[This post is cross-listed at families as they really are.]
I'm taking a women's studies class this spring (yay!). For our first assignment, we were asked to research the etymology of a word central to our research interests. I chose the word marriage. I thought the assignment might be an interesting blog post. So, here it is.
Although marriage is a universal social institution throughout recorded history, with one exception (the Na people of China), there is no consensus on a definition of marriage.[i] When researching the etymology of marriage, I started where I always do, with historian and family scholar Stephanie Coontz. In her book “Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage,” she details in Chapter 2 the historical challenges of defining precisely what “marriage” means. Across societies and time, marriage has included (but has not been limited to) the union of: two families; one man and one woman; one woman and one ghost; one man and many women; two people who have a child together; and one woman and all brothers in a family. More recently, union regulations have centered around age, race, and sex (i.e., age limits, Loving v Virginia, Obergefell v. Hodges).
Although marriage regulates social rights and obligations, nearly every function of marriage has been achieved by a mechanism other than marriage in one society or another. According to Coontz, stories that marriage was invented either for the protection of women or to keep women oppressed, are probably not true. More likely, Coontz argues, marriage was an informal social mechanism to organize the daily tasks of life, sexual relationships, and child rearing. As greater economic disparity grew, marriage transitioned from functioning as a vehicle for creating community connections into a means to consolidate resources and transmit property. The meaning of marriage shifted dramatically in the twentieth century, moving from an institutional marriage to a companionate marriage.[ii] Essentially, spouses were assumed to be each other’s friend, a role not central to earlier definitions of marriage.[iii] The second transition was from companionate marriages to individualized marriages. In this conceptualization, the emphasis is on personal development whereby marriage leads to fulfillment and growth.
It is challenging to untangle contemporary definitions of marriage from definitions of wife and husband. Wife is a noun, defined in relation to another. According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, wife means “the woman someone is married to.” Wives often take on adjectives such as military wife, political wife, housewife, and so on.[iv] Author Anne Kingston reports the first appearance of the word wife in the Bible is in Genesis 2:18 “And the Lord God said, it is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.” Translated, quite literally, as a helpmate. Husband, on the other hand, is either a noun or a verb, meaning “a male partner in a marriage,” “to save,” “a frugal manager,” or “to till the ground, to cultivate.”
Last year, the definition of marriage was central to the Supreme Court case Obergefell v. Hodges, which ultimately granted same-sex couples the right to marry in the U.S. While a somewhat oversimplified interpretation, the case hinged on the Justices’ acceptance that the definition of marriage evolves over time.[v] Justice Kennedy wrote, on behalf of the majority: “The history of marriage is one of both continuity and change. Changes, such as the decline of arranged marriages and the abandonment of the law of coverture, have worked deep transformations in the structure of marriage, affecting aspects of marriage once viewed as essential. These new insights have strengthened, not weakened, the institution. Changed understandings of marriage are characteristic of a Nation where new dimensions of freedom become apparent to new generations.” Kennedy added “This view of marriage as timeless and unchanging was contradicted by an abundance of scholarly work.”[vi]
Timeline of Definitions
For further fun, I decided to see what google images appear with the search term "marriage definition." Some of my favorites, because they are insightful, funny, appalling, or thought-provoking are posted below. Full disclosure, I skipped the hate filled images.
[i] Coontz, Stephanie. 2005. Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage. Reprint edition. New York: Penguin Books.
[ii] Cherlin, Andrew J. 2004. “The Deinstitutionalization of American Marriage.” Journal of Marriage and Family 66(4):848–61.
[iii] Burgess, Ernest W. and Harvey J. Locke. 1945. The Family: From Institution to Companionship. New York: American Book Company.
[iv] Kingston, Anne. 2004. The Meaning of Wife: A Provocative Look at Women and Marriage in the Twenty-First Century. New York: Picador.
[v] Anon. n.d. “Obergefell v. Hodges 576 U.S. ___ (2015).” Justia Law. Retrieved February 1, 2016 (https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/576/14-556/).
[vi] Perry, David M. 2015. “A New Right Grounded in the Long History of Marriage.” The Atlantic, June 26. Retrieved February 1, 2016 (http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/06/history-marriage-supreme-court/396443/)
The last two years have brought renewed attention to the social problem of domestic violence. Controversy erupted in 2014 when video of National Football League (NFL) player Ray Rice violently punched his fiancé (now wife) and dragged her unconscious body from an elevator. Most recently, Deadspin.com released graphic images of the injuries NFL player Greg Hardy inflicted on his ex-girlfriend. In both instances, NFL officials insisted that if they had seen the visual evidence of the crime, they would have implemented harsher consequences from the onset. After both of these incidents, some have asked why images of these men’s violence were a necessary prerequisite to public outrage. It’s a good question.
