Goodbye Norma Jean (and Fall Semester 2014)…

“It doesn’t really take any talent to spread your legs.” So said a student during a discussion of Marilyn Monroe during my first offering of a class on the history of the American Dream. He was referring to the notorious “casting couch” spirit of the postwar Hollywood studio system and Monroe’s willingness to engage in whatever it took to get noticed, get cast, or, ideally, get a contract in that climate. As the discussion continued, this student revealed he’d never seen a Monroe film, but he was inclined to regard the “dumb blonde” archetype she portrayed across her career as an expression of the real Monroe rather than an indication of any sort of comic acting chops. Well, then. I pushed this student, but he was unwilling to bend in his assessment. Apparently our efforts to “reconsider the past through analysis of historians’ arguments and primary source evidence” were not encouraging him to reconsider his pre-class opinions.

I’ve been teaching for a while now, and increasingly, when I find myself in this kind of position in the classroom, my response is to head back to the drawing board. Something isn’t working.

I’ve just concluded my offering of the American Dream class for a second time. For this installment, I revised the entirety of the course from top to bottom. Marilyn was among the few figures not cut in the overhaul (a] she is FASCINATING; b] I owed her redemption!). As part of the revision process, Monroe was much better situated in a discussion of idealized 1950s womanhood, a brand of womanhood that suggested a woman’s earning power was directly linked to the career aspirations and success of the man she managed to marry. His American Dream was hers (or maybe more accurately, he was hers?). To that end, Monroe is both an embodiment and a challenge (in her films and in her life), and fits beautifully in a section of the course that is all about invention and reinvention.

I assigned segments of Lois Banner’s biography of Monroe, 1953’s How to Marry a Millionaire (where Monroe is SO BEAUTIFUL and SO FUNNY), and excerpts from Gloria Steinem’s Marilyn biography. The readings are really engaging (if I do say so myself), with Banner considering the public image of Monroe, the views of those she worked with, and Marilyn’s efforts to establish agency and personal power in a time when both were in short supply for a woman in her field. Steinem thinks about Monroe’s legacy – with a particular focus on what the feminist movement has meant for her memory and what it might have meant for her, both personally and professionally, had she lived longer. Along with the film and some in-class source work, it is a good section of the class (again: if I do say so myself).


Monroe as Pola Debevoise in How to Marry a Millionaire

Really good for me: I had a *great* class. They were smart and engaged from the first. They did the good work of highlighting themes across the course, of putting figures into conversation with one another, of establishing what has given the American Dream the longevity it has enjoyed and where it has revealed itself as a mythic and often unattainable creation. And, as it turns out, they were willing to disagree with each other. But it took Marilyn Monroe for that willingness to reveal itself.

Banner’s chapter on Monroe talks about the years leading to super stardom where MM would wear the sexiest possible dress to a party in order to assure that she’d be noticed. Banner writes about Monroe’s conflicts with authority and her habitual lateness on the set, but she reminds readers about the tyrannical nature of 1950s directors and their impatience with “silly women.” She highlights the difference between the studio’s focus on the bottom line versus an emerging view among Hollywood stars that they were artists, not interchangeable parts that could be turned on and off at a moment’s notice. She reveals that Marilyn, for all the trouble she allegedly caused with her demands as she made films, was never once late to a dance class or voice lesson.

For me, it was clear that Monroe worked – and worked hard – during her early years in Hollywood. She consciously had cultivated a style intended to aid her ascendancy to stardom. She did what she had to do to get by in terms of appearance and enduring typecasting, but beyond that, she showed tremendous savvy in developing a compelling interview style and crafting an unforgettable screen presence. Some students in the class agreed. Others: not so much. While several students commended Monroe for her understanding of the way media worked, others were resistant to see Monroe as active in shaping her stardom. What’s more: they didn’t like her. They thought she was cocky and arrogant. In this class, we discussed Henry Ford, William Randolph Hearst, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Orson Welles, and not once had the charge of arrogance been made. Even after discussing the context of late 1940s/early 1950s womanhood, when being linked to a man was the surest way of succeeding, the class was divided on whether or not we wanted to assign Monroe “risk-taker” status (an important element to achieving the American Dream, so said my class). When she was still a teenager, with no family and no sure source of income, she basically walked away from her ace-in-the-hole husband with hopes a modeling and film career would pan out. IN 1946. And we don’t know if we want to call her a risk taker? Hopefully my face was not communicating what my brain was screaming, which was WHAT IS GOING ON HERE?!?

Even after watching Monroe on screen, the divides persisted. When I asked if she had not played a great dumb blonde, the old view reared its ugly head: “I’m not so sure she’s ‘playing’ dumb,” said one student. Others nodded in agreement. Multiple students expressed the belief that it hadn’t needed to be Norma Jean Mortensen/Dougherty who became Marilyn Monroe – someone else could’ve done it. Apparently students were ready to shed their faith in individualism during Week 13, when only two weeks earlier they’d been adamant that only Jackie Robinson could’ve been Jackie Robinson. Unwilling to accept the necessity of Monroe’s alleged use of sexual favors to make her way up the star ladder, another student noted, “I don’t know a lot of women stars from this time, but I’m sure not everyone did that.” And yet this student admitted that she’d known Marilyn Monroe before she enrolled in a course on the History of the American Dream, begging the question: what was the surest path to stardom for a woman determined to be a star? Particularly a woman with no money, no education, no connections? Over the course of the semester, it was not uncommon for students to commend figures of the past for trading in on whatever currency they had. And yet sexual currency seemed not a currency to commend.

