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.

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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.

 

Reconsidering the Meaning of Marriage

Focusing on the outcome of marriage equality in New Mexico, the Albuquerque Journal this past weekend published an article “Couples Reflect on Wedded Life” (http://www.abqjournal.com/390315). A host of stories about what marriage has meant to same-sex couples reveals the relief they felt at finally having legal recognition that validated their relationship should one partner require medical care; that legitimated their roles as parents and affirmed the status of their children; and allowed them to use language that explicitly recognized the spousal relationship status of “husband” or “wife.” What stood out to me most in this article, however, was the duration of the relationships only just recently recognized by New Mexico government. Couples have long endured inequity, and under this new recognition of their unions are able to celebrate partnerships already cemented. In this way, the marital status affirms a relationship that has long existed rather than suggesting the start of a new relationship style.

As I argue in the conclusion of my book, many couples today – particularly those of a certain class status and possessing a certain cultural capital – often use their marriages and their weddings as a means of demonstrating that they’ve achieved any number of goals: professional success, long-standing relationships with family and friends, and, of course, a stable, fulfilling (and often already long-lasting) romantic partnership. For straight couples, the decision to wait to marry is one often made strategically, based on time, money, items to-do. The marriage is a culmination of decisions made about a relationship, rather than a point of origin. For same-sex couples, their unions likewise have this element of build up, although, of course, their delay stems from the long-standing denial of full rights of citizenship.

I’m intrigued by this idea of marriage as a transitional moment (potentially) as opposed to a point of origin or a fresh start. And as I’ve been giving some thought to the ways in which the American family structure has changed and is changing, it’s interesting to think as marriage or the wedding as no longer the earth-shaking events of people’s private lives. As people live together or arrange for long engagements, the negotiation of what sharing the greatest intimacies of day-to-day life means is often done before a marriage happens. And if it turns out that sharing those intimacies doesn’t work, one can simply initiate a break up or conclude a cohabitation (and I know “simply” is a crazy word; but to break up rather than “divorce” is the simpler alternative). To some extent, it seems as though our relationships to other people in our lives, and here I’m thinking particularly about aging parents or newborn children, are the ones that will cause the most disruption and require willingness to start fresh. So I’m either providing an effort at contemporary cultural lifestyle analysis or suggesting the direction I think the family is about to take more broadly. In any case, the winds are pointing me in the direction of change.

But, of course, I can’t conclude without some consideration of those who endeavor to undo marriage equality gains. State recognition certainly communicates a level of validity. But the validity of these relationships had already been established through the way gay and lesbian couples have chosen to live their lives, even without sanction of the law. As women’s liberationists insisted as the Second Wave gained power: the personal is political. In these couples’ private lives, they have practiced a brand of political and cultural resistance to a mainstream that has failed to recognize their partnerships as equal to those shared by heterosexuals. But even if those opposed to marriage equality continue to protest and attempt to halt the extension of universal rights across the population, gay unions won’t go away. And these unions will continue to be as strong as those shared by couples of the opposite sex. As Albequerquean Betty Lord, newly wed to her partner of 34 years spoke to this point directly when she exclaimed “Edna and I have been together a hell of lot longer than most married people!”

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Betty Lord & Edna Fonseca

The Relevant World of Wedding Culture

For all the times that weddings are regarded as conventional and conformist, staid and predictable, I argue that these celebrations allow for engagement with current trends and contemporary social, cultural, and political issues. Even the world of wedding advice and etiquette reflects the wedding’s relevance. Two letters recently submitted to the New York Times Wedding Q & A highlight this point: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/02/fashion/weddings/questions-on-wedding-etiquette.html?_r=0. Rather than blindly following the path laid before them, sensitivity to questions about sexuality, personal preference, and economic partnership shape men and women’s relationships to weddings, their participants, and each other.

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