Why are violent images so much more compelling than other evidence of men’s violence against women? A partial answer is found by looking at whose story is privileged and whose account is discounted. The power of celebrity and masculinity reinforces a collective desire to disbelieve the very real violence women experience at the hands of men, especially of men we revere. This month we witnessed 13 Black women collectively share their story of being raped and sexually assaulted by a White police officer, Daniel Holtzclaw, in Oklahoma. Without the combined bravery of the victims, it is unlikely any one woman would have been able to get justice. A similar unfolding happened with Bill Cosby. The first victims to speak out against Cosby were dismissed and treated with suspicion. The same biases that interfere with effectively responding to rape and sexual assault hold true for domestic violence interventions.
Another part of the puzzle of understanding our varied responses to domestic violence is found in the way domestic violence is portrayed. The language we use matters to how we perceive and make sense of social issues. Anti-sexist male activist Jackson Katz points out that labeling victims of sexual crimes “accusers” reverses public support for alleged victims to alleged perpetrators. The media’s common use of a passive voice when reporting on domestic violence inaccurately emphasizes a shared responsibility of the perpetrator and victim for the abuser’s violence and generally leaves readers with an inaccurate perception that domestic violence isn’t a gendered social problem. Visual evidence of women’s injuries at the hands of men is a powerful antidote to this misrepresentation.
In my own research, forthcoming in Sociological Spectrum, I found that the race of perpetrators also matters to who is seen as accountable for their violence. I analyzed 330 news articles about 66 male celebrities in the headlines for committing domestic violence. Articles about Black celebrities included criminal imagery – mentioning the perpetrator was arrested, listing the charges, citing law enforcement and so on – 3 times more often than articles about White celebrities. White celebrities benefited further by their violence being excused and justified 2½ times more often than Black celebrities’ domestic violence. For example, White celebrities violence was more likely to be described as a mutual escalation or explained away due to mitigating circumstances, such as inebriation.
Data from an analysis of 330 articles about 66 Black and White male celebrities who made headlines for perpetrating domestic violence (2009 – 2012).
Accordingly, visual imagery of Ray and Hardy’s violence upholds common stereotypes of Black men as violent criminals. Similarly, White celebrity abusers, such as Charlie Sheen, remain unmarked as a source of a social problem. It’s telling that the public outcry to take domestic violence seriously has been centered around the NFL, a sport in which two-thirds of the players are African American. The spotlight on Black male professional athletes’ violence against women draws on racist imagery of Black men as criminals. Notably, although domestic violence arrests account for nearly half of NFL players’ arrests for violent crimes, players have lower arrest rates for domestic violence compared to national averages for men in a similar age range.
If the NFL is going to take meaningful action to reducing men’s violence against women, not just protect its own image, the league will have to do more than take action only in instances in which visual evidence of a crime is available. Moreover, race can’t be separated from gender in their efforts.
Modeled after a Danish reality television series, television program Married at First Sight (MAFS) portrays itself as a social experiment -- 6 individuals agree to marry a stranger selected for them by four experts.
"Married at First Sight” is an extreme social experiment that follows six brave singles yearning for a life-long partnership as they agree to a provocative proposal: getting legally married to a complete stranger the moment they first meet. Four specialists – sexologist, Dr. Logan Levkoff; psychologist, Dr. Joseph Cilona; sociologist, Dr. Pepper Schwartz; and spiritual advisor, Greg Epstein – create what they believe are three perfect couples, based on scientific matchmaking. The couples will not meet until they walk down the aisle and see each other face-to-face, for the first time, at the altar. Over the course of several weeks, episodes capture each couple’s journey as they go from wedding, to honeymoon, to early nesting, to the daily struggle of working on their marriage. After several weeks together, each couple must make a decision: do they remain together or decide to divorce?"
I was excited to tune into this show for many reasons, one of which being the appearance of sociologist Pepper Schwartz as one of the four experts. Schwartz is a public sociologist who focuses on intimacy and relationships -- topics that interest me both as a former couples' therapist and now as a junior sociologist. It's also not every day that a sociologist can leverage their expertise to influence the public, and Schwartz has been quite successful in this endeavor.
Merits of the show
Throughout the episodes of MAFS, the experts offered helpful advice, useful to the "couples" as well as the audience tuning in to watch the show. They informed viewers of some social science research findings, such as explaining the "paradox of choice": that people are less likely to be satisfied in their relationships when they perceive many alternative partners. The show was at its best when they explained how they matched people and why it mattered.
“One of the things you didn't see was I also asked questions about their values regarding reproductive justice, things like abortion, things like gay marriage, things like condoms and contraception,” Levkoff said. “Because as we know in real life, we all have certain deal-breakers and those certain political values can be very big deal-breakers for people in their relationships.” -- Dr. Logan Levkoff
Levkoff and spiritual advisor Greg Epstein were also active on social media, providing useful relationship advice to viewers engaging with the show. #MarriedatFirstSight was trending nationally on Twitter during the finale of Season 2, demonstrating the show has a large platform on which to provide educational messages that can strengthen relationships.
