On Saturday, the New York Times’ Ross Douthat wrote a column in which he suggested concessions both liberals and conservatives ought to make if we’re to get together on the joint project of making marriage more appetizing and acceptable. The things he asks conservatives to give on are significant, including acknowledging the impact of incarcerating huge numbers of men of color and the value of some social welfare policies. As for liberals?
“A more significant concession would be to acknowledge the ways in which liberalism itself has undercut the two-parent family — through the liberal-dominated culture industry’s permissive, reductive attitudes toward sex, and through the 1970s-era revolution in divorce and abortion law,” he writes. “In the first case, liberals tend to feign agnosticism about pop culture’s impact on morals (even though a link is common-sensical and well supported), or to blame corporate capitalism for the entertainment industry’s exploitative tendencies (as though the overwhelmingly liberal people making programming decisions had no agency of their own).”
The only evidence Douthat cites for these claims are a RAND paper and Jonathan Chait’s piece for New York magazine about the liberalization of pop culture, neither of which particularly bolster his case.
The RAND paper deals with a survey of 1,762 teenagers that suggests that “heavy exposure to sexual content on television related strongly to teens’ initiation of intercourse or their progression to more advanced sexual activities (such as “making out” or oral sex) apart from intercourse in the following year.” But that survey also suggests that African-American teenagers are more likely than other groups included in the survey to delay sexual behavior if they were exposed to TV programming that dealt with the risks of sex. That’s a piece of data that Douthat might have noted given that part of his column is about why low-income women are less willing to marry men who have been incarcerated, a place where the column might have benefitted from some acknowledgement of racial disparities in imprisonment, especially as related to the drug war. And the survey also acknowledges that a single episode of television can make young people more likely to consider the risks of sexual activity and the benefits of using contraception.
And Chait’s article has almost nothing to do with marriage whatsoever. He makes the argument, bolstered by Vice President Joe Biden’s admission that Will and Grace made him more supportive of gay rights, and the popularity of Modern Family, that popular culture has dramatically increased support for marriage equality. And Chait also references two studies of the arrival of television program in areas of Brazil and India. In Brazil, the arrival of telenovelas inspired women to have fewer children and to name their children after novela characters. And in India, the fertility rate dropped as television arrived, and researchers also found that the arrival of television made women more assertive in their marriages, and more disapproving of spousal abuse. I’m not sure Douthat wants to argue that it would be better for low-income women to have bigger families, or to be more accepting of male dominance in marriage, so for the time being, let’s give him the benefit of the doubt on that.
But I really would have liked to see Douthat engage with a significant contradiction in his argument about culture and sexual morality: sure, American popular culture involves a lot of depiction of sex out of wedlock. But it also remains deeply invested in the idea that marriage is a desirable end goal, a dream that exerts an almost gravitational pull on participants.
In The 40-Year-Old Virgin, the titular sexual novice starts out simply trying to find a one-night stand and ends up waiting to have sex until he gets married to a fantastic woman that he meets along the way. The recent crop of middle-class-women-deciding-to-have-babies-on-their-own movies exhibits a similar trend: in Baby Mama (2008), The Switch (2010), The Back-Up Plan (also 2010), all the women who are trying to have children by themselves end up engaged or married by the ends of the film, and the sour indie on the same theme, Friends With Kids (2011), ends with its upper-middle-class participants at least contemplating a stable partnership.
Television characters have more sex for the sake of drama, but even the small screen’s most notorious bachelor, Barney Stinson (the gay and engaged Neil Patrick Harris, one might note), is tying the knot on How I Met Your Mother. Happy marriages abound on television, ranging from the upper-middle-class ones on Modern Family, to the very funny one that also serves as a model for co-parenting after divorce on Trophy Wife, to the partnership between a domestic and a landscaper in Raising Hope. In fact, it’s a landscape that’s increasingly counter to the world that makes Douthat so anxious, a world in which marriage is for everyone, rather than a luxury good or a lifestyle choice.
And in my favorite recent example, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter and Jay-Z got on the Grammy stage last night and did what conservatives have been dying for someone to do for ages: they made marriage look fun, and sexy, and a source of mutual professional fulfillment. As Caitlin White wrote in her review of Beyoncé’s self-titled album: “She claims female pleasure as pure and grown, something dominant that can coexist with monogamy and marriage and her own status as an artist.” And that’s particularly true of the song Beyoncé and Jay-Z chose for their Grammys collaboration:
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“Drunk In Love” is raunchy, fun and even silly. “Why can’t I keep my fingers off it, baby? I want you,” Beyoncé sings. She teases her partner, who both in the real-life creation of the song and its narrative, is her husband Jay-Z, “Can’t keep your eyes off my fatty, daddy, I want you.” It’s a song about flirting, about going out and partying, about having fantastic, adventuresome, totally enthralling sex — with your spouse. That’s a far, far better argument for marriage than the pseudo-scientific case for holding onto your oxytocin by not having sex before you say your vows on the grounds that such conservation efforts will make your first time better.
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.