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

This is the Story of the Wedding that Wasn’t

Shout out to my partner in the Most Successful IU Mentor-Mentee Pairing in the History of IU Mentor-Mentee Pairing (title self-appointed), BLS. She’s put me on to many resources for history and teaching and thinking about professional life more broadly, but she’s also put me on to any number of books, articles, and writers that have nothing to do with our shared profession (although it’s not uncommon for us to find a way to make them relatable). In particular, and for the purpose of this post, I’m thinking of Ann Patchett.

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Patchett’s most recent book, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, is a collection of her essays and articles previously published in magazines – with the exception of her introductory essay, which I could go on and on about, re: my love of her interchangeable use of the word “working” for “writing” and her unabashed celebration of a good work ethic. The article for which the collection is named tells the story of Patchett’s reluctance to marry Karl, her partner of eleven years, despite his on-going desire that the two should be wed. After a failed marriage as an early twenty-something, Patchett swore off the institution. When she met and began dating Karl, she insisted that they maintain separate homes, separate accounts, and semi-separate lives. It was only when Karl was diagnosed with a terminal heart condition that she relented. Ultimately, it turned out that he had been misdiagnosed and continued to live happily and healthily – and by then they were wed. And she was glad.

While listening to a Fresh Air interview with Patchett, I was struck by her discussion of the marriage, her resistance to entering into it, and what she ultimately concluded was the main thing she had been averse to: being a bride. In looking back, she asserted that she’d not been so nervous about the relationship or even the institution of marriage, not with this man or under the circumstances (all good) under which their relationship took place. She claimed she’d had no idea how nor any desire to navigate the expectations that come with having a wedding.

Way back when, in 1988, when she’d wed her first husband, their terrible wedding seemingly predestined their eventual split. After a proposal in which Patchett’s gut instinct was to say no before the question had even been popped (of his pulling out the ring, she writes “He might as well have pulled a knife.”), she and husband #1 lived together uneasily until she gave in. “Okay, we’ll do it,” she said, months after the initial attempted proposal. On the wedding day, she lost her shoes (never to be found); bees swarmed around the flowers in her hair; the cake melted in the heat; and the couple’s car broken down on the way out of town, eating up their honeymoon time and savings. The marriage lasted fourteen months.

That experience, along with the marriage itself (and a rich family history of failed marriages), put Patchett off marriage. And, it seems, off weddings. I imagine there’s a bit of hindsight to Patchett’s proclaimed aversion to the having and hosting of a wedding, and it may well be a hindsight that could only develop once a thing is said and done. Of her marriage to Karl, Patchett writes that his illness gave them a “get-out-of-jail-free card” when it came to a wedding. They purchased the marriage license, a Catholic priest friend dropped by their home to sign it, and they were married. That afternoon, Ann and Karl went out and bought a lawnmower. Having moved in, having gotten married, having avoided fanfare, Patchett wondered what she’d been waiting for.

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AP & Karl

I’ve thought of this story from a number of different angles. On the one hand, I love Ann and Karl’s simplistic approach to legalizing a pairing that worked pretty well as it was. But there’s something I can’t shake. Again, I suspect, to some degree, that Patchett’s claim on not wanting to be a bride may be a realization that came when she felt a sense of relief at not having had to be a bride. But the fact that such a smart, funny, together women who seems to have a pretty good idea of who she is and what she stands for (unless I am misreading her entirely in her essays) could feel cowed by contemporary wedding culture says something about just how overwhelming and seemingly monolithic and unrelenting that culture is. As someone who studies the history of American weddings – and dabbles in evaluating the modern business and culture of the celebration – I see variations in the styles of celebration and have argued that the wedding offers possibilities for any number of expressions. But I can appreciate how it appears not to.

