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Pop Culture and the Banal Case for Marriage

Alyssa Rosenberg of Think Progress offers a reply to Ross Douthat’s latest column on the roots of marriage’s decline. After arguing that conservatives ought to pay more attention to the economic and social conditions that have contributed to the deterioration of stable marriages, Ross argues that liberals ought to acknowledge, among other things, the contributing role of the cultural permissiveness celebrated by the mainstream entertainment industry. Rosenberg observes that though “American popular culture involves a lot of depiction of sex out of wedlock,” it at the same time “remains deeply invested in the idea that marriage is a desirable end goal,” and she uses the marriage of Beyoncé Knowles-Carter and Jay-Z as an illustration of the modern pop celebration of marriage at its best:

In the context of Beyoncé as a whole album, “Drunk In Love” is part of a larger argument that various parts of female experience don’t actually trade off with each other. In “Jealous,” Beyoncé serves up a reminder that it’s possible to have had a past sexual history and still find a loving marital partner. The couple who wakes up in their kitchen the morning after their epic night out in “Drunk In Love” presumably managed to arrange child care for the daughter they adore, and who makes a cameo in “Blue.” And being a sexually attentive wife and loving mother don’t, in the world of Beyoncé, have to conflict with the lady’s professional success, either. This is a woman who’s so confident that her album can declare that “When he wanna smash I’ll just write another one / I sneezed on the beat and the beat got sicker.” Rather than posing choices between these various elements of her life, or acting as if the math that leads up to having it all is impossibly complicated, Beyoncé is an argument that a great, mutually supportive marriage can be a context that makes all of these things easier to pull off.

And that’s what makes Jay-Z’s appearance on stage with Beyoncé at the Grammys so lovely. Mrs. Knowles-Carter doesn’t need her husband with her to dominate a performance space. But she chose their duet. And what we got was a performance that’s explicitly about what a good time they’re having together. Everyone else might get to look at her curves–a reminder that dressing up and showing off doesn’t have to end after marriage, either–but Jay-Z’s the one who gets to look a little goofy checking her out in wonderment that she’s his, the one who actually gets to touch. She gets to own the stage by herself, first, and Jay-Z shows up when the song requires his presence, at which point Bey cedes the stage to him before taking it back. There’s time for them both to shine. And at the end, Jay-Z throws his arm around his wife and squeezes her, and her head inclines towards his shoulder: there’s room for mutual pride and tenderness here, too.

This may not be the vision of marriage conservatives intended to try to promote. And it’s absolutely a more aspirational, exciting good than the idea that marriage will discipline wayward men or provide support for women who can’t manage economically on their own. But if conservatives want to sell Americans on marriage, maybe they have to talk more about the bliss half of wedded bliss, to think about the desire part of making marriage desirable. And maybe the entertainment industry that Douthat’s singled out as the enemy of marriage has something to add to the case for marital happiness. If marriage is a product that conservatives desperately want to sell, the smartest thing they could do right now is to hire Beyoncé and Jay-Z as a product spokescouple.

Two ideas immediately spring to mind. The first is the notion of complex contagions, or contagions that require exposure to multiple sources of activation to spread, as it relates to marriage. To oversimplify, if we’re going to see a marriage revival in communities that have experienced the sharpest declines in marriage and marital stability, it will be because members of these communities see that embracing marriage has benefited “people like them” (thus giving the social innovation credibility), and as this happens, the marriage revival will gain a head of steam due to strategic complementarity (as people in the community come to realize that embracing marriage is worthwhile, the practice will spread and the costs of not jumping on the bandwagon will increase, so laggards will want to catch up). This is why marriage advocates need to avoid seeming like scolds, particularly if they don’t belong to the cultural communities that are most in need of a marriage revival. There is a real danger that marriage advocacy will be interpreted as implicit criticism of people who choose not to marry not out of recklessness or even bohemian conviction, but because their options are so constrained. So in that regard, Rosenberg’s suggestion that conservatives sell Americans on the “bliss half of wedded bliss” is reasonable enough.

The problem, however, is that as Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas famously observe in Promises I Can Keep, one of the chief barriers to marriage in high-poverty communities is not the notion that marriage isn’t desirable or fun. Rather, it is that because Americans hold the notion of marriage as a mutually supportive partnership in such high regard, many have come to see it as an unattainable ideal. And by putting the cultural spotlight in marriages in which “various parts of female experience don’t trade off with each other,” or for that matter various parts of male experience, we might be exacerbating this problem. As Rosenberg states, we can safely assume that Knowles-Carter and Jay-Z have little difficulty arranging child care and meeting various other challenges that prove overwhelming for parents in even the most generous social democracies. The cultural knowledge that marriage can be both difficult (and disciplining) and satisfying might thus be more valuable than pop celebrations of frictionless marriage, but this kind of knowledge can’t be conveyed through escapist pop.

And this is why I’m more inclined to agree with Ross Douthat than Alyssa Rosenberg on the question of the entertainment industry’s influence. The best case you can make is that the images promoted by the entertainment industry are irrelevant to the experience of communities in which marital stability is not the norm, as these images are so far removed from lived experience. But it is hard to imagine that the entertainment industry — the job of which is to entertain, lest we forget — will ever systematically promote the notion that “marriage is really difficult, but it is pretty helpful if you intend to raise children,” with occasional, admirable exceptions. The banal case for marriage has to be made in a more local, network-driven way.

UCLA sociologist Gabriel Rossman reminds me of the distinction between marriage as a “cornerstone” — a foundation for success in life — and marriage as a “capstone,” which Kay Hymowitz, Jason S. Carroll, Brad Wilcox, and Kelleen Kaye draw on in their 2013 report for the National Marriage Project, “Knot Yet“:

Americans of all classes are postponing marriage to their late twenties and thirties for two main reasons, one economic and the other cultural. Young adults are taking longer to finish their education and stabilize their work lives. Culturally, young adults have increasingly come to see marriage as a “capstone” rather than a “cornerstone”—that is, something they do after they have all their other ducks in a row, rather than a foundation for launching into adulthood and parenthood.

As Hymowitz et al. go on to argue, the capstone model that serves college-educated upper-middle-income Americans relatively well has proven a more awkward fit for the lives of the less- and the moderately-educated, who don’t always have the same reserves of social and cultural capital that buttress more affluent and educated single adults.


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