The unwillingness to accept neither the labor of beauty nor the labor of feminine agreeability (which Marilyn often displayed in spades) and the further unwillingness to accept the potential talent of a sexually attractive woman (Monroe’s great sadness during her life) reminded me of things I already know. But I was disappointed to see these truisms revealed in my class. HOWEVER. I did note my class’s willingness to debate, and there were strong voices supporting Marilyn, too. Several students placed her squarely in the mold of 1950s womanhood – and saw, as I hoped they would, both the possibilities and limits of her role. After reading Steinem, one student said she’s wished for Marilyn to have lived long enough to read The Feminine Mystique while another noted that she believed Marilyn would’ve thrived in the world of women’s liberation where she would have found a community of women with whom she could’ve discussed their many shared experiences (sexual abuse, miscarriages, general anxiety). Another student, who felt so sorry for Monroe, reported to me days later that her philosophy class had just read feminist philosophy and her feelings for Marilyn weren’t just sympathy: she was looking at her through a feminist perspective! HALLELUJAH! I did NOT have this cluster of defenders in my first discussion of Monroe.


And that has been my point in writing this far too long post: there is POWER in education to change perspective even if we feel like we’re sometimes going up against a wall. Students who have taken classes on women’s history, human sexuality, or any number of other courses that encourage consideration of the roles of gender and sexuality in social or cultural construction used their analytical skills and their content knowledge to challenge reductions of Monroe to a mere sex symbol bombshell. They considered who and what made her what she was – and what she did to challenge expectations and ideals and the obstacles she faced as she did. The idea that they’ll take with them this willingness to consider alternative perspectives and challenge widespread assumptions as they leave the classroom and head into the future not only gives me hope but also a sense of the power of what we do in the classroom to make a difference in the world beyond. And I’m grateful for this now, at this moment, when I have been feeling so powerless. As I’ve just concluded a long semester and face another one looming after a too short break, I’m determined to take this optimism with me. As I’m gearing up for another 15 week stretch, it’s good to be reminded that both the time we spend in and the time we spend on our classes is time well spent.

Thoughts on Gisele, Nursing, and the Mommy Wars; Or, Why _Our Bodies, Ourselves_ is worth revisiting

Potentially the most horrifying scene ever put to screen by acclaimed series Mad Men is the one in which Betty Draper delivers baby Gene. The overall mood of the third child’s arrival – the child unplanned and, to some degree, unwanted – is cold and antiseptic. But the child’s conception may have had no bearing on that. Such was the nature of even a welcome childbirth in mid-1960s America. The message communicated in the episode is that Betty Draper went into and came out of that delivery room alone. What transpired within, even she may not be sure of. A baby came out of it, and that’s all the viewers, her husband, and even Betty herself need to know. When I think of gynecological care of the 1960s, this episode sums it all up. Doctors who were put on a pedestal for being doctors, women who were encouraged to trust in their MD’s medical knowledge (aka ask no questions), and a clinical and somewhat frighteningly dispassionate view of the body and its many possibilities.

In contrast, when I had my annual exams at Indiana University’s Health Center in the mid-2000s, something that struck me immediately was that all the rooms in the women’s wing had posters on their ceilings. When women went in for whatever ailed them, as they lay back, they viewed pictures of fields of wildflowers or beaches at sunset. The atmosphere was warm, and the message communicated by those posters was that women shouldn’t be tense or nervous. They should focus on something beautiful and think about their visit in a positive way.

Something had shifted.

For a time, and not unrelated to my experiences at the Health Center, I considered that my next project would be about women’s health. In particular, I was (and still am) interested in the efforts of the Boston feminists who put together Our Bodies, Ourselves as a pamphlet in 1971 (originally published as Women and Their Bodies in 1970: Women wrote for women in a manner that was matter of fact and, for the time (for now?), radical in its assertion that women should take ownership over their bodies and their health. What’s great about the original document is that it not only encourages women’s agency but it dismantles widespread social prescriptions about birth control, sexuality, pregnancy, and childbirth. Challenging limited viewpoints that suggest all women are predestined to be mothers, or ascribes “true womanhood” only to those who’ve born and raised a child, the book embraces a variety of feminities, any of which are considered legitimate and proof-enough of “real” womanhood. As a whole, the book was non-judgmental and remarkably kind.


But it’s not pregnancy or childbirth that has had me thinking about these evolutionary views of women’s health (whereas I usually digress somewhere midway through these things, here I started with a digression. Sorry.). Rather, it was Gisele Bundchen’s recent Instagram of herself breast-feeding baby Vivian. If you’ve been living under a rock (aka haven’t seen it), use the power of the Google, choose the appropriate search terms, and it will come to you.

As I suppose GB intended, people responded to this image (All press is good press, yes?). There were those who eye-rolled, maybe more at Gisele’s caption (“What would I do without this beauty squad after the 15 hours flying and only 3 hours of sleep #multitasking #gettingready”) than the image itself. There were those who cheered GB for “normalizing” nursing (I personally think those people are looking for the term “glamourizing” but whatever). Salon’s Mary Elizabeth Williams (of whom I’m a great fan) defended Gisele as a working mother, finding a balance, like so many other working mothers of the world.

It’s worth nothing that this wasn’t GB’s first jump into the nursing fire. She’d caught greater heat back in 2010 for a Harper’s Bazaar UK interview in which she stated, “Some people here (in the US) think they don’t have to breastfeed, and I think ‘Are you going to give chemical food to your child when they are so little?’ I think there should be a worldwide law, in my opinion, that mothers should breastfeed their babies for six months.” In the ensuing backlash, she clarified her intentions, claiming that her comment had “nothing to do with the law.” Except, and maybe I’m being nitpicky here, she used the phrase “worldwide law.” Anyway. Her statement went on: “I understand that everyone has their own experience and opinions and I am not here to judge. I believe that bringing a life into this world is the single most important thing a person can undertake, and it can also be the most challenging.”  Well, except that the original words were entirely judgmental. And Gisele added to that judgment by suggesting those who opt out of child bearing – or are unable to do so – are living lives of less importance than those who bear children. So…I guess you could say I have my doubts about this “apology.”

As I’ve thought about GB’s picture and her words over the last several weeks – both of which are part of an image she consciously crafts – I’ve come back time and again to the openness, acceptance, and lack of judgment communicated in the original Our Bodies, Ourselves and how those qualities seem so absent in GB’s words and actions. With her picture (and I keep thinking about its caption) and her words, she seems totally unaware of the insularity of her experience, and in many ways, fails to recognize the privileged position she occupies. She notes that every woman has her own experience, but the comment seems a throwaway, a bone tossed to people pissed that she’d overstepped. On the other hand, Our Bodies, Ourselves went out of its way to assure women that their many varied experiences were totally normal and totally valid. In this contemporary world of Mommy Wars – of which I’ve long read and am now quickly learning first-hand (and of which I’d count GB’s words) – a return to the OBO view of women’s life and health would be most welcome.

