Monday, July 13, 2009

Time Magazine and Marriage

[Trigger warning for the RH Reality Check link]

Last week’s Time cover story (“Why Marriage Matters" by Caitlin Flanagan) got this young, married woman all in a huff. It was little more than an insulting, under-researched, undeveloped rant, leading nowhere and leaving out much. Even the partial-theories Flanagan did present weren’t answered or well thought out.

For an essay that started out about male politicians’ infidelity, and for one that was supposed to tell us how to fix our “most sacred institution,” there were no explanations as to why infidelity would be such a problem (after all, some statistics show that 50 percent of married people in the United States have cheated, or will) or what we could do to prevent it (including teaching men to treat women better in general—not use one as a prop and others as objects for sexual gratification). When discussing the topic of adultery, Flanagan uses two recent examples to basically prove that adultery exists (wow) and that the behavior of these two individuals was particularly embarrassing (Mark Sanford and John Ensign).

Why not then discuss why they would be cheating? Is it because power corrupts, irresistible temptation, a disrespect of women in general, a cop out explanation that boys will be boys? Why not explore the booming, billion-dollar porn industry and its clear objectification and control implications? Why not talk about how the internet age has changed cheating, what with new havens for insta-porn, cyber-sex, cyber-stalking and sexting making headlines every day. A heavily advertised, millions-strong social networking website called Ashley Madison specifically markets to people already in relationships, looking to cheat sub rosa. It’s an E-Harmony for adulterers, for Pete’s sake.

Instead, the essay stops at the obvious: Cheating is selfish, humiliates the betrayed partner and also hurts any children involved. That all seems pretty clear, but then the author goes on to discuss how children are hurt by the lack of marriage in general—either because their parents never got married or because of divorce.

After the several examples of embarrassing infidelity in the opening paragraphs, right after Flanagan writes that infidelity is selfish and humiliates women, she goes on to basically make the case for staying in a marriage at all costs. Think of the children! There’s no mention of why people would get divorced, one of which is abuse (and sometimes, as reported by RH Reality Check, abusers use children to keep victims in abusive relationships). Another reason is adultery, as Flanagan mentions multiple times but never talks about as actually leading to divorce. It is, after all, a breach of marriage vows. Some people can work through it, but some can’t. Since Flanagan spends the rest of her piece telling us how we’re hurting our children by depriving them of married parents, I guess she doesn’t want the cheated-on women of her opening paragraphs to file for divorce.

To be fair, since this is an attempt at a feminist critique, Flanagan does write that women are hurt by divorce, too. She says that one of the reasons that marriage is the best option for hetero families is the financial security of women. The thing is that women’s financial security wouldn’t be so tumultuous if there was gender equity in the workplace and the classroom. The collapse of marriage wouldn’t harm women’s financial security if sexism was dead in all its forms. But essays like this really do their part to further all the sexist claptrap. We’ve got a lot of work to do.

There are several ridiculous conclusions in the paragraphs that followed this opening thesis, all of which draw unfair and short-sighted views of families, and none of which have much to do with adultery, especially given the fact that many publicized, political affairs don’t end in divorce.

Flanagan starts off writing that “few things hamper a child as much as not having a father at home” and quoting a researcher who says that her research has found that neither she, nor any woman, can play both the role of mother and father to her children, that “mom may not need that man, but her children still do.”

Flanagan’s argument that children suffer enormously without fathers implies that some traits and behaviors only ever come from one sex, specifically because they have one set of reproductive organs and not the other. The specific support, behavior and guidance that must come from the male, biological father are never specifically mentioned. That begs the obvious question: What exactly does a father bring to the table that a mother doesn’t? It’s one of many questions that go unanswered in this essay. The fact that women also cheat (the omission of this fact may be part of the slut or saint dichotomy so often used to depict women—the fact is, married mothers also cheat and have sexual urges) and the effects of a motherless upbringing on a child is also never mentioned. These omissions and the fact that Flanagan makes sure to quote a researcher who identifies as a feminist seems pretty halfhearted—she’s clearly valuing these mysterious, unnameable fatherly contributions far more than anything a single mother could hope to give. Otherwise, why wouldn’t you explore the psychological effects of children who grow up without mothers, due to divorce, death or flight?

What Flanagan’s argument misses is the fact that men and women’s roles in marriage, partnership and parenting are changeable, and not determined by our physical parts—they’re social constructs. That’s the difference between gender and sex. Flanagan is not only saying that men and women have certain roles, she’s also assuming (by never mentioning kids without mothers) that women are the caretakers. All of this reaches one conclusion: Men and women play certain roles that are already laid out for us. According to this essay, there is little room for deviation. A man wouldn’t be nurturing, and he’d never say “just wait until your mother gets home.”

But by assigning specific gender roles to men and women, Flanagan is insulting not only straight couples who don’t subscribe to traditional sex roles, but also homosexual parents, who fill in masculine and feminine-prescribed roles every day as adoptive or biological parents.