If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail
Although MAFS undoubtedly has some benefits, I was troubled by the indiscriminate advice offered by the experts. The most glaring omission was the complete absence of a couple and family therapist! This oversight left the other experts to act as the couples' therapist in a field in which they do not have expertise. While some of their interventions with the couples were helpful, there were times the experts' actions were misguided, harmful, and at worst, dangerous.
A day before the series finale aired, it was reported that the woman in one of the couples, Jessica, had filed for a protection order against her new husband, Ryan. I don't think it's a case of "hindsight is 20-20" when I state that most domestic violence victim advocates (a job I've previously held) would have been able to tell you that Ryan was displaying signs of abusive behavior within the first couple of episodes. While well-meaning, the strategies used by the experts to intervene were harmful and dangerous. Throughout the season, the experts cast Jessica's "lack of speaking up for herself" as her part of the problem in making their marriage work. This wrongly suggests that Jessica has some part to play in Ryan's choices to be abusive. They should have validated her instincts that it was not safe to speak up, investigated why she felt that way, and held Ryan accountable for actions that further limited Jessica's agency. I applaud efforts to increase women's self-determination, but it is harmful to present Jessica's hesitation to speak up as part of generalized "communication problems." Many of the experts' interventions were perfectly appropriate prompts that could help many couples -- but completely ineffective and harmful for couples when one partner is abusive.
Without any specialist on staff, a psychologist and sociologist were expected to step up and deal with Ryan's increasingly abusive behavior. The show featured a tense video chat with Schwartz to calm the situation. When Schwartz later visits their home to check in with the couple, she admits she is dreading the encounter. I'm not surprised -- working with a person who is abusive to their partner is intimidating and difficult for people with the training to do so. I have no reason to believe Schwartz, or anyone else on the show for that matter, had any domestic violence or family therapy training.
A (good) family therapist would have known to interview and speak separately with each individual. How can a victim possibly speak openly and honestly when her abusive partner is present and can (and will) use what she says against her later? One of the most egregious errors was when host Kevin Frazier asked Ryan and Jessica to just shake hands and hug to bring an amicable end to their relationship. Would we ask any other victim of a crime to hug their perpetrator? There were brief moments of trying to hold Ryan accountable for his actions, but they were few and far between and often in situations that made it more, not less, dangerous to Jessica.
Beyond the unexpected (but not uncommon) domestic violence depicted on the show, there were so many missed opportunities to use teachable moments to educate the audience about having healthy and respectable relationships. A couple and family therapist could have provided information about how to fight fairly, the importance of building a friendship, why the way you start an argument matters for how you end it, and so many other skills for communicating. Instead, viewers were left with vague calls for "communicating" better and really "working hard." What does that even mean?! A trained therapist wouldn't have attempted to talk two people into trying to save their marriage as a last-ditch effort -- they could have curiously and purposefully helped the individuals figure out what they wanted from each other and from themselves and assisted with devising a plan to achieve those goals.
Can this work?
The American version of this show has now completed two seasons. Two of the three couples from Season 1 are still married, while none of the three couples from Season 2 decided to stay married. The premise of the show received a lot of backlash, with some asserting it trivializes the sanctity of marriage. Many responded by pointing to research that demonstrates arranged marriages are less likely to end in divorce than love marriages. This is a false equivalence. Involving extended family in the route to marriage is not comparable to outsourcing your matchmaking process to supposedly objective strangers. To begin with, arranged marriages have the support of extended family, whereas many of these couples do not. There is also no question that the types of people who opt for an arranged marriage based on cultural tradition are quantifiably different than the types of people who agree to go on national television and marry a stranger selected for them by four other strangers.
If the show really is a social experiment, and not just dramatized reality television (I guess at best it might be both), the experts are going to need to re-examine their approach. For instance, on the Season 2 finale, viewers watched the experts lecture ex-couple Sean and Davina about taking responsibility instead of blaming others, but wedidn't get any accountability from the experts themselves. Repeatedly, the experts asserted that they could only do the matching but the individuals had to do the work. No doubt the couples have to work at building a relationship, but the failure of a lasting partnership was certainly not all on them. The experts reacted defensively to the failed relationships, expressing surprise that two total strangers matched perfectly on paper turned out to be full of contradictory and complicated beliefs and emotions, and in end, human. More concerning are the accusations that the experts were negligent in their matching (casting?) process, failing to adequately hold up their end of the bargain by conducting comprehensive background checks and personality assessments.