Which is to say: all of this has had me thinking historically (as the historian is wont to do), and on a variety of levels. Typically, when I’m writing, I like to sum up my thoughts with some larger conclusion about then, now, people, relationships, etc., etc., etc. It feels nice and tidy. But with this, I’m somewhat stymied. Do I think something has gone awry from the time of the budding optimism of the women’s movement, of which Our Bodies, Ourselves is a product? Yes, I think something has. Pretty clearly, and there’s been good discussion of this by contemporary feminists, one of the things that went awry was the movement away from “we” and the failure to really take institutions to task (the original OBO pamphlet calls for maternity and paternity leave – in 1970!!) and the movement toward an expectation that individuals put up or shut up. And Gisele pretty clearly puts up. From there, she can operate on a kind of “if I can do it, so can you” mindset. But I don’t think the problem is something about women in isolation. I keep thinking about the culture of celebrity that’s grown since the 1970s – and maybe more specifically the style of celebrity that’s really blossomed since the 1990s, where the lethal combination of reality TV, the internet, and social media has given celebrities the option of opining at will and to audiences of enormous size and scope. And with little thought to how their actions or views might be interpreted by others or what their actions or views actually communicate. There are things I’m still working through when I think of this. Among those things, however, of this I am certain: this “throwaway” world of popular culture is chock full of possibility for the observant and constantly reveals the evolution of our views on a host of issues.

What we in the biz call a “teachable moment”…

I realize I’m late to comment on the controversy surrounding Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson. The holidays interrupted attempts at a normal work schedule, but they also provided some time to stew – which isn’t the worst thing in the world.

Obviously, given what I’ve written before, I disagree entirely with Robertson’s views on homosexuality. But if we’re talking about a member of the contemporary conservative Christian community, such views don’t particularly surprise me. And there’s been plenty written by those who support and those who disagree with Robertson’s statements, with A&E’s response (the immediate as well as the subsequent), etc., etc., etc.


There’s also been some written about his views on race, which for me, was the more troubling element of his interview. Born eight years before the Brown v. Board of Education ruling – and thus in plenty of time to see the origins and activism of the modern Civil Rights Movement not to mention the circumstances that led to its development – Robertson clearly relies on a mythic past of racial harmony when he states “I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field…. They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!” He adds, “Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.”

I won’t suggest that Robertson misremembers the past. Very likely, this is just how he imagined the world then and has continued to think about the past ever since. More accurately, I believe his view is representative of those who fail to imagine the world beyond their own experiences, of those who fail to look at the larger context of the lives of those who are unlike them. This is not merely a southern phenomenon – nor is it one whose application is problematic only when we discuss race. But sticking with the racial theme: On a trip to New Jersey years ago, a relative told a story of her girlhood at the local shore town Catholic school, where she recalled there had been one black student. My relative assured me she would sit next to this student on the bus, that other children were kind to her, and, in sum, “She never felt any different.” Really? In 1940s New Jersey, as the only black child among all the fair-skinned Irish Catholics, she felt no difference? And among all those fair-skinned Catholics, both children and adults, not one recognized her as different and made that recognition known? As a historian – and as a human being – I find that difficult to believe. What’s at stake here? Why shape the story in this way? My guesses: so that my relative can absolve herself of any guilt, re: American race relations, so that the idea of a clear North/South divide remains in tact, so that the “good old days” retain their status as “good.”

On this site, I most often write about love and marriage and weddings (and the cultures that accompany them) of the recent past and in contemporary America. But I’m also interested in the intimate relationships people share more broadly, in the ways the experience and imagine both their public and private lives and those with whom they interact. As an educator, I’m interested in pushing my students toward considering various perspectives in and of the past. In Robertson’s youth, he may have been among the poor whites, but he was white. The likelihood that any person of color would express dissatisfaction with the standing racial etiquette of the Jim Crow South with even a person recognized as “white trash” is highly unlikely. In 1955, when television reporters travelled to Mississippi to cover the trial of Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, men accused (and guilty) of killing Chicago teenager Emmett Till, they interviewed African American passerby about their views on the case. Many of those interviewed claimed they had no opinion about the trial. No opinion about a 14 year old black boy, beaten, shot, and tied to a cotton gin then dumped in the Tallahatchie River for allegedly whistling at a white woman? If we take those historical sources at face value, we fail as historians. Considering the larger context of the southern experience reveals the necessity of shrouded views as a mechanism of self-preservation and basic survival.

As we consider relationships and lives of historical actors, it’s fundamental that we remember to consider the broader world in which our actors lived – and how a relationship between two people very likely would yield two stories as to the nature of that relationship and each person’s overall experiences. And as we engage in relationships in our own lives, it’s fundamental, I would argue, to consider the larger world in which our relationships, particularly our relationships with people different from ourselves, exist. If I might, this is where I’d make a plug not only for history but for the world of the humanities and liberal arts – where we emphasize perspective and analysis and investigation of other people, languages, cultures, and ways of life. My students, knowing as they do about the conscious creation of a Jim Crow system of “justice,” the development of the Double Victory campaign in the wake of the Second World War, the formation of a community effort to undo Montgomery’s separate but clearly unequal system of transportation, know that a dismissive claim that “they” were happy and seemingly unconcerned with the extension of a second-class brand of citizenship fails to accurately relay the complicated experience of southern life. Ideally, their education will prepare them to interrogate other such claims of and about the past, particularly as they consider the sources making them and what contemporary purposes such claims might serve.


Community activists during the Montgomery Bus Boycott

Shame on you, Lance Bass

In the world of things I don’t love, at the top of the list are the assumptions people make about sex and gender, the expectations they have of how men and women should behave because they are men and women. Clearly, then, weddings provide a fruitful ground for frustration. I suppose, by now, I should’ve learned to temper my expectations and assumptions about who will play up what tired clichés and how. And yet, I have not. For this week’s disappointment, I present to you one Lance Bass.

