Wedding Gowns & Lies - That Old Marriage Trap – Part 2
In the words of Cruella de Vil:
“We lose more women to marriage than war, famine, and disease!”
Isn’t it interesting that in pop culture, whenever we get to hear such rare, brave, as well as pretty spot on statements about women in relation to marriage, we only get to hear them from the mouth of horrible, (in this case puppy-killing!) she-Devils?
This in itself, says quite a lot!
Art & Words by Fanitsa Petrou
How many volumes have been written, how many movies have been made to convey the message that marriage is a woman’ s true destination, the source of supreme happiness and fulfilment which makes her life journey worthwhile? That it is the glorious, FINAL act of her life? (this alone should have made us suspicious…) Yet we almost never get to hear the stories of those who have consciously decided to forgo this particular, apparently all-necessary female goal, or their reasons for doing so. We are just not used to hearing that version of the female narrative. Most people wouldn’ t even know what to make of it. They would rush to characterise it as a sad tale of bitterness and rejection. As an aftermath of some deep unspoken wound. As the result of a bad childhood and an unloved life. As the reason for utter loneliness and desperation. The thought that a heterosexual woman’s lack of a husband may have been a conscious choice doesn’t often cross one’s mind. Married women especially, are uncomfortable with this notion. It brings questions and doubt, instead of reassurance that the path chosen was the right one. That what they have been told, was true. That their life makes sense, and it’ s the only one that was ever available. It provides the certainty that even if their life is not ideal, only pain, loneliness and desperation exist outside of the walls of their carefully constructed world.
Why kid our selves? For most women out there, marriage still possesses an allure. Feminists (“real” or self proclaimed ones), are often writing blogs, tweets, facebook posts or even entire books (which range from the apologetic to the defiant) about their own “feminist wedding” ceremony: how they tweaked this or that detail to make it less “traditional”(It took place at an amusement park. At a museum. At a back yard. In a forest. At an Arts & crafts festival. At a Yoga retreat. At a deserted factory. At some suffragette-related landmark. There was no priest. A yoga instructor wed us. An Elvis impersonator. My cousin. My ex. I wore red and held black flowers… I wore a mini skirt, a pantsuit, jeans, a biker jacket, a clown costume, a Wonder Woman suit… We were parachuting, scuba diving, climbing a mountain as we were exchanging vows. A Death metal song was playing as I made it to the altar, instead of “Here comes the bride”. I wore a skull ring. A black veil. A goth choke chain. I will be hyphenating or even (hold your breath!) keeping my own name”, etc etc.
Yet, these “tweaked” alternative ceremonies are a bit like Christian female priests to my eyes: what is the use of them, in a religion that condemns their entire gender and continues to see women as inferior to men, not to mention as the very personification of evil (read your scriptures before objecting…) How is that progress, given that we are doing nothing to change the actual sexist religious laws and aphorisms, but now get to have female priests preach them back to us, adding insult to injury? Why do we keep being satisfied with these half measures? Why do we still play these games whose rules were written by angry misogynists with the specific purpose of condemning, humiliating, controlling and using women, and which to this day we are conditioned to obey and feel proud about it?
