James Connolly
Marriage is an essential part of –and symbol for- the patriarchal system. Once, the only women who worked were spinsters, widows and the very poor. Even now, women’s jobs –often lower-paid and more casual- are among the first to go in the recession. Keep people locked into couples, where one has greater earning capacity, physical strength and social status than the other, and you have greater control over your workforce. If you need to, for example during a world war, you can get the women out too. In times of recession, send her back home and you know the family unit will still (probably) eat. (Taking your husband’s name is also still a sign that he has a higher status than you.) Then there’s the problem of the church. Yes, the wedding has been taken out of the church- the registry office ceremony loses all the ‘Who brings this woman to be married to this man?’ cant, and even in Church of England marriages the bride can now opt (as Victoria Beckham did) to cut out the promising to obey your husband bit. But choosing to get married at all seems to me like picking and choosing the bits you want from organised religion. ‘I don’t believe in God, but the ceremony He came up with (or didn’t) as honed and ritualised by generations of religious nut-jobs and tyrants, is just what I need to fix my life up. Just take His name out, won’t you?’ This is acknowledging the church’s cultural hegemony without accepting that other forms of almost identical manipulation are replacing it. In a world without God, why hang on to His ideas? Suckers! Black slaves in America were not allowed any kind of formal marriage ceremony. Instead, to be allowed to live together in a couple, they were often made to ‘jump the broomstick’, a basic (and self-explanatory) rite. Props required- one broomstick, or other suitable pole. The happy couple held hands and jumped over a broomstick on the ground together. I don’t know the origins of this ‘ceremony’, but it served to satisfy slave-owners’ moral qualms about men and women living together and having sex with each other, without giving them any status as Christians, which would imply rather too much shared humanity with their owners to be quite safe. (Jumping the broomstick is apparently still common as a jolly end to American, or at least African- American, marriages. But that’s by the by.) I would propose that when we read about sleb and royal marriages, when we’re conned into spending thousands we don’t have on imitations, even when we daringly run away to Vegas and tell the friends and family afterwards, we are still just jumping the broomstick for our masters. ‘But we’re not marrying for them, we’re marrying for us!’ Mmmm, love. Great stuff. I love a bit of love. I keep trying to tell myself it makes the world go round. But why do we still –even the feminists!- modify our ideas of love to fit in with what They want from young couples? (Sorry, keep meaning to stop capitalising that ‘T’ but can’t help myself). Marriage has far clearer advantages for the system than it does for the individuals concerned. It preserves class boundaries. Often it preserves gender roles which themselves preserve class boundaries. It locks people into their situation by law, and also by social opinion and peer pressure. It’s inextricably linked with a whole set of social mores and dictated behaviour that we might otherwise rebel against. I’m not saying anything against choosing a life partner, buying a house, and generally settling down eternally. Hell, have kids if that’s what’s gonna make you happy! Whether marriage is still synonymous with a woman’s oppression by her husband is no longer clear. I would tend to say no, as a general rule. Of course there are far too many horrific cases of abuse and violence, and less well-documented cases of mental and spiritual domination, mostly by men towards women although also the other way, but I don’t know if there’s a great deal of difference here between married and ‘common-law’ cohabitations. What marriage does still always entail, on the other hand, is an apparently voluntary nod by two ‘free’ individuals to the power of the state, the Church, the press, and what I am thus reluctantly forced to term ‘the ruling classes’. I repeat. Why the fuck? Afterthought The gay marriage question is of course not a question. I fully support everyone’s right to have an equal access to a completely harmful and stupid thing, much as I support freedom of religion, freedom to read the Evening Standard and freedom to hold an opinion that differs from my own. (You’re all wrong, by the way.) The answer is the same as Bill Hicks’ on the subject of gay people in the army: ‘Anyone dumb enough to want to be in the military should be allowed in.’

7 comments:

woodscolt said...

Yeah! Right on, sister.

problemshelved said...

aicfg.
I just noticed Zoe Ball and Norman Cook afterwards renewed their vows in a big white wedding to which they sold the rights. Irrelevant to the point I'm making, but still disappointing...

Sicily said...

Given the above, I am even more resentful that I was forced to watch 4 hours of Gone With The Wind on Boxing Day.

problemshelved said...

Ha ha
Gone With The Wind is exactly what I'm talking about. Scarlett marries her first two husbands to preserve the status quo- afterwards, in a society in turmoil, wracked by civil war, the 'normal' rules of marriage no longer apply. Only after the system has been overturned can she find true love, yet the now-outdated convention of marriage doesn't work any longer, so she and Rhett split up...

Plus, the first two times she marries men weaker than herself to try and free herself from oppression, but each time this backfires, due to the pressures of the rest of society to behave as her husband's inferior. In fact she only really gets power through property -the lumber-mill- and labour -saving Tara.

It might be romantic, but the film has a very strong anti-marriage message! Mostly because it's one of the few 'love stories' where the story shows what happens AFTER the wedding(s).

woodscolt said...

it's one of the few 'love stories' where the story shows what happens AFTER the wedding(s)Reasons why country and western music is great, no. 1 in a continuing series...

FAPORT International said...

Ya! you are right..
i am totally agree with you...

problemshelved said...

Incidentally, you know what we watched at Christmas that was a) unbearable and b) completely skewed about marriage? Mamma Mia.