BassThe culprit: Lance Bass

Bass, in the midst of arranging his wedding to partner Michael Turchin, has offered up some half-baked wisdom from the world of wedding planning. After noting that he almost feels bad that there’s not a woman around to make decisions, he noted “The sad thing about two guys planning a wedding is it’s really hard – the wedding’s usually for the bride, and they’ve been dreaming of it since they were two years old.” For someone who should be happy he’s gay wedding planning in the twenty-first century when unions such as his own are not only legal but also celebrated, Bass is dishing up some pretty archaic ideas. Operating in a weird world of gender dichotomy – where “man” equals one set of behaviors and values and “woman” an opposing set – Bass seems oblivious to the fact that many people would look to him and his non-traditional romantic partnership and assume that he and Turchin must embody an alternative kind of masculinity (especially, one might imagine, when Bass suggests the two men may take as long as a year to plan their wedding. Why a year if they’re not really that into it?). Or, it’s entirely possible, given prevailing stereotypes, that many would look to a gay male duo and presume the two men to be effeminate in behavior and outlook. These kind of presumptions, of course, are ridiculous and have been proved inaccurate time after time after time.  As I’ve written here and elsewhere, the problem with these assumptions is that they limit people from understanding that any range of behaviors can be considered normal and natural, that neither men nor women need to be confined to a rigid set of rules and regulations. Many women, we know, have had plenty of other dreams – weddings aside – to keep them busy “since they were two years old.” And plenty of men – gay and straight – have taken active roles in planning for their impending nuptials. All of this is true in spite of the fact that the larger culture keeps hammering home the concept of the wedding as “the bride’s day.” It can be, but it doesn’t have to be.

And Bass and Turchin are a case in point. When Bass notes that since there’s no wedding dress to serve as star of the celebration, he and his groom will encourage female guests to don high fashion and couture, he both affirms and contradicts himself. He stands by the idea that women should be adorned on the wedding day, that there should be a dress. But he also provides an example of two men thinking fairly deeply about how what their celebration should look like and how it should unfold.


“The sad thing about two guys planning a wedding is it’s really hard – the wedding’s usually for the bride, and they’ve been dreaming of it since they were two years old,” he continued.
“The sad thing about two guys planning a wedding is it’s really hard – the wedding’s usually for the bride, and they’ve been dreaming of it since they were two years old,” he continued.
“The sad thing about two guys planning a wedding is it’s really hard – the wedding’s usually for the bride, and they’ve been dreaming of it since they were two years old,” he continued.

Second (or Third) Time’s the Charm?

In recent radio interviews I’ve done, a number of callers have mentioned how their second weddings were far better than their first. They felt more ownership over the celebrations and found them to be more meaningful. This, I suppose, could be a result of the advanced age of the celebrants the second time around, or it could be that second-timers have learned from their mistakes. Or, ideally, it could be a result of marrying a more suitable partner. In any case, the world of second (or more) weddings is a topic that keeps coming up.

I thought this summer might be the long-awaited Brangelina wedding, or that Jen Aniston and Justin Theroux might tie the knot (it would be the first marriage only for Theroux). But those couples seem to be hedging their bets – and keeping quiet on when the celebrations might take place. Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, very recently engaged, may beat them all to the altar. I’m thrilled with their engagement for the wedding talk it undoubtedly will generate – and very curious to see how they proceed. On the one hand, there’s a suggestion that the two are moving toward a modicum of privacy in their private lives as they’ve done well to limit baby North’s public exposure. But then, there’s Kim’s postpartum selfie. And a stadium proposal. So the possibility exists that we could have another Kardashian wedding extravaganza on our hands.



My sense is that in the past, a second wedding, particularly one conducted after a divorce, necessitated an almost subdued celebration style. But I think the sentiment that suggests a couple go low key if one or the other has already been married is increasingly becoming something of a relic. Similarly, whereas when a bride was of an advanced age, say over 35 (advanced, obviously, only in the scare-women-into-marriage-as-quickly-as-possible wedding world of mid-century [when, really, 25 was considered “advanced]), the expectation was that she forgo the pomp and circumstance, trading in childish bridal dreams for a sensible suit and simple ceremony. That notion has gone the way of the dinosaur. Expectations of wedding celebrations, like American culture as a whole, have changed. Whereas public sentiment about what a person should do once held much greater sway, the private desires of what a person wants to do now reign supreme.

In any case, I think the public is inclined to give second-timers a pass, particularly when they move toward simpler, more heartfelt celebrations. There is likely to be less judgment of a couple when the second shot at love seems authentic. I wonder what that will mean for Kimye. Kanye generally leans toward theatrical while Kim’s wedding to Kris Humphries (her second marriage) was nothing less than a spectacle, with its corporate sponsorship, subsequent E! broadcasts, and multi-paged coverage in national print media. I doubt that either will push for a quiet celebration of closest family and friends, off the beaten path, outside the public eye. But if their natures and their trades lead them toward spectacle, is their union any less legitimate than those who scale back on the second take? Is it fair to doubt the authenticity of their romance? And if the second (or third) time is the charm, and the love feels truer and more real, what should stop a couple from celebrating in a style of their choosing? I realize Kim is the woman who cried love once already – and very publicly (and after a first failed marriage) – so those who have their doubts about the depth of the reality star’s affections have their reasons. But I’m curious to see which will prevail: amendments to wedding culture that allow for some flexibility and forgiveness or the tendency toward an increasingly mean-spirited overarching critique of American weddings and their celebrants (unnecessary, excessive spending, privileging the wedding over the marriage, etc., etc., etc.).