I don’ t care if the bride came on a “bicycle ridden by a fish”and Gloria Steinem was holding her veil while reciting passages from Mina Loy’ s “Feminist Manifesto”, it was still a wedding ceremony. Something in her, told her it was not enough to share her heart and her life with the guy with whom she is in love. Their feelings for each other, the sacred intimacies as well as the tedious everydayness that keep a couple together and hold a promise you make to each other, even if you don’ t make it publicly in front of priests and judges, or while wearing a lacy dress, just weren’ t enough to keep this thing going. Paperwork needed to be signed to make it “legitimate”, to make it valid. Joint accounts needed to be opened. Properties needed to change hands. Tax reports needed to be adjusted – and tax benefits needed to be claimed. A bunch of witnesses needed to be around, congratulating, praising, raising glasses, making toasts, gasping, Aaah-ing as she was walking down the altar (or its “feminist” equivalent) in that white (or red, or purple, or floral) dress. Parents needed to be appeased, and smug married friends needed to be shown that she too can enter the inner circle. And above all, her partner’ s commitment needed to be guaranteed with legally biding documents, (because she knows it is shady otherwise...) She needed the bells and the whistles: the witnesses, the public declarations of eternal love (as if it’s in anyone’s hands) the lace, the ribbons, the centre pieces, the music, the name tags, the white linen, the whole planning of the thing that had probably given her life for a few months. And it’s Ok. It’s understandable. That shit is beautiful! Who doesn’ t love flowers and parties and gorgeous long white dresses that make you look like a floating fairy? But damn it, they come with life-long consequences (even if you belong in the 50% of couples who WILL eventually get a divorce, those consequences, unlike the marriage - tend to last forever) No matter how we dress it up, or what we call it, marriage is at the very centre of women’ s subordination, and we need to at least be brave enough to address the fact. To count the ways by which we voluntarily become smaller, in order to fit this so called “ideal” of the married woman. And once we get married, in order to make it “work” and keep it going. No matter what. At all costs. (Usually ours)
The bottom line is: women are sadly being seen as unworthy unless they are validated by the patriarchal institution of marriage, still playing the archaic traditional roles assigned to them as men’ s helpers / compliant sex providers, home makers and fertile wombs into which men will deposit their sperm and perpetuate their bloodline, name and property, and not as individuals. (If in doubt, take notice of the grim changes happening in present-day America: see:#1) Even as new versions of it are being introduced, (ceremonies without the religious sexist undertones, with no explicit promises to “honour and obey”one’ s husband (though sadly, disturbingly, it needs to be said that they are actually making a come-back in modern-day Trump America!!) marriage with the hyphenating of names, or an attempt to share household chores, child care and expenses and so on) is still a throwback, as it is still the child of Patriarchy and it still feeds men’ s need for authority, and women’ s insecurities, keeping them in their place – “safe”, “protected”, taken care of, financially dependant on their hubbies, and in their place. For women at least, it is also still one hell of an under task and it is still taking up all their energy, eating up their time, erasing most of their dreams, watering down their ambitions, putting down the fire that used to burn them alive when they were single, successfully diverting their gaze from real issues about civil liberties and politics, and even (as studies reveal) causing them to question the very necessity of feminism (talk about self-destructive consequences!), leaving very little that can be used for their individual growth, for the achievement of non-domestic, professional or political goals. Grasping onto Zumba and Pilates, and Yoga and Art classes and crafts projects and Self-help theories and Facebook, looking for that sense of Self that they had to sacrifice on that wedding altar. Keeping them busy. (Like Victorian ladies with their gardening and croquet and watercolours and parlour games). Making their husband’s pleasure and the never ending, and increasingly more urgent fight against Time and fat, their main concerns, the only remaining goals they pursue with any kind of passion. Pretending they don't notice, or mind his cheating, abuse, or porn habits. Because they know it in their heart they are nothing but bodies to their husband’ s eyes. They are disposable, expendable. Easy to be replaced. And therefore, completely powerless. (If there was a way to harness the passive aggressiveness of married women - or the bitterness of unmarried-by-circumstance-not-choice ones for that matter - we would be able to turn bicycles into rocket ships and send them to outer space…)
Women within marriage are still being given something to play with, to keep busy, to eat up all their time and all their energy, that can predictably keep them away from where the decision about their own body, their reproductive Rights, their own life and the life of their daughters are being made. In the words of Cruella De Vil: “We lose more women to marriage than war, famine, and disease!” Isn’t it interesting that in pop culture, whenever we get to hear such rare, brave, as well as pretty spot on statements about women in relation to marriage, we only get to hear them from the mouth of horrible, (in this case, puppy-killing!) she-Devils? This in itself says quite a lot! Even today, women who speak against marriage are seen as unfeminine, spiteful, cold, man-hating bitches with a chip on their spinster’s shoulders… Or possibly, lesbians. It is still to this day, assumed that every single heterosexual woman’ s singleness is a failure, or a temporary condition she wishes to reverse. It is just never assumed that for some of them at least, it is a valid and CONSCIOUS and FOR-EVER-AFTER LIFE CHOICE, they don’ t secretly, and desperately wish to alter! A single woman’s feminism is still not seen as relating to her desire to be seen as equal to men, but as a nasty side affect of her singleness… This right there tells us a lot!