Nowadays the homosexual family structure is downright commonplace. By so completely going with the gender flow, and by omitting this obvious example of a two-parent household, Flangan is insulting them and any of their allies. I guess it never occurred to anyone editing or writing this story that many of the benefits of a two-parent household come directly from the simple notion that two heads are better than one. Of course a family with two partners, helping each other in a stable, loving family unit would be a more solid foundation for a child than one parent who is struggling financially and perhaps emotionally. A gay woman could throw a baseball around with her son to help him practice for little league, and I’m sure she could also cook up a mean apple pie.

Sometimes moms are deadbeats with no parental instincts. Sometimes all dads want to do is play tea party. In most cases, women are assumed to be the primary caretakers and given full to near-full custody of kids that a crushed dad never sees. Sometimes a dad gets partial custody even though he’s abusive. Sexism hurts everyone, so let’s set aside this notion that sex and gender are the same thing. No matter what standardized tests ask you for, male and female parts don’t bind you to identities.

Later, Flanagan quotes someone from the (no joke) Institute for American Values saying “Children have a primal need to know who they are, to love and be loved by the two people whose physical union brought them here. To lose that connection, that sense of identity, is to experience a wound that no child support check or fancy school can ever heal.” I guess that leaves out adoption, those kids are just out of luck. How many thousands of even straight couples adopt children, and love them just as much as they would biological progeny, despite them not being the result of “physical union.” Also, that euphemism is one of the most shudder-inducing for procreating I’ve ever heard.

But what of co-habitation? Flanagan writes that even a man who acted married (again, the emphasis is on the fathers) would be a solution to non-marriage, except that non-married couples are by nature volatile, citing a researcher who says the most basic issues of people living together wouldn’t have established sexual fidelity. As someone who co-habited with my partner before we got married, I beg to differ. I seriously doubt that anyone in a co-habitating situation hasn’t covered that one yet. I don’t think any cheating conversation has included “Oh, wait, we were exclusive?”

In the same paragraph, Flanagan also introduces, for the first of several times in this essay, the wife-woman-nags-man stereotype. It’s a familiar stereotype, and in this case it is used to presume why a co-habitating father might move out. We know from Flanagan’s previous arguments that this is the start of the horrible absent-father breakdown of the family. It seems likely, though, that if a man is run off by the responsibility of being a father (by a woman’s nagging or maybe, just maybe, something else) maybe he’s not the type of person who would be a good role model in the house, even if he was there full time.

As a crow-bared transition to bring up another pop culture marriage mess, Flanagan throws in a thumbs-up for her own husband, who didn’t leave or divorce her when she was going through chemotherapy. Congratulating him for doing the right thing through chemo shouldn’t be necessary—that’s his job, his vow. I’m sure no one congratulated Flanagan for changing diapers when her kids were young. Also, how refreshing and consistent of Flanagan to choose “she” as the pronoun for the life-sucking chemotherapy (“chemo, she will beat you down”).

The thumbs-up-to-my-great-marriage transition leads to the discussion of the now famous Gosselin family, of Jon and Kate Plus 8 fame. Flanagan says she admires and is comforted by Kate Gosselin as a “bossy, sexless power mom.” How Flanagan knows that Gosselin is sexless (remember, they have eight children) or why powerful moms are sexless isn’t clear. Again, she seems seeped in the saint or slut dichotomy that denies anyone but tainted women a sex drive.

In discussing the Gosselins’ public family turmoil, Flanagan admits that her facts on the Jon and Kate Plus 8 drama come from tabloid trash culture, whose star publications regularly dish out settlement money for libel. Yet still Flanagan’s interpretation relies on facts from the tabloids, along with her own sexist interpretation of what went wrong. Flanagan writes that Jon was driven to his alleged infidelity (which he denies in interviews on the show) by boredom at being bossed around by his wife. It’s an interesting way that Flanagan found to turn the tables on who is to blame—turns out, Kate drove him to it.

To start wrapping the essay up, Flanagan makes a few amazing claims in this partial quote, that “the game-changing realities of birth control, female equality and the fact that motherhood outside of marriage is no longer stigmatized…” as an aside.

I beg to differ on all counts, naturally. Politicians attempt to limit birth control and honest sex education at every turn, citing morality, and abusers limit access to birth control to keep women in submissive, abusive relationships (again, see the RH Reality Check story). Women still make only 77 cents to the dollar that men make for the same work as of 2007, so female equality isn’t even within spitting distance, no thanks to articles like this one. Further, Flanagan undercuts her claim that unwed motherhood is no longer a stigma by saying earlier in her essay that an “astonishing” 39.7 percent of births are to unwed mothers. Two of those women are my sisters—both of whom found themselves pregnant at 21. Color me scandalized. They’ll be fine, and so will their kids.

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