Making Marriage Cool

VH1’s website recently featured a post “15 Celebrity Couples So Cool They Don’t Have to Get Married” ( The point of the article/photo gallery is that there are certain celebrity couples we continue to fixate on despite the fact that they string us along with their alleged engagements and supposed plans to marry. They’re so cool, we’ll follow their relationships even if they never follow through on their marriage plans. Aside from the fact that I take issue with the fact that by including both Jon Hamm and Jessica Simpson on this list, the post indicates that they are the same level of cool (they are not), I really, really hate the article’s title.

jessica_simpson_Mom_jeans_ JON-HAMM

Simpson & Hamm – may they never be listed on anything together ever again.

By suggesting that not getting married signifies cool, the post automatically suggests that getting married is square. People who think this way must suffer through miserable relationships. How terrible for them. Marriage, many continue to believe, is about the old ball and chain (especially for men), and is an institution for the conventional and conformist and to be entered into only when absolutely necessary. Upon entry, kiss both freedom and good times good-bye.

But at this stage in the game, when marriage is not a necessity (socially, culturally, financially [especially for women] – as it was up until at least the mid-20th century), people still get married, which suggests the marital relationship might not be that bad. As I discuss in my book, during the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, Americans witnessed the rise of the alternative or new wedding. New wedding celebrants rejected the cookie-cutter conformity of the standard wedding celebration. They got married outdoors, wore hip-inspired wedding costumes, wrote their own ceremonies and vows, and embraced the homespun over the store-bought. Their objective: use the weddings to indicate how their marriages would be different – from those of other married couples, and even more important, from the generation that had gone before them. Their parents, they believed, had entered into compulsory unions – for security, as an escape from their own families, because that’s what people did, but not necessarily for love and partnership. To hear retrospective tales from those who wed in the 1940s and 1950s, those who remained wed as well as those who contributed to the massive divorce rates of the 1970s, the alternative wedding celebrants were right. During the post-WWII period, in particular, when responsibility and maturity were highly sought after characteristics and a marriage signified both, marriage was highly desirable, maybe for romance but definitely for the sense of security – financial and cultural – that it provided. Sentiments, admittedly, that are not particularly “cool.”

1954IowaCouple Arlo+Jackie-Guthrie-wedding

1954 v. 1969

All that said, the efforts of alternative celebrants to express the differences in their unions pointed to the fact that marriage needn’t be the ball and chain, that couples could be happy, that marriage could be cool. And from the 1960s on, and well into this still young 21st century, many celebrants have adopted this point of view. Couples needn’t stay unmarried to have their relationships stay fresh and fun and relevant. But old habits die hard, I suppose. And for some, it’s easier to work in dichotomies such as “married: not cool” and “unmarried: cool” than to attempt to investigate or explain the varied nature of human relationships and experiences. But for me, the thing that is much less cool than marriage, is this t-shirt, which I saw sported by some yahoo in Cleveland this past July. Not cool, joker. Definitively NOT COOL.


Let’s have a moment of silence for the woman about to wed a man in this shirt.

Poor job performance? Get a wife!

Gary Player, famed and aged professional golfer, recently offered some advice to twenty-four-year-old Rory McIlroy, a golfer many believe has failed to reach his full potential.

“[T]he thing is for a man like Rory with talent galore he’s got to make sure he has a woman like I’ve got, who has been married [to me] for 56 years, that has only encouraged me to do well and made sacrifices. He’s got to be intelligent and find the right wife. If he finds the right wife, if he practices and if he’s dedicated, he could be the man.”

Of course he could.


Gary Player: golfer, relationship guru, nude model.

On the one hand, Player isn’t wrong to suggest that successful people need a support system behind them. No man (or woman) is an island. But the idea that a woman who’s “only” job is to encourage her man and to make “sacrifices” on his behalf is the perfect solution to a lack of professional success is one that belongs in a different century. When my PTI friends Tony and Wilbon discussed this topic, they shared my disdain for Player’s views. They discredited Player’s ideas by pointing to famed bachelors Derek Jeter and Wilt Chamberlain as examples of stars who’ve done just fine without wives to guide them along. My thoughts went more to tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, McIlroy’s girlfriend of three years. It’s pretty clear to me that Player doesn’t believe Woz is the “right wife.” Why? Because she’s busy focusing on her own career and presumably making sacrifices intended to improve her own professional standing rather than McIlroy’s. As far as I know, however, no one’s suggested that finding a man, “the right husband,” dedicated solely to advancing Wozniacki’s professional success would be a surefire solution to her recent string of poor performances in Majors. When Chris Everett and John McEnroe and Brad Gilbert and others comment on Wozniacki’s fall from her previous number one ranking, they focus on her serve, her movement, her confidence, not her romantic status. The responsibility for her success is her own, not that of some fictional future caretaker willing to table any personal aspirations so that his mate might succeed. And my suspicion is that Player would be shocked if someone were to suggest a man take on such a role.


Woz & McIlroy, a dual-career couple, common to the 21st century

Player’s ideas are not new – and they suggest the stale ideas of yesteryear still have some traction. Literature of the 1950s spoke directly to the idea that a woman was fundamental to a man’s success (and, of course, this idea held great power well before the 1950s as well). Mrs. Dale Carnegie, not even credited with a first name of her own, published numerous articles in ladies magazines of the era and in 1957 published a book-length set of prescriptions, How to Help Your Husband Get Ahead. From getting along with his secretary to keeping a clean house to giving him alone time to watching his weight, a wife’s primary endeavor was to make a man’s life as conducive to professional success and personal satisfaction as possible. Her greatest individual desire should be that he was able to fulfill his.


By all accounts, having a wife of this kind would be awesome. And so I give you a perennial feminist favorite to argue why we should all have one. For those of you who’ve read this before, say hello to an old friend. For first-timers, you’re welcome.

“Why I Want a Wife,” Judy Syfers (1971)

(This piece appeared in the premier issue of Ms. Magazine.)

I belong to that classification of people known as wives. I am A Wife.

And, not altogether incidentally, I am a mother. Not too long ago a male friend of mine appeared on the scene fresh from a recent divorce. He had one child, who is, of course, with his ex-wife. He is looking for another wife. As I thought about him while I was ironing one evening, it suddenly occurred to me that I too, would like to have a wife. Why do I want a wife?

