Happily Ever After — Even in Hollywood

Adam Driver in Marriage Story (Netflix)
The real ‘Marriage Story’ is a lot brighter than Hollywood is letting on.

Marriage Story, the latest critically acclaimed Hollywood offering on family life, garnered six Oscar nominations this week, one sign of its popularity in the industry. But as good as it is to watch in purely dramatic terms, the movie ends up painting a bleak, dispiriting, and unrepresentative portrait of marriage today, not only in the nation at large but even in Hollywood. The movie tells the story of a marriage between a New York director, the Adam Driver character, and a Los Angeles actress, the Scarlett Johansson character, unraveling over work–family tensions — Should we live in New York or LA? Does his career come first or does hers? — and the kind of minor emotional drama that plays out in most marriages, with a young son caught up in the emotional and practical turmoil that unfolds as they end up in divorce court. So, basically, what we have here is a movie about a marriage coming apart for no good reason, literally in (West) Hollywood.

The movie is but the latest offering in a long line of movies and shows — from The Graduate to Friends to Single Parents — from an industry that mostly shies away from depicting stably married families in a positive light, and spotlights, more often than not, the rise of diverse families that depart from the traditional intact-family model. Hollywood’s offerings are also emblematic of the larger cultural and legal role that California has played in pioneering and amplifying particular cultural values — e.g., from individual fulfillment to “if-it-feels-good-do-it-ism” to easy divorce — that have undercut stable marriage across the nation. After all, no-fault divorce was invented by California, signed into law by Governor Ronald Reagan just over 50 years ago, before being exported across the United States, to the detriment of kids across America.

The irony in all this, though, is that our  new research indicates that the actual neighborhood that stands at the center of historic Hollywood, the Whitley Heights neighborhood just between the Hollywood sign and the Dolby Theatre, where the Oscars are held, has virtually no single parents amid the hundreds of families who make their home there. And it turns out that most of the best neighborhoods in the hills or along the beaches of Southern California — from Pacific Palisades to Rancho Palos Verdes to Beverly Hills — are dominated by two-parent families. These neighborhoods have fewer than 20 percent of children living in single-parent families, which makes them among the most stable in the state.

They are also consistent with another major theme in our report: When it comes to family, California elites tend to “talk left” but “live right.” Of Californians ages 18 to 50, we find that college-educated Californians stand out for their more progressive views on family issues. The vast majority of Californians (85 percent) with a college or graduate degree agree that family diversity, “where kids grow up in different kinds of families today,” should be publicly celebrated, compared with 69 percent of Californians without a college education. But a clear majority of college-educated Californians, 68 percent, report that it is personally important to them to have their own kids in marriage, and 80 percent of them who are parents are in intact marriages, compared with just 60 percent of their peers in the state who don’t have a college degree. So, California elites pair progressive family values with traditional family living — including steering clear of divorce court.

Why is it a big deal that so many of the producers, writers, professors, marketing executives, journalists, teachers, and other well-educated culture-shapers in the state personally tend to forge strong and stable marriages for themselves and their kids but do not lend support to a marriage-friendly ethic in public or even do the opposite in their professional roles? After all, their kids undoubtedly benefit from being raised in a stable, two-parent home — being more likely to flourish in school, steer clear of trouble with the law, and end up as college graduates. And, because they are more likely to remain married, elite Golden State men and women are more likely to enjoy a good income and a substantial nest egg. No, the problem isn’t that they themselves are forging stable marriages for the 21st century.

The problem is that they are not generally producing films — or teaching classes, writing stories, or crafting ads — that reflect the improving realities of contemporary married life. How men and women like themselves are embracing particular values and virtues to build stable families for themselves and their kids today. How their child has a better shot at excelling in school and realizing the American Dream because they managed to keep it altogether. How marriage in America has stabilized, with the divorce rate falling to a 40-year low, which means that an ordinary couple’s risk of divorce today stands well below 50 percent, probably about 39 percent, and with the share of American kids being raised in intact, married families actually rising — for the first time in years.

This marriage story is almost entirely untold by Hollywood. Of course, there are exceptions that convey the new realities of contemporary married life in America — the movie This Is 40 comes to mind, as does the show The Middle, cultural offerings focus on reasonably successful families in, respectively, upper-middle-class and working-class communities — but California’s culture-shapers do not do nearly enough to spotlight the new family realities about marriage in America.

This is especially problematic because their poor and working-class peers in California and around the nation are having a much tougher time of forging strong and stable marriages of their own. Partly for economic reasons, of course, but also because the popular culture in which they are immersed does not provide enough clear-eyed and compelling — not to mention true — messages about how good families work today. In fact, we find that Californian parents without college degrees who don’t embrace marriage-friendly values are fully 22 percentage points less likely to be in intact marriages than are their less-educated peers in the Golden State who do.

It’s partly for this reason that the producers, writers, and directors who make their homes in places such as the Whitley Heights neighborhood in Hollywood need to tell a better family story. But it’s important also because so many Americans don’t know the new truth about marriage: today most marriages are ending up “happily ever after,” even in Hollywood. In other words, give us less Marriage Story and more of The Middle.

Bradford Wilcox, professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, is a senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Wendy Wang is the director of research at the Institute for Family Studies. They are the co-authors of the new Institute for Family Studies report State of Contradiction: Progressive Family Culture, Traditional Family Structure.