Sexy Feminists Read: Pamela Haag’s ‘Marriage Confidential’


Pamela Haag‘s book Marriage Confidential shows — once again — how political the personal really is. She explores the history of marriage, an institution naturally wrought with feminist implications, and in the process reveals why so many are disillusioned with “’til death do us part” these days. We talked with the author about how to build a feminist marriage, avoid the dream-wedding trap, and stop worrying about “having it all.”

What should women, in particular, do to make their relationships the egalitarian partnerships they’ve dreamed of?

The first thing women need to do is to ask for it. We need to be willing—and brave enough—to be clear about what we expect. Sometimes, this might mean putting ourselves at odds with the men in our lives, or acting like an uppity feminist—at a time when “feminism” is a socially reviled term.

And, although this isn’t such a popular thing to say, I think we women need to hold ourselves accountable for our own dreams. It’s easy to fall for premature realism. It’s so easy just to burrow into parenthood, or standards of perfect mothering, and “give up” on the travails and the exhaustion that come with having other dreams and ambitions.

For example, in my book I describe a woman in her 40s who had debated with herself, and her husband, about having children for many years. When we went through the pros and cons, she commented that if she did have children, she felt like she could finally “just relax.” The comment puzzled me at first. But what she meant was that she could just focus entirely on being a mom, and finally give up on worrying about her career and other ambitions.

I think she was articulating a feeling that lots of us have had.  We have to fight against our own urges just to give up in the face of cultural or institutional barriers or judgment.

What specific areas cause couples the most trouble? Money? Career? Housework?

All of the above. The only major hotspot missing from your list is sex, which is another doozy. Most of the marriages I see do two or three of the four pretty well—take your pick—and then struggle (sometimes badly) with the other one. The conflict area, in fact, can become a proxy battle for other things. The fight looks like it’s about money, but it’s really about housework, or sex, and so on.

How does dream-wedding-mania (Hi, Kim Kardashian!) fit into all this?

The extravagance of the wedding is indirectly proportional to the necessity of marriage: The less necessary and imperative marriage is, the more we invest in extravagant weddings.

I’m not sure what to make of the wedding business. I’ve written about how the main style of weddings today is to display a couple’s individuality and their personalities, whereas when my mom got married in the 1950s, pretty much all the weddings were the same. Every bride wore a white veil, and gave out tulle-wrapped Jordan almonds as a favor. These days you’ll see pig roasts, sushi buffet receptions, football-themed weddings, luaus—you name it. The weddings are showcases of the couple’s personality.

As for the popularity of the bride extravaganza, it’s hard to say. Is it a lingering Princess fantasy, all grown up? Is it a desire to have a rite of passage, some moment when we can really feel like the center of attention? Is it a sign of the socially conservative times that we go overboard on the weddings to prove that we’re believers in marriage, and not too pungently feminist? Maybe. And maybe it’s that wedding merchants and vendors have been super successful at marketing wedding products and dreams, and are good at finding ways to belittle a budget, and to make us feel cheap and derelict if we opt for a modest wedding? Maybe that, too.

To you, what does today’s “ideal” marriage look like?

The ideal marriage looks like what those two spouses want it to look like.

I don’t think there’s a perfect type of marriage — for example, a dual-career marriage isn’t inherently more ideal than a stay-at-home mom marriage. However, there is a perfect state of marriage. And that state is fairness. To me, the ideal marriage is one in which the “dreariness quotient” is in balance: Both partners feel as if they’re each doing enough of the unglamorous, life maintenance work to keep the household and marriage humming, so that the marriage feels fair. In some ways, fairness is the final frontier for a feminist marriage.

Achieving fairness doesn’t mean bean counting over who spends more time doing dishes. It doesn’t mean each spouse does exactly the same kinds of tasks for exactly the same amount of time. Nor does fairness mean that husband and wife must do specific roles. A “fair” marriage might be one where the dad is a stay-at-home dad, who pulls his load by raising the children, and the mom works, or it could be a dual-career marriage, or a stay-at-home mom marriage. Any arrangement can feel and be fair to the partners in it.
But if fairness is missing—in money, in childrearing, in sex, in chores, in free time, in any important element—then the marriage isn’t really the ideal feminist marriage, in my opinion.

The biggest feminist gift to marriage was that it obliterated the old gender scripts, and it gave us the latitude to define marriage in terms that work for us as partners. We need to accept that gift, and work to live up to it.

You’ve written about how “workhorse wives”—women doing it all, or striving to do it all, to support their husbands’ dreams—are pretty much an epidemic around the world. Why is this happening, and what can we do about it?

I wouldn’t call them an epidemic! But it’s a growing percentage of marriages, and a more common problem–one that Betty Friedan never would have anticipated. These are marriages where the husband is the dream-chaser and the wife is the exhausted, not-all-that-happy breadwinner for the marriage. For the workhorse wife, the dream of having it all became the nightmare of doing it all. Today, over one in five wives outearns her husband, and this was a trend even before the 2008 recession. And men now gain more from marrying a college-educated woman than women do from marrying a college-educated man.

What’s to be done? First, the workhorse wife needs to have a brave, difficult conversation with her husband. Then, she might need to trade perfectionism for equity, and allocate more work to her husband, even if he doesn’t do it just right, or perfectly. She might need to start taking her own dreams of meaningful work or creativity as seriously as she takes her husband’s dreams. In some cases, if neither the workhorse wife nor the dream-chasing husband is all that thrilled with the idea of a hard-driving, high-paying career, then they need to downsize their lifestyle and simplify, so that both partners have more freedom and neither feels taken advantage of.