I would like to go back to school so that I can become economically independent, support myself, and if need be, support those dependent upon me. I want a wife who will work and send me to school. And while I am going to school I want a wife to take care of my children. I want a wife to keep track of the children’s doctor and dentist appointments. And to keep track of mine, too. I want a wife to make sure my children eat properly and are kept clean. I want a wife who will wash the children’s clothes and keep them mended. I want a wife who is a good nurturing attendant to my children, who arranges for their schooling, makes sure that they have an adequate social life with their peers, takes them to the park, the zoo, etc. I want a wife who takes care of the children when they are sick, a wife who arranges to be around when the children need special care, because, of course, I cannot miss classes at school. My wife must arrange to lose time at work and not lose the job. It may mean a small cut in my wife’s income from time to time, but I guess I can tolerate that. Needless to say, my wife will arrange and pay for the care of the children while my wife is working.

I want a wife who will take care of my physical needs. I want a wife who will keep my house clean. A wife who will pick up after my children, a wife who will pick up after me. I want a wife who will keep my clothes clean, ironed, mended, replaced when need be, and who  will see to it that my personal things are kept in their proper place so that I can find what I need the minute I need it. I want a wife who cooks the meals, a wife who is a good cook. I want a wife who will plan the menus, do the necessary grocery shopping, prepare the meals, serve them pleasantly, and then do the cleaning up while I do my studying. I want a wife who will care for me when I am sick and sympathize with my pain and loss of time from school. I want a wife to go along when our family takes a vacation so that someone can continue care for me and my when I need a rest and change of scene. I want a wife who will not bother me with rambling complaints about a wife’s duties. But I want a wife who will listen to me when I feel the need to explain a rather difficult point I have come across in my course of studies. And I want a wife who will type my papers for me when I have written them.

I want a wife who will take care of the details of my social life. When my wife and I are invited out by my friends, I want a wife who take care of the baby-sitting arrangements. When I meet people at school that I like and want to entertain, I want a wife who will have the house clean, will prepare a special meal, serve it to me and my friends, and not interrupt when I talk about things that interest me and my friends. I want a wife who will have arranged that the children are fed and ready for bed before my guests arrive so that the children do not bother us. I want a wife who takes care of the needs of my quests so that they feel comfortable, who makes sure that they have an ashtray, that they are passed the hors d’oeuvres, that they are offered a second helping of the food, that their wine glasses are replenished when necessary, that their coffee is served to them as they like it. And I want a wife who knows that sometimes I need a night out by myself.

I want a wife who is sensitive to my sexual needs, a wife who makes love passionately and eagerly when I feel like it, a wife who makes sure that I am satisfied. And, of course, I want a wife who will not demand sexual attention when I am not in the mood for it. I want a wife who assumes the complete responsibility for birth control, because I do not want more children. I want a wife who will remain sexually faithful to me so that I do not have to clutter up my intellectual life with jealousies. And I want a wife who understands that my sexual needs may entail more than strict adherence to monogamy. I must, after all, be able to relate to people as fully as possible.

If, by chance, I find another person more suitable as a wife than the wife I already have, I want the liberty to replace my present wife with another one. Naturally, I will expect a fresh, new life; my wife will take the children and be solely responsible for them so that I am left free.

When I am through with school and have a job, I want my wife to quit working and remain at home so that my wife can more fully and completely take care of a wife’s duties.

My God, who wouldn’t want a wife?

La Liz & the Evolution of Mid-Century Celebrity

I had an idea of who Elizabeth Taylor was from the time I was pretty small, I think. When my mom said La Liz, I knew exactly who she was talking about. My dad would buy my grandmother the gift set of White Diamonds from the PX every Christmas. I remember thinking how odd it was that she and Michael Jackson should be good buds. I knew nothing of her as a movie star and only saw Cat on a Hot Tin Roof when I was maybe 18 or 19 (I only just watched Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Whoa.). Still, I am certain that I knew of her as a public figure marked by fame, extravagance, and luxury (reading about a run-of-the-mill morning that had her answering husband Richard Burton’s question of “What are you doing?” with “Playing with my jewels!” suggests my sense of her was on the right track). Also, at some point, I knew she was a woman many times married.


As I’ve been thinking about women and celebrity in the 1960s – and about which women were the most famous celebrities, Liz has become a source of fascination. She was a MOVIE STAR (who loved being a MOVIE STAR) and potentially the most famous woman in the world (whose fame ultimately extended well beyond her movie star status). With her fame came power, a power she embraced and channeled toward her chosen ends. LT challenged the studio system at mid-century and ultimately, I’d argue, played a role in diminishing its authority by following her own desires rather than studio directives. A central element of her challenge was the assertion that she should have some measure of control over her private life. Joining with other stars of the 1950s and 1960s, among them Monty Clift and Marlon Brando, Liz rejected the ideas that a) she owed fans more than what she gave them on the screen; b) that her personal life had to live up to a moral standard determined by forces beyond her own purview. And her purview was that eight marriages to seven men – interspersed with a variety of non-marital relationships – was perfectly legit.

All that said, it seems to me that it took an overextension of studio power and a fairly dramatic encroachment into Taylor’s private life to set her on the track to independence. The kind of celebrity she ultimately helped to create stemmed from a deep dissatisfaction with the nature of celebrity she first encountered during her early days of stardom. As LT took on the part of Kay Banks for the 1950 film Father of the Bride, she likewise began a fledgling romance with hotel heir, Nicky Hilton, a romance MGM encouraged her to cultivate. By February 1950, the two were engaged, and the eighteen-year-old Taylor spent the spring playing bride on the Metro lot while planning her “real life” wedding to Hilton off set. After being fitted for a dress onscreen as Kay Banks, LT flew to New York City where she selected her wedding trousseau. Her father, like Spencer Tracy’s Stanley Banks, played up his father of the bride role and found his responses to questions about the wedding quoted in fan magazines. The line between art and life blurred as LT, after filming a wedding scene, reported to gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, “I wish you’d seen the wedding. The ceremony was so wonderful, I cried just as brides do.”


