Is Bourgeois Marriage Dead?

Is Who Wants To Marry a Multimillionaire? evidence of a general nostalgia for the 1950s, or something bleaker? Caryn James, in a New York Times “Arts & Leisure” piece yesterday, claims it’s about the 1950s. “Even the language of the show seemed to come from the 50’s,” she writes, citing the host’s use of the term “ladies.” James was rehashing the now-standard knee-jerk-feminist critique of the show, which Culturebox thinks is unfair to the 1950s. Compared with the mindset that made Who Wants To Marry a Multimillionaire? possible, America’s much-maligned mid-century decade looks like a bastion of feminist values.

Consider the charge made at the time: that women were enslaved in a cult of bourgeois domesticity that turned them into pill-popping, Stepfordized wives. There was an element of truth to that generalization, even if it was reductive and condescending, but once the argument had done its job and helped women make the case for modern feminism, it hardened into a historical dogma that happened to be incorrect. The celebration of hearth and home was not a bourgeois plot to counter the excesses of a previous generation’s revolutionary thought and lure women back into the house. It was the enduring expression of what had earlier been a very good idea. The ideology of bourgeois marriage was first advanced by people with a powerful pro-female agenda, which was to humanize a dehumanizing relationship. “The nineteenth-century cult of domesticity, so called, originated in a systematic attack on patriarchal authority, led by an international elite of doctors, philanthropists, and humanitarians,” Christopher Lasch wrote in Women and the Common Life: Love, Marriage, and Feminism. These reformers, most of them devout Christians, were incensed at the callousness of the aristocracy, which taught its daughters little more than fashion, flirtation, and the art of making socially advantageous marriages. It’s hard to grasp how counterintuitive it once was to be in favor of the kind of monogamous, child-centered, middle-class marriage we take for granted today. Mary Wollstonecraft, the founding mother of feminism, was being quite radical when she argued against turning women into frilly twits on the grounds that it hurt the institution of marriage: Women, she said, were being conditioned to be “alluring mistresses rather than affectionate wives and rational mothers.”

By the end of the century, the view of marriage as a social and economic and sexual transaction–in which the man gets children and possibly property and the woman is granted social status–had been replaced by the ideal of the companionate marriage as a friendly, loving joint partnership. It was a relatively romantic notion, all things considered, even when you factor in the troubling fact of sexual inequality. Or so it seems when you compare it to the versions of marriage paraded before us not just on television but in the big debates of the moment.

Culturebox isn’t too worried about the game shows and the nightly news reports about the thriving Russian mail-order bride business–they seem more like part of the passing circus than anything to get too worked up about. What’s upsetting is the larger view of love and marriage these images reflect. Science, which probably has more impact on how we think about relationships than anything else, now portrays romance as a delusional expression of a Darwinian struggle to reproduce. Communitarianism, whose critique of marriage was taken up by the first lady, argues that its social benefits are so great that we should force people to stay married by putting limits on divorce, which was once viewed as the necessary precondition of companionate marriage. (As literary historian Stephen Greenblatt wrote recently in the New Republic: “It is no accident that Milton wrote the great tracts on the legitimacy of divorce: the dream of emotional fulfillment in marriage depends heavily upon the possibility of divorce.”). Each of these analyses–and the many others like them–have their own particular truth, but put them all together and you have a vision of the marital condition that has about as much to do with affection and intimacy as the kiss between Darva Congers and Rick Rockwell.