…this is one of the central questions as BoyCat and i consider marriage as a possibility. is it truly possible to do such a thing as "defining marriage for yourself," given the intrinsically societal nature of the arrangement?
check out the thread for a number of responses and directions the question took – interesting and thought-provoking all. what i want to open up and chew on here is why i have my doubts that marriage can actually be “what you make it,” and it has to do with those warm and cuddly twins, patriarchy and paradigm. the fun and frivolity never stop around here, do they?
ok, i promise that i’m not going to be all dour and finger-wagging about this. but i will probably get myself in hot water with a fair number of third-wavers out there, those for whom the phrase “reclaim it” is paramount to the feminist mission of the 21st century. i’m not going to delve into the broader discussion of whether reclaiming is of central importance to feminist progress – i’m just going to highlight what i think makes it problematic as an aim, and thus often susceptible as a tactic.
during the thread conversation, cinnamon said,
…I firmly believe, or else I wouldn't have finally agreed to it, that marriage can be what you make of it. But I will say that it is a lot harder to get the people around you to understand that you make of it differently than they do.
now, cinnamon knows i love her and completely respect her choices – she did what made sense for her. however, i noted in the thread that her observation was exactly what bothered me – the sense that technically, no matter what she and her husband were making of their marriage together, the way that it is perceived by outsiders is by and large beyond their control.
sure, a married couple can make an effort to communicate the fact that certain aspects of their marriage are “different” than accepted norms and/or stereotypes – in fact, i think it’s great when couples do that. however, you can’t explain it to everyone, all the time. you can’t even explain it to a small fraction of people a tiny percentage of the time. far more often than you are “reclaiming” some aspect of marriage from a stereotyped idea and “making” what you will of it, vast numbers of other people are viewing the baseline facts – your wedding ring, your same last name, your “this is my husband” introduction, and so on – and making their own assumptions, drawing their own conclusions. in other words, once it’s “public,” more often than not it’s up for grabs in terms of meaning.
i said that this post would involve Madonna. i hope that you weren’t starting to question the veracity of my claim, because i’m just getting there. Madonna is a great example of the problematic nature of intention versus perception. hers is not a black and white case either; much about Madonna’s public persona did great things for feminism and for cultural subversion in general. but if you dig deeper, the way that Madonna used mainstream ideas and stereotypes – feminine aesthetics in particular – ultimately doomed any possibility for her work to have long-lasting, really revolutionary effect.
long time readers of this blog will think, “this sounds familiar.” indeed, i posted a few rants about Madonna and this issue back in October of 2005. as i also mentioned back then, i wrote a whole paper about it in grad school. (for serious. and it was good, if i do say so myself.) in this paper, i used as one of my sources an article by art critic Abigail Solomon-Goudeau called “Living with contradictions: critical practices in the age of supply-side aesthetics.” snicker if you will at the woeful academic-ness of it all, but one of Solomon-Goudeau’s main points in that article has stuck with me for years as i’ve tried to make sense of the world around me, especially the vast, postmodern media dominion we’ve all come to inhabit. she says that, in this age of simulacra and mimicry and constant, co-opting pastiche, “we must ask what defines a critical practice and permits it to be recognized as such.”
so, what is truly critical? can something be truly critical that uses the mechanisms of that which it aims to critique? more colloquially – can we really use the master’s tools to dismantle his house?
in feminist terms, this is the big “reclaiming” debate that i said i’d stay the hell away from. as far as marriage, though, it still seems like a salient point. when you choose to fight something “from the inside,” as it were, you are always highly more susceptible to merely reinforcing the strength of that which you’re subtly critiquing. as Solomon-Goudeau puts it, there are the “problems of function, of critical complicity, and the extreme difficulty of maintaining a critical edge within the unstable spaces of internal critique.” the reason for the instability is that it’s so much easier for the dominant paradigm to re-consume you the more you resemble the paradigm.
and it’s not a conscious process; it’s not Patriarchy sitting up there, paring its fingernails, saying “today i think i will reclaim this marriage, and that protest.” it’s an ongoing, insidious, generational progression with an ultimate aim of recalibrating the balance that keeps the system in control. (a system doesn’t reform itself. remember this. repeat it to yourself silently, every day. it is crucial.) and the easier any type of subversion is to explain away, to belittle, or especially to co-opt, the easier it is for the system to strip any true revolutionary potential away and return the more harmless (and always more marketable) aspects of the effort back to us. in 1989, we had Madonna doing Express Yourself; in 2001, it was Britney doing I’m a Slave 4 U. i am serious when i say that this is not a coincidence. in between, we had Anita Hill, then the Year of the Woman, then Riot Grrrl, then the Spice Girls, then “girl power,” then bubble-gum pop and midriff shirts. suddenly, instead of singing “express yourself, respect yourself,” we were singing “hit me baby one more time.”
i realize that this probably all seems meandering and somewhat disjointed. i also realize that i need to stop talking, because this is rapidly approaching the blogpost word count when readers tend to tune out. so, to (attempt, poorly) a summary, i have serious misgivings about the idea that marriage can mean what you want it to mean, given: a) the impossibility of controlling the public perception of just about anything, and b) any attempt at the “reclamation” of marriage to revolutionize the institution from within is by definition fraught with complicity, and constantly under the threat of consumption by forces much, much larger than it.
see – not dour at all!
as always, nitpick away...