I don’t deny LT some element of agency in her relationship with Hilton, and pretty clearly, she enjoyed both the fanfare and the idea of what being married might really be like, but MGM’s orchestration of events speaks to the studio’s desire to link the young star’s private life to her film persona and to use that private life for publicity purposes. And as an eighteen-year-old raised in the studio system, one can imagine the influence MGM had over Liz. Father of the Bride, released in June, was preceded by the wedding, held on May 6. Very clearly, the studio had a direct hand in staging the Taylor-Hilton wedding. Liz, greeted by a cheering crowd, arrived at the Church of the Good Shepherd in a limousine that had been accompanied by an honor guard of off-duty police escorts. Accustomed to such crowds, LT took it all in stride, waving graciously to her many fans before entering the church. Studio florists were responsible for the arrangements; studio photographers snapped pictures; a studio contract singer performed. Even Liz’s bridesmaids were contract players with studio connections. Seated near Taylor’s own parents were Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett, the actors who’d just completed their turns as mother and father to Liz in Father of the Bride. Images from Liz and Nicky’s reception at the Bel-Air Country Club made for a perfect preview of the forthcoming film. As the two set sail for a European honeymoon a month later, Father of the Bride opened and became a great hit, earning $4 million and ultimately becoming the sixth biggest picture of the year.



Art imitates life. Top, Kay Banks & Buckley Dunstan wed in 1950’s Father of the Bride.

Bottom, newlyweds Nicky Hilton and Liz Taylor cut their wedding cake a month before Father of the Bride’s opening.

But while the studio prospered, Liz suffered. Less than six months after the wedding, she’d left Nicky Hilton. Rumors of an affair with the married director of her next film shocked the public. In less than a year, LT went from adored child bride to Hollywood harlot. Beyond the fact that the glamour of the wedding had worn off, Hilton revealed himself to be a drinker, gambler, and womanizer, not to mention a man who, as Taylor put it “kind of got a kick out of beating the shit out of me.” When the two finally divorced in January of 1952, Liz used a demure courtroom appearance in an effort to win back some sympathy, but public opinion (news of Hilton’s abuse wasn’t dispensed publicly) had shifted. No longer a sweet ingénue, Liz was painted as spoiled, childish, and flighty by popular media.

But rather than looking to regain her position as Hollywood’s sweetheart, rather than choosing to do her penance and stay home and hide from the spotlight until the scandal dissipated, Liz Taylor decided to embrace adulthood as a woman who followed her own desires. Public opinion be damned. From her youth, she’d followed the directives of her mother (who, today, we’d definitely call a momager) and the studio, and in the aftermath of her marriage debacle – a crisis from which she’d extricated herself by force of her own will – she questioned the direction the influences of her youth had given her. Rather than trying to fit a predesigned role or assume a link between her screen persona and real life, Taylor seemingly made a conscious decision to let her work speak for her. And her timing was perfect. In August 1951, Paramount released A Place in the Sun, for which LT received tremendous praise and for which she’d had to do virtually no promotional glad-handing. Her beauty made her a charming screen presence, but her talent would win her respect and a certain modicum of freedom to do as she liked. Her work on screen could feed her stardom – and as Liz came to believe that, she came likewise to believe that her personal life could be her own.

Of Marriage, Babies, and Authenticity in Celebrity Culture

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, celebrity weddings dominated the world of celebrity gossip. They served as banner events where fans gained a behind-the-scenes look at their favorites’ romantic predilections and personal styles. While weddings of well-known figures are still big news, I’d argue that these events – particularly the nature of their excess – are no longer celebrated in the same way, a byproduct of the economic crash of 2008, a shifting wedding culture, and some measure of fatigue with the rampant materialism that so often marks wedding celebrations. As I’ve been thinking about the public’s expectation of authenticity from their favorite stars – a sense of realness with which they hope to identify or connect – I suspect the inevitable let down of so many celebs’ faltering unions had led to a hesitation to believe too deeply in the potential permanency of stars’ romantic pairings.


  Brad & Jen, the olden days, 2000. The couple split in 2005. Both are expected to remarry this summer.

More than weddings, it seems now that a new focal point of celebrity gossip is pregnancy (and its aftermath). I noticed this shift well before the avalanche of coverage related to the Royal Baby and Kimye’s expected offspring. US Weekly, the/my holy grail of gossip magazines, regularly has pages devoted to bump watches, stars’ first days at home with their newborns, maternity style, and even celebrity kid versions of the ever-ridiculous “Stars – They’re just like us!”


A new level of foolishness: Celeb kids – Who wore it best?

I’ve wondered what this shift says about public expectations of celebrity life and what the public believes it can really know about the lives of famed figures (a driving force among celebrity gossipites). To some extent, it seems as though we accept as “more real” the fruits of romantic pairings than we do the pairings themselves. Procreation and parenthood reveal the “real.” But is this a legitimate development?

With rapper Kanye West’s December 2012 announcement that he and reality star Kim Kardashian were expecting a child, Kim’s pregnancy became a staple of gossip rags for much of 2013. Kardashian, well-known for her willingness to share publicly the most private elements of her life, was pegged as fair game for the kind of pregnancy tracking that regularly takes place in American culture. In the eyes of many, a life and a career devoted to attracting public attention justified the scope and style of the coverage she received. By the nature of her own choices, she’d made herself fair game for whatever public reactions arose over the course of her pregnancy. To some degree, the choices made in regard to her wedding and marriage to basketball star Kris Humphries legitimated Kardashian as a flawed, fake figure rather than a person guided by real feelings or authentic emotion – and the unreality of the reality star meant that she could be regarded as a legitimate site of condemnation and critique.

When Kardashian wed Humphries in August 2011, few believed the marriage would stick. But even those who doubted the potential longevity of the pairing didn’t anticipate that it would only take 72 days for “irreconcilable differences” to lead Kardashian to file for divorce. Having publicized the wedding broadly and having profited from this publicity, many criticized Kardashian for what they saw as a) willful misleading of her fans and b) a gross disregard for the sanctity of marriage. The prolonged, contentious, embarrassing nature of the divorce, finalized only in April 2013, was exactly what many observers believed Kardashian deserved. Subsequent romances – and subsequent actions more broadly – would be hard to take seriously from someone who seemed content to pretend a life for publicity purposes and cultivate a circus-like atmosphere with her comings and goings.