Could this show have merit? Sure. I'm still intrigued by the idea that science could successfully match people with compatible and loving partners.
In the end, I think MAFS could be educational as well as entertaining. The layer of domestic violence dynamics from Season 2 is certainly a useful teaching tool. More in-depth responses to the domestic violence portrayal will come in another blog post, there's just so much there.
Note: While I viewed many episodes of MAFS Season 1, most of my analysis for this piece is based on Season 2.
This weekend was the first time I heard Meghan Trainor's new song "Dear Future Husband." Wow -- the lyrics of this song present a lot to analyze about changing attitudes on gender roles and marriage. There's a nod to some feminist attitudes, such as the presumption of women's employment and the assertion of the wife not doing all the cooking, but it's mostly a song that draws on feminine stereotypes and sexualized imagery. In many ways, the lyrics are a good example of egalitarian essentialism, a new cultural ideology which blends feminist attitudes and traditional gender roles.
Thinking maybe the song was satirical, I checked out the video. Unfortunately, this didn't resolve my confusion, as the video contains kitschy 1950s-era imagery and I wasn't certain it was, in fact, meant as a parody. Meghan Trainor has responded to the controversy regarding the song's sexist message; however, her response left a lot to be desired.
"Everyone's going to say something. I don't think it's sexist. I just wrote a song for my particular future husband out there, wherever he is. I'm just preparing him. Letting him know what's up."
The song itself provides much to analyze, but its reception is also interesting. The React Channel produced a video of young people analyzing the song lyrics. Their reactions to each of the lines offers insights into what young men and women are thinking about gender roles and marriage.
The young men initially seem to take stereotypical pronouncements about relationship dynamics as normal and acceptable, but the young women seem a bit more skeptical (lyrics are bolded in red):
Take me on a date; I deserve it, babe; And don't forget the flowers every anniversary
Young Man: "She probably works hard in the house...doing wife things. She totally deserves it."
You got that 9 to 5; but, baby, so do I; So don't be thinking I'll be home and baking apple pies
Young Man: "This lyric kind of throws me off. Because she says she'll be the perfect wife but if you want some apple pie than you just.....what? Go to McDonalds and get it?"
Young Woman: "I feel like that was the old-school view of a wife. They would just sit at home and bake and cook and clean."
You gotta know how to treat me like a lady; Even when I'm acting crazy; Tell me everything's alright
Young Man: "Women do get a little bonkers sometimes. And I think she's admitting that here."
Young Woman: "That's kind of messed up. That's not how a relationship should function."
Young Man: "That's a contradiction. 'I'm not going to be the stereotypical woman.' But now, 'I want you to treat me like the stereotype.'"
The young men sound conflicted about these stereotypical gender roles, but the young women are generally appalled. Notably, one young women exclaims that marriage is just not worth it if it involves these stereotypical gendered divisions of labor.
'Cause if you'll treat me right, I'll be the perfect wife; Buying groceries, Buy-buying what you need
Young Man: "Everyone has their own definition of a perfect wife."
Young Man: "I'll do servantry kinds of things is what it sounds like."
Young Woman: "That sounds so stereotypical. You know what, babe -- you do the groceries.....if that's what being a wife means, then f*** marriage!"
Yet, they all seem to react negatively to the wife holding more power in the relationship:
Make time for me; Don't leave me lonely; And know we'll never see your family more than mine
Young Man: "She's trying to wear all the pants in the relationship. This dude is not going to wear any pairs of pants."
Young Man: "If my significant other told me this, it would be over."
Young Woman: "This kind of shit pisses me off so bad."
In the end, most seemed to think this was not the kind of relationship for them:
Young Woman: "Dear Meghan Trainor. That is not the kind of love that is in any way shape or form, right."
As a sociologist studying romantic relationships and inequality, I find this cultural artifact incredibly fascinating. I'm currently working on a research project exploring race and gender differences in trends of young people's marital aspirations and preferred divisions of labor. I use data from Monitoring the Future, an annual survey given to a nationally representative group of American 12th grade students since 1976. I'm analyzing four indicators of marital attitudes, and a vignette measuring attitudes about potential work and family arrangements. If you're going to be at the Population Association of America's annual conference this week, come by Poster Session 1 (Thursday, April 30 / 8:00 AM - 10:00 AM) and see my poster. I'd love to discuss my findings with you and talk more about the sociology of this song!
Today is Jackie Robinson day, a day commemorating Jackie Robinson's major league debut. On April 15th, 1947, Robinson became the first black major league baseball player. According to Google Trends, it appears interest in Robinson peaks two times a year: February and April, presumably corresponding with Black History Month and MLB's annual tradition of honoring Robinson.
Last week, in celebration of the start of the 2015 baseball season, I wrote a blog post for Contexts about the sociology of baseball. I invite you to check it out here.