All that said, I’d suggest that everyone has access to a “get-out-of-jail-free card” when it comes to weddings – and it doesn’t have to be used in the pursuit of *not* having a wedding. It can be used to justify any number of additions to or subtractions from the standard form. A wedding can look as much like the cultural ideal as one chooses – or it can be a different animal entirely. And I think this possibility of variation is something that is becoming increasingly common and, maybe even more importantly, increasingly accepted. When writing about how marriage changed things, Patchett writes that marrying Karl freed up so much time. They no longer had to discuss why they weren’t married – with each other or anyone else. My sense is that – for them – their reasons for eventually marrying were solid and, in some ways, were reasons that they needed not share. The public declaration a wedding affords was not essential. That’s fine, and I’m sure there are plenty of other couples who feel the same way. But for others, how wonderful that there is the wedding to allow them the chance to tell the people they love most just why they’ve decided to wed and what they think their lives will be like. And how sad to think that an understanding of the wedding as rigid and constrictive might cause some people to forego that opportunity altogether.

Cashing In on Gay Weddings’ Coming Out

A major byproduct of the DOMA decision is the potential boon it brings to the wedding industry. Those willing to embrace gay clientele immediately find themselves with an expanded (and sometimes very affluent) client base. The various businesses of the wedding industry – from florists to caterers to jewelers – stand to gain handsomely should they play to same-sex couples. Those who refuse are finding themselves condemned in articles and blog posts that are garnering national attention (see the Colorado baker willing to create a cake for a dog wedding but not a same-sex union ~ http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/05/masterpiece-cakeshop-gay-dog-experiment-_n_3392013.html).

Even greeting card companies are getting in on the action (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/24/happy-happy-gay-gay-cards_n_3785685.html). Emily Belden has created Happy Happy Gay Gay with the purpose of providing a variety of gay-themed wedding cards for those finding themselves with a number of celebrations to attend. While Belden will donate all profits to The Trevor Project, I wonder what the future of the broader gay wedding industry will hold. Wedding planners and bands and reception halls can offer wedding elements that look quite like “straight” weddings, or gay couples can request service with an aesthetic that veers toward the queer. But some elements of wedding consumer culture, like greeting cards – often featuring a lady bride and a man groom – will need a more dramatic makeover. The traditional photo of the bride as she readies herself for the wedding will need amending when a wedding is celebrated by two grooms. Such amendment will also need to take place when it comes to the language used in preparation for weddings. Queer couples, I am sure, will want the option of identifying as groom and groom or bride and bride when they fill out a gift registry or sign a contract to rent a hall. They may chafe at wedding websites and periodicals that speak far more to female celebrants than male. And so new versions of old industries may find a place in the world of weddings.

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There are many who will critique such developments as evidence of the celebration’s connection to the blatantly material, the embodiment of the crass consumerism for which the wedding has gotten such a bad rap. But if we look at the glass half full, the new industries shaped by queer wedding celebrations could upend tired, worn-out conceptions of gender roles and performance. The idea that male celebrants can and will engage in decision-making regarding plans such as favors and floral arrangements and décor could spill over into the world of straight weddings. Men and women may avoid being pigeonholed into assumed wedding roles and assigned wedding tasks – or may feel more empowered to challenge cultural expectations because they see others doing so, and without sacrificing their masculinity or femininity. And just as same-sex relationships of the 1960s and 1970s provided alternative models of romantic flexibility and improvisation, models ultimately adopted by many opposite-sex couples, so too might the emerging alternative gay culture of weddings lead to new trends that open up fresh interpretations of gender, romance, and partnership.

Making Marriage Cool

VH1’s website recently featured a post “15 Celebrity Couples So Cool They Don’t Have to Get Married” (http://www.vh1.com/celebrity/2013-08-15/15-unmarried-celebrity-couples/). 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.

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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.”

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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.