72 days before Kim Kardashian filed for divorce.

But with her pregnancy, I think, there’s been an interesting turn in which KK’s authenticity has been somewhat restored. Even as Kardashian faced constant coverage and regular criticism throughout her pregnancy – for excessive weight gain and failed fashion choices and in unfair comparisons to likewise pregnant Kate Middleton – the nature of the coverage had a different tone than did coverage related to her wedding to Humphries. Certainly, discussions of Kardashian veered toward the mean-spirited, but she also found herself with defenders, ranging from Gwyneth Paltrow to Gloria Steinem. As she struggled with her weight and admitted to finding pregnancy to be more challenging than she’d anticipated, Kardashian regained some measure of her humanity. Pregnancy and its difficulties, “natural” as they were, she could not fake. As a process she had far less leverage to spin or control, pregnancy allowed for a revelation of a “real” Kim, a figure made far more vulnerable by physical challenges of pregnancy. Challenges with which many members of the public could identify. And verify as “real.”

Kim_B&Wdress           kk_flowereddress


Noted fashion faux pas that received condemnation – but which led to subsequent support for Kim.

How do I feel about the roles of romance and pregnancy in the loss and subsequent restoration of authenticity? I don’t know. On the one hand, “real” Kim still experienced pregnancy in a world of great privilege and protection. If her feet were swollen (and we have the evidence to tell us that her feet were SWOLLEN – see below), it was in part due to her ridiculous choices in footwear rather than a byproduct of a job that had her on her feet all day. She experienced her difficulties in a very, very  comfortable world. Further, I don’t love the idea of pregnancy as automatic legitimator. Pregnancy might make one uncomfortable but it doesn’t necessarily make one a better or truer version of one’s self. The Kardashians as a clan still had the power to spin the nature and coverage of the pregnancy and its aftermath, to reveal what they desired when they desired. And I think that for all the years of reality TV we now have under our belts, we should come to grips with the fact that image creation is part of this biz. Pregnant Kim was still reality star Kim. By agreeing to star in a reality television series, reality stars are basically telling us that they’re going to present us with a version of themselves, not necessarily their “true” selves. If there is a version that we especially like – that is particularly lucrative for them – then the likelihood is that we’ll see that version fairly regularly for as long as its profitable. The flawed nature of the stars may not be the problem. It may in fact be the flawed expectations of the audience.



Poor decision making in action, exhibits A & B.

What I’m more curious about is what motherhood will mean for Kardashian. Already, the magazines and gossip websites are talking about KK’s devotion to her child and her desire to do everything for her baby herself. Meanwhile, rumors from LA suggest that Kim has a nanny to do everything for little baby North West. Who knows what will be revealed and when. If she has a nanny, so what? But if KK claims one thing, and the public learns another story, one that fails to fit with an idealized version of motherhood…yikes. If judgment rained down on Kardashian in regard to her wedding, marriage, and pregnancy, my sense is that she doesn’t know from judgment should people deem her mothering style to be less than what they believe it should be or less than what she’s claimed.

The Perfect Storm of Celebrity and Celebration

Last week, I posted my thoughts on Michael Wilbon’s view of the wedding registry as the purview of the bride-to-be. I moved fairly quickly past the story that inspired his declaration: fans’ purchase of all of the items on Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III’s Bed, Bath, and Beyond wedding registry, and RGIII’s subsequent decision to keep the gifts. Some of the feedback I’ve received suggested the need for a more in-depth discussion of what, exactly, is going on with average people going to a millionaire sports celebrity’s registry and thinking it’s appropriate to send that person bath mats, cake pans, and flatware. Fair enough.


Dan Steinberg of the Washington Post connects Redskins fans’ impulse to a very specific view of modern American sports culture: Steinberg, admitting that purchasing a gift for RGIII makes no logical sense, argues that this is the nature of the emotion fans invest in their sports heroes. RGIII, who has meant so much to fans of a struggling franchise, has inspired hope and passion, and the gifts both connect fans to the star and allow them to express their thanks. While I personally think fans’ willingness to purchase high-priced NFL tickets and gear (not to mention RGIII’s $21 million, 4-year contract and numerous lucrative endorsements) communicate “thanks” fairly effectively, Steinberg’s point about the desire to find connection with an admired figure is not wrong.

For me, there are larger points about celebrity and celebration to be made. First of all, in contemporary American culture, especially with the 24-hour news cycle, fast-paced world of internet updates, and pervasiveness of social media (as of this morning, RGIII has 918,897 Twitter followers), the public has near constant access to the actions and even the inner-thoughts of their favorite celebrities (sports-related or otherwise). And RGIII has played the fame game brilliantly. So even though it is unlikely that fans sending gifts might ever meet RGIII, they can feel as though they know him. And this sentiment crosses lines by which people achieve fame (fans “like” or know they’d be “best friends” with certain public figures – based on the images presented by those figures and often reinforced by media treatment).

Secondly, if we “know” figures like RGIII, to some degree, there is never a time when we better know what they’re going through than when they celebrate rituals or milestones that are common across the culture. Can many of us know the pressure of being a star quarterback in the NFL? No. Do many of us know what it’s like to plan a wedding? We do. Right or wrong, many people feel greater intimacy and often even the legitimacy of their unsolicited participation or advice when their contemporaries undergo the shared experiences of a broader national culture. While there is a wedding public couples choose when they select their wedding parties and narrow their guest lists, there is also the broader wedding public that looks in from the outside. This is true even of regular citizens who face well-meaning inquiries or become subjects of gossip for decisions made (regarding color scheme, money spent, etc., etc., etc.) and subsequently discussed. For RGIII and other celebrities, that broader wedding public is far, far broader and can produce any number of responses, from unsolicited and clearly welcome gift-giving to public censure, as evidenced by another view of RGIII published in the Post: