A version of this essay was originally posted at Womanist Musings on January 27, 2012
One night I dreamt it was my wedding day. The florist dropped off the flowers in Styrofoam to-go boxes; the caterers wanted to know if and where they could smoke weed before the reception; guests asked me to pour them a Coke; I was overcome with emotion that people I’d never spoken to in college were there to celebrate my big day; and the entire cast of Martin showed up. Finally hitting my breaking point, I cried to Martin that everything was a mess (and I didn’t even know who I was to be marrying). He gave me a hug and in a high-pitched voice mocking me, apparently, he repeated the mantra I’d always given him when things got tough. “Whenever I’m having a bad day, I just put five drops of glitter on my face and everything’s better!”
I woke up to make sure there wasn’t a gas leak in my apartment that would’ve caused me to dream such nonsense, but then I began to process why marriage would even be on my mind. Marriage, and more specifically the politics of marriage is everywhere—with the spotlight unforgivingly resting on Black women. Since Barack and Michelle Obama waltzed through their inauguration, a near obsession has taken hold of mainstream news outputs from CNN to the New York Times about why Black women have such low marrying rates compared to other women.
Largely spearheading that conversation has been Steve Harvey—the thrice-married comedian whose advice errs on the side of Black women should consider dating men 15-20 years their senior. He’s been on Frontline, The Oprah Winfrey Show, more recently, Anderson Cooper’s daytime talk show—and he’ll soon begin taping for his own show—explaining to the world what (Black) women are doing wrong and how they can get right when it comes to (heterosexist, outdated, patriarchal) love.
Harvey’s romantic comedy, Think Like a Man, based on his best-selling relationship book, Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man, opens in theaters on April 20, much to the annoyance of many happily single-self-sufficient-“why would anyone listen to this man for anything other than guidance on where to get a double-breasted suit” women. (By default, Harvey originally tailored his message to Black women, but having gained inexplicable success as a relationship expert, his message has since transcended audiences)
To counteract those images of the Obamas, the media engaged in a massive “anti-black woman campaign” to let Black women know that what the First Family has is an “anomaly.” They responded with this statistic: 70% of Black women are single. So for the last few years scholars, scientists, and journalists have been asking “why can’t all these beautiful, successful Black women get married?! Everybody else can!” Theresa Lasbrey calls it “The Obama Effect.” The unspoken message becomes: “Black women, please do not think you’re going to get that fairytale. Your men are in prison, uneducated, and the ones who aren’t only like white women. So there. Go sit down and watch Martin.”
Taking this narrative out of context of Black women for a moment, and opening it up to a larger issue of how we deify marriage in American culture, I recognize that a few things are happening. First, it attempts to make (heterosexual, cis-gendered) women act like hamsters on a wheel—constantly chasing an unattainable dream, dishing out money and developing a complex in the process, with no further gain than where we began. In that framework, women turn to one channel and see Bridezillas; they turn to another and see Steve Harvey telling us to “Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man;” another channel says there’s a “crisis” in marriage and it’s our fault; and finally our politicians are saying that we must protect the institution of marriage. The constant that weaves through all of those conversations is that for women to find success in love, we must not hold back in the mental, emotional, spiritual, moral, or financial investment we make to find our Mr. Right. That is coincidentally convenient for publishing houses, the movie industry, media conglomerates, the Religious Right, and you already know—patriarchy—a capitalistic patriarchy—more specifically.
There are two conversations missing on the subject of marriage. The most obvious one is that not every couple can exercise their right to it. Those aforementioned narratives about the current state of marriage distract us from the fact that marriage, as it currently stands, is an unequal and unjust institution. Images of women screaming at their bridesmaids and putting them on diets distance us from the painful reality that an arbitrary system dictates other people’s fulfillment. Seeing dear friends and mentors in loving, committed relationships who only have access to a civil union hurts me on the deepest of levels, but it also forces me to check my privilege as a straight person and do what I can to change things. I would challenge any person or couple who supports gay marriage to not simply state it, but also find a way to make it a reality, whether that’s through donating to an organization like Lambda Legal, stop eating Chick-Fil-A (which has been so hard for me—those nuggets are too good), or simply being cognizant of how much you talk about your wedding plans to your nonheterosexual friends, just out of respect and awareness of inequality.
And finally, mass media appears to be afraid to broach the possibility that many women might be fine with not being married. While I am in a committed relationship, I am also a womanist/feminist/independentist who believes that I can create a lasting friendship, partnership, and space for love without strong-arming my fella into running down the aisle at high speed just so our relationship appears more legitimate to Steve Harvey and others who unquestioningly buy into the marriage-industrial complex.
Marriage is lovely and I hope that we can find a place in American society that allows all people who want to experience it be able to. In the meantime, there needs to be some conversation reform. At its core, marriage is a legally-binding contract. There’s obviously nothing romantic or sexy about that. So instead, I choose to focus on what marriage represents—a deep, evolving love, commitment, respect, and honor of another human being that can offer me the same in return. If we could shift the public conversation on marriage to something like that, instead of the measurement of one’s success at life and womanhood, I might find something more productive to dream about—like the winning lottery numbers.
A little validation from the universe: After I finished the original essay, I just so happened to turn the television on to Dr. Drew’s Lifechangers. A segment of the show focused on a young, unmarried couple that had a child together. The “mentourage”—Mario Lopez, Finesse Mitchell, and Steve Santagati—and Dr. Drew argued that once the pair had a child, they lost their chance to be twenty-three and needed to “stand before God” and get married. Clearly frustrated, Maria Menounos, the facilitator, argued “What if people don’t want to get married?! It’s ok!” Naturally she was dismissed by the mentourage because under this latest iteration of patriarchal paternalist rule over women’s lives that the Marriage Industrial Complex has raised, women are not regarded in the manifestation of their own desires and destiny. We are just strapped to a chair and spoon-fed whatever capitalist-patriarchal society thinks we’ll eat.