Yesterday, I wrote a riff on Ross Douthat’s apportioning blame for the decline of marriage to liberal ideas in popular culture and the Grammys, which aired on Sunday evening. It’s self-evidently silly to suggest that pop culture is anti-marriage (though it’s plenty pro-sex), given how obsessed it is with marriage as the only desirable end state at which to arrive. But Douthat’s column also arrived the day before the entertainment industry’s most prominent married couple, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter and Jay-Z, hopped on stage at the Grammys and performed their duet “Drunk In Love,” from Knowles-Carter’s most recent solo album. The song itself is a goofy, louche chronicle of an extremely fun marital night out, and watching Beyoncé and Jay-Z perform it together was a lovely illustration of professional solidarity within a marriage, and a demonstration of what it looks like for a couple who enjoys good, regular married sex to flirt with each other in public.
“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,” I wrote. And a whole lot of conservatives weighed in to say they agreed, from Townhall’s Katie Pavlich, to the Daily Caller’s Matt Lewis, who penned a generous column on the subject.
“Popular culture usually portrays marriage as boring and sterile. Typically, men are either cast as Homer Simpson-like incompetent dolts, or as p-whipped, emasculated dads. Either way, the message is simple: If you want to be cool and have good sex, avoid kids and marriage,” he argued. “Connie Britton and Kyle Chandler’s portrayal of Tami and Coach Taylor on Friday Night Lights, for example, was a huge step in the right direction. Here was a marriage portrayed as a partnership and a friendship between two talented and attractive people who truly respected each other (and yes, sometimes it was steamy).”
Perhaps anxious by the idea that “marriage…as a partnership and a friendship between two talented and attractive people who truly respected each other,” was gaining enthusiastic endorsement in conservative circles, the National Organization for Marriage jumped in with a dissent.
“It is a song which Rosenberg herself calls ‘raunchy, fun and even silly’ [emphasis added]. In the performance, Beyonce was adorned (according to The Hollywood Reporter) in ‘Saint Laurent black tights, custom bra, La Perla collar body and Nichole de Carle body suit, complete with wavy wet hair’ and performed while ‘expertly twirling in a chair,'” the NOM staff wrote of both the Carters’ performance and a mass wedding performed during Macklemore’s “Same Love.” “For our part, we think that neither of the ‘performances’ last night are an ideal starting place for a proper understanding of marriage.”
So Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s performance of a song about marital sex isn’t a suitable starting point for a discussion of marriage because Mrs. Knowles-Carter…wore lingerie during it? And marriage is never supposed to be raunchy, fun, or silly? Or if lingerie, raunchiness, silliness, and fun are permissible parts of marriage, they’re supposed to be carefully concealed, lest the adults for whom the Grammys broadcast is intended get…tempted to try out matrimonial bliss for themselves?
If that’s where NOM wants to draw a line, I’m happy to let them have it. But on a basic sales level, pitching marriage to singletons as an institution that constrains the sexual urges of men, who are inherently fallen, and guides them towards the procreation, is a horrible way to try to get folks to sample a product, much less make a life-long commitment. I think there’s a real divide between conservatives who embrace this kind of sour thinking, and conservatives like the ones I’ve spent the past couple of days talking to, who are on board with a vision of marriage that’s a mutually supportive, sexually exciting partnership.
That doesn’t mean that marriage isn’t work, of course. But there’s work that protects people who are fallen from descending further into sin, and work that produces good outcomes for both participants in a project they’ve elected to commence together. There’s a vision of marriage as saving us from the pit, and marriage as a source of affirmative joy. If your worldview puts you in the former camp, I understand that. But just because you believe something to be true doesn’t make it winning strategy. Watching folks across the political spectrum embrace Beyoncé and Jay-Z is discomfiting for some because it’s a reminder that even if marriage promotion succeeds, the marriages that result may look very different in tone, tenor, and priorities than advocates like NOM might hope for.