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

Pinning Dreams and Perpetuating Stereotypes

I recently read an article about the seemingly widespread practice of creating wedding-related Pinterest boards before a wedding is planned, an engagement proposed, or a partner even identified (http://www.fsunews.com/article/20130801/FSVIEW0101/130731021/Girls-get-Pinterested-wedding-wishlists). I’ve seen some of this impulse toward “When I…” boards on the social media site. Sometimes the speculation is “When I have a baby,” or “buy a home,” and so naturally “get married” fits as the kind of category for which one might plan. But for some reason, the wedding seems a more problematic hypothetical, and I do think the process for planning without any sort of end date in mind (or end mate, for that matter [sorry]) contributes to that. When people critique American wedding culture, this is what they’re looking at. Too many women – and the suggestion is that this is primarily a female phenomenon – focus more on what they want their wedding to look like than on what they want their partner or their marriage to be like. What’s more, they don’t care what that partner might desire for his/her wedding day. The bride’s day will be the bride’s day.

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As a whole, these “when I” boards give me pause, but I worried that I might be too knee-jerk in my critique. Trying to think about the process of “pinning” a dream wedding in a historical context, I wondered if this is in some way the 21st century equivalent of the hope chest. During the 19th century and well through post-World War II period, many young women collected goods for marriage in such chests. From girlhood, a woman stockpiled linens, towels, flatware, and various other domestic goods for her future home. Year-by-year, she added things to her collection. The expectation was that she would one day marry and thus would need to be prepared. For most women, that expectation was right on. Unless well-educated or raised in material privilege, the best means of support for a woman was to be found through a union with a man. And of course social and cultural expectations pointed directly to marriage, home, and family life as the culmination of success for American women.

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1947 Hope Chest Advertisement

Ultimately, though, I have to conclude that preparing for a home – and particularly in the historical context – was a different thing than preparing for a wedding. The circumstances under which young women filled their hope chests veered far more toward the practical than the aesthetic (and, in fact, the emerging domestic aesthetic that tended toward the trendy or the store-bought – a particularly popular look in the newly developing postwar suburbs – helped make the keeping of a hope chest an increasingly outdated process from the 1950s on). In a time when brides and grooms couldn’t depend on a string of showers or the presentation of elaborate wedding gifts – or cash, as many prefer now – to mark the start of their union, they had to take responsibility for material and financial support during the early years of marriage before they entered into that relationship. For men, that often meant securing steady employment and the start of a nest egg. For women, that meant preparation of the necessities required of a home (and often steady employment and nest egg contribution until at least the birth of the first child, if not beyond).

In my research, I’ve read about many women who dreamed about their weddings since childhood. And clearly this is a popular trope in contemporary wedding culture. In one personal essay I read, a woman admitted to keeping a wedding binder during her 1980s girlhood, in which she included advertisements and articles from bridal magazines, all in anticipation of the wedding she would one day celebrate. So the practices found on Pinterest aren’t brand new. They’re just more public. I suppose so it goes in this increasingly public age – but this, I think, is where my discomfort lies. One woman’s willingness to make public her private wedding dreams allows too easily for the perpetuation of the stereotype that this is what all women are doing (or want to be doing). Aside from the tried and true critiques we might make about overeager wedding pinners (they validate the power of what many critics call the “wedding-industrial complex”; they reveal the material undercurrent that marks so many elements of American life and culture; they contribute to the normalization and acceptance of narcissism; etc.), my biggest problem with the pinning going on here is how it further standardizes and entrenches the gendered division of unpaid labor in American life and romantic relationships for all women – even those without the time or inclination to imagine a fictive celebration. Planning a wedding (a real wedding, not a Pinterest dream wedding) takes time – which can manifest as time away from work, family, friends, fitness, hobbies, you name it. And it is work. It falls into that category of unpaid labor that is often celebrated for continuing rituals, maintaining tradition, fostering family ties, and by which women are often judged, but is work that is virtually never rewarded or respected in the way any kind of paid labor very clearly is (see “paid” descriptor). What’s more, when it’s a labor assumed to be universally enjoyed by women, women can find themselves alone in completing it or condemned for not being enthralled with it. If Pinners are willing to see their visions through and take on labor of this kind (and, I suppose, are “lucky” enough to find partners who stay out of their way), that’s fine. But the possibility that all women might be expected to do the same – and might be viewed as a single monolithic bloc – is more troubling.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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.

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  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!”

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.