The truth of the matter is, most married women are just too distracted with their daily chores and their wifely duties, and their need to not contemplate too much on their life, lest they are faced with certain realities, to put a lot of effort in the Women’s Rights movement. But most importantly, they think they no longer need to! And they are also just not willing enough to pay the costs of equality: many of them, are just not as incentivized to see women earning the right to have a choice and dismantle Patriarchy because they have become part of it: marriage is a fundamentally conservative and Patriarchal institution that allows women to use their husband’ s male privilege, instead of waiting for God knows how long for the glass ceiling to break, (as much as it allows men to a no-questions asked access to sex) They for example, get to have the kind of social status that would have been denied to them if they were single, and they usually get to have the economic status that would have been unreachable to them in a world that values them and their work less than men’ s. Because of that, most of them just relax and put their “Fight Back!” /“Equal Pay” placards away. Not to mention gain the “right” to see single women as “outsiders” and trouble makers. They are also the ones who have apparently made it their purpose in life to keep writing #NotAllMen "Not my husband" / “That’ s unfair to men”, (and if they went to college: “That’ s misandry”) on the comments section of all social media posts about the countless variations of male violence, because they need (more than anyone I suppose) to believe that male violence, porn culture, toxic masculinity are a myth conjured up by “radical” feminists and bitter single women, (much like many White Supremacists think that racism or the Holocaust are myths). They claim that there is nothing left to fight for, because they subconsciously feel they have much to lose by joining their sisters who are still fighting the good fight. And above all, they feel the need to smooth the ego of their own husband / provider who is likely to take offence. They are (ironically), also usually certain that sexism doesn’t touch them…
By the way it’s Ok if the young girl in you, still need this. Still dreams of her wedding day and the flowers and the killer off-the-shoulder perfect dress she will spend weeks searching for in glossy magazines, and perfect little bridal boutiques with white shabby chic furniture that offer pricey cheese and grapes and tiny adorable cupcakes with pink frosting. It is Ok that you still need the whole shebang, but for God’s sake, don’ t call it a “feminist” thing. Be honest and say “hey, I need this! I need a break from my feminism! I need to step into the territory of Patriarchy for a while and play along. I have been dreaming about a big dramatic proposal and having a husband and a great wedding day ever since I was a little girl!” It’s Ok, it's a choice. But don’t pretend it’ s something different than what your grandma or great-great-great-gandma did - if not for similar reasons, then for many, MANY of the same ones. We understand why you would want to defend this by calling it a “feministic” choice. And a woman who is a feminist, does of course have every right to have her extravagant wedding, if she can’t help herself, bless her. It’s just that it would be more honest if she acknowledged also that this is not necessarily an actual “act of feminism”, and she should not ask us to see it as one, and become co-conspirators so to speak, in her self-deceit: something in her, needed to mainstream her relationship, make it legally binding, and therefore somehow more acceptable to her own eyes and the eyes of the world, and – let’s face it - more difficult for the one who has more power in it (the guy!) to walk out!
And making men’s escape from marriage more complex, and therefore less likely to occur, has always been part of the allure of marriage for women hasn’ t it? Women were born into and FOR captivity. Everything in their upbringing, everything that religion and tradition and pop culture has taught them, is that they are disposable. They are just not special enough to keep a man’s attention or lust (never mind his love) for long. Everything around them feeds their insecurities, tells them they are not good enough (pretty enough, sexy enough, thin enough, curvy enough, young enough, fertile enough, easy enough, sexually "adventurous" enough). And it matters. Because they are also not socially, legally and financially powerful enough either, and so completely at any guy's mercy. And because it places into their husband's hands an immense amount of power over them (Not to mention it assures men that there is absolutely no need for them to evolve) It also ultimately prompts women to accept the very first marriage proposal they get even if they are not in love, because what if they are never proposed again? What if they are not good enough to entice another guy? What will become of them? Marriage will offer the reassurance that they ARE what they are supposed to be. Because they were chosen by a guy. They were validated (for the moment at least) as worthy of his lust. And that’s a big deal, even when he doesn’ t wake up theirs. That’ s what they were taught! (And that explains how come so many, many of them find themselves trapped inside loveless, hopeless, cruel marriages.
