If you’ve ever doubted that popular culture influences public opinion and public policy, it’s worth reading today’s decision by Judge Reinhardt striking down Proposition 8, California’s equal marriage rights ban. In it, Reinhardt looks at popular culture across time to trace the particular meaning that marriage has for us, and to explain why the alternatives states have tried to offer gay couples simply aren’t as resonant or powerful to us:
We are excited to see someone ask, “Will you marry me?”, whether on bended knee in a restaurant or in text splashed across a stadium Jumbotron. Certainly it would not have the same effect to see “Will you enter into a registered domestic partnership with me?”. Groucho Marx’s one-liner, “Marriage is a wonderful institution…but who wants to live in an institution?” would lack its punch if the word ‘marriage’ were replaced with the alternative phrase. So too with Shakespeare’s “A young man married is a man that’s marr’d,” Lincoln’s “Marriage is neither heaven nor hell, it is simply purgatory,” and Sinatra’s “A man doesn’t know what happiness is until he’s married. By then it’s too late.” We see tropes like “marrying for love” versus “marrying for money” played out again and again in our films and literature because of the recognized importance and permanence of the marriage relationship. Had Marilyn Monroe’s film been called How to Register a Domestic Partnership with a Millionaire, it would not have conveyed the same meaning as did her famous movie, even though the underlying drama for same-sex couples is no different. The name ‘marriage’ signifies the unique recognition that society gives to harmonious, loyal, enduring, and intimate relationships.
The long-established tropes of popular culture, in other words, help shape our special understanding of marriage. And the weight and persistence of those tropes is part of the reason that creating alternatives to marriage doesn’t work: they don’t carry the same legal rights and responsibilities, and they don’t have the same cultural heft, and can’t for a very, very long time. Representation in culture, in other words, affects the way people and institutions are represented and protected in reality.
I also think it’s worth noting that Proposition 8 prompted a vigorous cultural response as well as a legal one. The No H8 campaign acquired such cachet that participation became near-mandatory in Hollywood, posing for it became a plot point on reality shows, and even Cindy McCain hopped on board in 2010, a clear case of cultural cachet trumping party loyalty. Milk, the Academy Award-winning biopic of slain City Supervisor Harvey Milk was released in the Castro to rally support against Proposition 8, a development that likely contributed to Sean Penn’s Best Actor victory in the role, and Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black followed up that movie with 8, a play about the legal challenge to the law that’s become a key tool in celebrity marriage quality fundraisers.
And I think it’s no surprise in the post-Proposition 8 era, we’ve seen an explosion of pop culture depictions of gay California couples, whether it’s Mitch and Cam on Modern Family, to Jules and Nic in The Kids are All Right, to Brady and Cheeks on webseries Husbands. These characters deserve the right to marry because they’re citizens who ought to be entitled to the rights and responsibilities available to their straight counterparts. But these portrayals are also about establishing gay couples as part of a rich comedic and dramatic tradition of flawed people in the process of building more perfect unions.