The Way We Were & the Way We Should Be

There are many reasons to love The Way We Were. Number one: Robert Redford’s 1970s-era face. Number two: Barbra Streisand’s 1940s-era wardrobe (and in the name of equal opportunity, also her 1970s-era face). The 1973 film is a favorite of romantics and, among many women, is considered a must see (for reference, see, Sex & the City, season 2, episode 18, “Ex and the City”). For me, with my interest in romance and relationships and the 1960s and 1970s, the movie is a perfect representation of the shift from a happy ending-driven cultural world to a universe in which there is recognition that we may love and we may lose and the reasons for loving and losing are complicated.


But the film is more than a tear-jerker and more than a representation of changed relationship norms, and I have been thinking of the movie non-stop in recent weeks (and months) because of the central tension of the film: Streisand’s K-K-K-Katie’s inability to be light, and Redford’s Hubbell’s ongoing reluctance to go heavy. Such is Katie’s desire to be with Hubbell, she joins him in leaving dark and serious New York City and embarks upon a new life on the ever-sunny and boundlessly optimistic West Coast. Integrating into the inner Hollywood circle, the pair inevitably find themselves amongst the lefties and intellectuals who’d long populated that biz. Katie, in particular, with her 1930s Popular Front background and fervent sense of social justice and the importance of free speech, becomes embroiled in this world. When she travels to Washington, DC to take part in the famed House Un-American Activities Committee interrogations of politically-minded Hollywood writers and producers and actors, she pushes Hubbell to his breaking point. He is exhausted by her talk of principles and encourages her to remember: there are principles and there are people. Katie is shocked. In a withering and syllabically-accentuated rebuttal, she responds: “People *are* their principles.”

If the world is divided into Katie’s and Hubbell’s, I am emphatically and without hesitation a Katie. True story: I was in a bar with one of my best friends; she left to go the bathroom; when she returned, I was finger wagging at the person we’d *just* met after he told me he neither paid attention to politics nor did he vote. Why had the conversation even gone there? Because I can’t not. And when I was a young Karen Dunak, I wished – man, I WISHED – I were not like this. But, baby, I was born this way. When I learn that people don’t talk about politics, I am aghast. What do they talk about? And I love books and movies and sports and other things that are not politics. But I am enmeshed in the world around us, fully conscious of its opportunities and inequalities and unable to ignore the ways in which American democracy and those we’ve elected to enact it live up to the nation’s values or fall short. Also: I am a historian; argument is my business.

And so I, like Katie Morosky, firmly believe people are their principles. And right now, and in the days and months leading up to right now, the seemingly endless time of and after the 2016 election cycle, people have revealed themselves fully. The political posturing of the Republican Party and its members, affected in an effort to shore up the President-elect, who ostensibly represents their Grand Old Party, has revealed the ideological fragility of that side of the aisle. In their willingness to wage and their determination to win a culture war, Republicans have stood by a bumbling but aggressive bully who is an affront to free speech and American democracy (and some might suggest, human decency). What’s more, the party of patriotism, as Republicans have claimed themselves for a generation at least, have shown an absolutely absence of concern for national security and, relatedly, for a clear division between public service and private gain. When I write to my representatives, I implore them to be people of principle rather than party operatives. But it seems my (and more than half the population’s) plaintive cries are falling on deaf ears. Now, more than ever, people are their principles.

I know there are those who look on, amused, to some degree, by the spectacle of American politics in 2017. There are also those who think four years isn’t so long. We’ll have the chance to get it right next time, they suggest. And four years isn’t really that long for the native born, the financially secure, the insured, the employed, the half of the population who don’t have to fear unwanted pregnancy, and all those who enjoy the various privileges a certain combination of identity markers can convey. The Hubbell’s would rather turn inward, to family and work, maybe even their local community, and allow the broader world to play out, avoiding difficult discussions or the cultivation of hard views. But this is the time and the place for hard views and the difficult discussions of those hard views. When Katie traveled to DC to support her friends at the HUAC hearings, she was in the advanced stages of pregnancy, clearly and visibly with child. Hubbell berated her for the private risks she took in being so vocal in her public support of those whose rights were being violated. Katie’s views for her time and place hold strong for ours: There are risks to speaking out, but the risks of remaining silent are far greater.


The World of Wedding Proposals…

Several weeks ago, Salon published an article that questioned why men still seem to bear the brunt of responsibility for initiating the proposal process ( I’ve been thinking about the article ever since. Stephanie Coontz, go-to historian for all things marriage-related, suggests that this “tradition,” with all that it symbolizes, is a “game we play,” as well as a time when men show their commitment by making themselves somewhat vulnerable as they expose and express their emotions to their partners.

I wonder about the nature of proposals and whether this tradition (whose propensity for grandness I would link to the post-WWII era) will remain. I’m uncomfortable with the idea that marital relationships, for as much as we speak about egalitarianism, should begin at the initiation of a single party. As author Tracy Clark-Flory notes in her reference to a 2010 study, women often play a role in “encouraging” their partners to move toward the proposal, but it seems as though they’re willing to defer to men on the when, the where, and the how. In the name of romance? I guess. But the study also notes that men were more confident of their partners’ desires to wed than were the women, and this suggests to me an uneven distribution of power rather than romance.

Beyond the power men wield in romantic relationships, I can’t help but think of the power of popular culture. Grand gestures, elaborate plans, and long-orchestrated surprises seem to be the stuff of fictional fantasy, which then translates to women’s very real expectations. Is it the moment itself that is so important? Or is it the desire for “the story”: how he was almost foiled, how she had no idea, how an over-eager family member almost ruined the surprise? Is there anticipation of one-day nostalgia? Without the story to look back on, will the memory be as good? In my forthcoming book, As Long as We Both Shall Love, I argue that American wedding traditions have retained their power because they lend themselves to evolution and personal interpretation. And while Clark-Flory’s article begins with the tale of her non-traditional proposal, there seems to be a great deal of “how it should be” guiding many couples in their approach to the proposal. Even as I believe couples can be fully committed well before the marital relationship begins (and that marriage  itself isn’t a necessity), there seems to be evidence that couples are more comfortable tweaking and taking risks with tradition when they have a kind of emotional insurance that both parties are fully devoted to the direction their unions are taking.