This particular status quo is protected by the very fact that divorce is a complicated deal. A guy can get up and leave when all you have is a relationship with no financial, social, familial, legal or religious strings attached, but it is going to cost him (in a number of ways) if he is married to you, so he is probably going to think it twice. That’ s still a big part of the appeal marriage has on women who have been marginalised by legislation and religious / sociocultural / socioeconomic institutions. That’s why it has always been appealing to them, as they have been for generations refused the right to work, inherit and own property, or have their own money or in modern times, get the same job opportunities as men, let alone an equal pay. Not to mention proper support by the State (any State!) when their kids are young and they can’t work.
Even today, if a marriage fails, it’s one hell of an undertaking: priests and therapists and marriage “specialists” and family members will have to be consulted, and if these fail, bank accounts will need to be uncovered, grievances will be aired, shameful secrets will be made public, properties will need to be divided, negotiations and bargains will need to be made, in-laws, and lawyers will have their chance to chime in, weight in, be part of it. And then alimonies and child support will need to be paid and visitation rights will need to be established. It’s a whole to-do. He might think it twice… That is why marriage is important to so many women: it provides a security in economic, emotional, social terms, because nothing else out there will…
Maybe the alternatives available to heterosexual women who see marriage as a throwback, are not ideal either, as they all have their pitfalls: this living together with a guy, or this living alone but in a serious relationship with a guy, or this living alone and having no need for a guy, or this going from guy to guy. Maybe all these arrangements are also problematic. (As all arrangements among humans are) But maybe they are all somehow more honest, less restricting and less co-dependant in a manner that alters the relationship. Less shadowed by power games, emotional blackmail, and the need to control the unpredictable. And maybe they are all freer from the connotations of that old age-old sexism. From that obligation to be what you are not, to do what you do not feel like. For that old power game, turns sex into an obligation and women into commodities. There is in all of them, a greater room for women to move. To be. To evolve. (If they are up to it) All of the above variations were after all, only “allowed” to women when they started to gain more Rights. Feminism gave us the choice at least! (Why the hell aren’t more of us taking it? )
In a non-spousal relationship, if the two parties want to split up, things are simpler and because of that, gentler, less dramatic: one of them is possibly moving out and is forced to start again, the other is experiencing the emptiness of the apartment and the silences; one of them buys a bottle of whiskey, the other possibly a family-sized packet of ice cream (before they hit the gym to get their “revenge body” back that is…); one of them is cursing, the other is crying. Yet in time, they are both more likely to pick up the pieces, come out of the tunnel and start to live again. After that wedding ceremony however, when the two partners take the titles of “husband” and “wife”, if they decide they want out, things get truly complicated and messy: an entire - carefully constructed - organisation needs to be dismantled piece by painful piece.This could become at the very least a spectator’ s sport (in manner of Colosseum) or else a long and bloody war that will leave victims laying gutted on the floor. Special reasons need to be given, (“I don’t love you any more” never seems to be quite enough, does it?), witnesses need to provide evidence, holdings and china need to be divided and documents in triple need to be signed. Special professionals whose livelihood depends on this kind of cruel dismantling need also to be ushered in: marriage counselors and lawyers and judges and priests and accountants, and tax officials, and estate agents, and possibly even detectives with zoom lenses, shady morals, and time on their hands. That is why divorce is such an ugly painful business, such a shitty, gut wrenching deal that often leaves people who have gone through it (whether they are husbands, wives or their kids), marked for life.
