American divorce and annulment rates have been ticking downwards since 2001, so I was interested to read the always-excellent Heather Havrilesky’s piece on the odd turn towards cheery depictions of divorce in popular culture, riffing on everything from Happily Divorced to Real Housewives to Men of a Certain Age. I’d have expected the opposite, that if divorce was becoming more common, that we’d have a stronger need for positive images of divorced people that would help folks who are already divorced or going through splits convince themselves that they’re going to be okay.
As Heather puts it, “These children of boomers may be avoiding (and denouncing) divorce more vehemently than their parents did in part because they know, from personal experience, the blunt emotional impact it can have on children. And the current cheery cultural take on divorce may be an odd product of this renewed stigma. We don’t want our kids to repeat our experiences, and we certainly don’t want to relive those experiences on our TV or movie screens.” But if that’s true, wouldn’t we have more depressing visions of divorce in our popular culture, not fewer ones? And wouldn’t we have more pop culture that’s skeptical about marriage in the first place? Instead, most comedies still abide by the traditional definition of the term, steering happy couples towards the altar or toward the implication that it’s in the future. Instead, something like NBC’s Whitney still feels sort of fresh and surprising for its open skepticism of marriage:
Maybe the folks who are making pop culture don’t want their children to make their mistakes. But there’s something odd about the idea that the only mistakes that can lead to divorce happen after folks get married, instead of before decide to march down the aisle.