Even the children of a couple who is not married and gets separated have a smoother transition. Maybe because what kept their parents together for as long as it did, was their true feelings for each other, not forced obligations and a social contract that involves shared properties and joint accounts and tax cuts, and inheritances and family obligations and in-laws and an entire machine of interested parties. This is about them and nobody (and nothing) else! That is why their splitting up does not turn into an opera with the two parties holding on so tightly and often maliciously onto what’ s “theirs”, accusing each other, asking the kids to take sides, and by that alone, scarring them for life.
The thing is: as long as gender equality is still unreachable, a “perfect marriage”as in a “union of equals” can only happen between gay people, because despite being prejudiced against, gay individuals are still considered – and are! – at least socially and legally equals to each other! There are no social / legal privileges attached to just one of the two parties! There is no one party having the upper hand so to speak. A heterosexual marriage on the other hand, in which both parties are seen as equal, is just not often encountered outside of romantic fiction, rom coms and every married woman’ s facebook posts...
No wonder Patriarchy and world religions had to dress marriage up, add all kinds of bells and whistles to make it desirable for both sexes: they promised men who succumb to it, warm meals and a laundry service, and being worthy of respect, and that precious, all-important“no-questions-asked-regular-fuck”! Not to mention unquestionable authority in their own home. (Even slaves who would be made to feel less than human, would still get to be masters in their own home, because they were considered – like all other men - to be at least superior to their wives!) And they promised women a “special day”! A day out of a fairy tale, with flowers, and ribbons, and lace, and fabulous white dresses, and adoring crowds and tall Champagne glasses (or the cultural equivalent of that for each moment in Time) and three-tiered vanilla cakes, and tiaras and veils and proud, teary-eyed parents, and green with envy girlfriends! (which is to say, the "stuff of dreams"...) They promised them respectability (that would of course otherwise have been denied to them). They promised them the name of a man in place of their own. And they told them, “This is good. This is what you want. This is what makes you acceptable!” And they believed it. And so as girls, they started writing boys’ s names next to their own in their notebooks, trying out this borrowed respectability. Dreaming of it. Hoping desperately for it. (Having been indoctrinated to be complicit in the own devaluation from an early age) They promised them scenes from a movie or a novel. Or possible an ad. Chopping vegetables together in a kitchen that looked like a “Home & Garden” centrefold. A man holding their hand when they get old, as they are sitting together on a park bench. Looking into their eyes lovingly, not noticing they have aged. (This is some pretty powerful shit!) And they promised them fat babies and golden Retrievers, and framed family photos on the mantel. They promised them their own home (well not legally their own of course, but still…) They promised them a yard with apple trees and a herb garden and patio furniture and a decorating budget. They promised them a purpose in this life (to serve their husband, cook for him, clean after him, to wait on him, bare his kids!) and they told them “This is happiness. This is what you were born to do! (Plus you can't really do anything else! Remember this!)” They promised them being seen as actual human beings (If not by their husbands, then by all others, Goddammit!) And they promised them protection from all the dangers that lay outside of marriage, and which are specifically aimed at unmarried women. (Dangers, which were created by the very ones who were making the promises of protection, ironically…) They promised them also a life of comfort, free from the burden of being out there, fighting your way in a world that rejects you, and silences you, and takes more than it gives to you, and harasses and humiliates you, and refuses to see you as worthy of anything, and puts you in danger. They promised them never to be despised and ridiculed: to be saved from the shame of being called spinsters! (This alone could do it) They promised them the right to exist! (Even if it is in their husband's shadow) And women took it. With both hands! Which was clever of them, since such things (or any other ones) would not have been available to them, if they remained single: old maids. Childless, useless, unprotected, destitute things. Shameful and shameless. Unfit for “real” life.
Each mother (generation, after generation) becoming the ambassador of these promises, passing the baton to her daughter. Imparting along with a feeling of worthlessness, a hope for a "salvation". An endless chain of women trying to fit inside a specific designed-by-men-and-for-men box. Being cut to measure. Telling each other “that’ s the only way to exist". Helping men build the boxes in which their daughters would also he held.
A chain that has never really been broken, and which even today, sustains Patriarchy and it is being sustained by it.