What was the most surprising thing you found out in your research?

A few things, actually. First, the marriage next door is stranger than you think. I was surprised by the amount of variation within outwardly “traditional” marriages. This was especially true around sexual expectations and non-monogamy. Our sexual mores are much more complex than our black-and-white rhetoric implies.

I was also surprised, and disheartened, to discover how judgmental wives can be toward other wives with ambivalent feelings about marriage. How many times did I hear the phrase, “selfish and whiny”? I disagree with that judgment. I think that talking about marriage, especially from a feminist perspective, is one way that the institution will evolve, and stay relevant to our lives.

And marriage is still a concealed institution. That surprised me, too. We’re such an “open,” privacy-loathing generation, but I was often surprised by how fragile some ostensibly happy marriages really are. Again, there’s a lot of resurgent shame attached both to divorce and to the mere confession of marital issues.

I was pleasantly interested in the non-monogamous marriages that had really managed to vanquish jealousy and find a truly post-romantic way to accommodate multiple, intimate attachments within a framework of honesty in marriage. And, by the extent to which “Free love 2.0” is defined more in the wife’s image than that of John Updike or Gay Talese.

Another concept from your book that got a lot of attention is the half-happy, not-great, but not-bad-enough-for-divorce marriage. Why is that so prevalent now? Should we be settling less?

The semi-happy marriage is not bad enough to leave, but not good enough to fulfill.

I don’t know if this kind of marriage is more prevalent than in the past, but it happens for different reasons. In the 1950s, women had few choices but to “stick it out,” so it’s not necessarily more common today.

But the semi-happy marriage is more puzzling to me today—because men and women have the freedom to ask more from marriage, or to leave, or to change marriage if it’s not working out for them. If you don’t want a monogamous marriage, then why not change it? If you’re tired of feeling guilt-tripped about being an inadequately perfect mother, and you’re getting consumed in parenting at the expense of your adult prerogatives, then why not change parenting standards, and assert other parts of your life as important, too? Sure, these types of remedies to the semi-happy marital malaise are hard, and challenging. But the rewards might be worth it: a much more genuinely satisfying marriage.

Should we be settling for less? No way! To be clear: A contented, comfortable marriage is wonderful. But a semi-happy marriage isn’t the same as a contented one, and “semi-happy” is a pretty sad mark to aim for. At a time when women really don’t need to get married—they could have fulfilling lives as unmarried people—they’re being urged to settle for good enough, or for less. Meanwhile, men seem to have caught the spirit of liberation more than women, because they seem to be getting pickier and picker about relationships and partners, even as women are urged to be less picky. They seem to be asking themselves, “now that I don’t have to get married, I want a marriage that really rocks, or that really makes my life better.”

As Grace Paley used to say to women’s groups, “the world should be gained. Nothing should be given up. I think a good hard greed is the way to approach life.”

So we should be ambitious. Realistic, yes—but ambitious.

How would you sum up the state of American marriage?

Marriage is in a brainstorming phase. Fifty percent of younger Americans, and 40 percent of Americans overall, think that marriage is “becoming obsolete,” according to 2010 Pew research. I’m not one of them–exactly. I don’t think it’s becoming obsolete, but it is changing, fitfully, to 21st-century realities.

We’re all trying to figure out how it makes sense today, when many of its old, pre-feminist imperatives have faded. So we need to figure out why we should, or do, get married on 21st-century terms. It’s not always easy. Is marriage more like a friendship? Perhaps. Is it a good way to raise children, but maybe not ideally a lifelong commitment? That could be true.

Is it necessarily a sexually monogamous relationship? Maybe not. All of these romantic assumptions are up for grabs today, and being negotiated by couples themselves. Because another major state of American marriage is that each marriage is more customized and personalized to what that couple wants it to mean.

My pre-feminist mother’s generation struggled because they had so few alternatives to marriage, Our generation has the happy challenge that feminism’s success has created for us: We need to figure out marriage in a time when we do have lots of choices and alternatives.

Partners who love each other still do believe in marriage. But on new terms.

Girl Kisses (and More) In TV and Film: A 20-Year Retrospective

It’s been twenty years since two women first kissed on a prime time television series. (To find out which show, read on.)

Ellen1-300x206So to celebrate, here’s a brief chronology of girls-who-like-girls characters in TV and film. While many such story lines are produced to merely titillate audiences (see Virginia Heffernan’s 2005New York Times article on television series using lesbian subplots during sweeps week), I can’t deny that these shows also opened up a larger dialogue in our culture. Here are some of the most positive examples of girl love from the past two decades:

1991: L.A. Law delivers the first on-screen girl-on-girl kiss in the episode, “He’s a Crowd.” Here’s how it goes down: Abby and C.J. (played by Michele Greene and Amanda Donohue, respectively) share a meal together after Abby is turned down for a partnership at the firm. Afterward, they kiss outside in a parking lot. C.J. identifies herself as “flexible” (possibly the first character to ever use that term on television) while Abby considers herself completely heterosexual. Although this subplot doesn’t go very far (and was mostly used as a ratings ploy), I have no doubt that without it the list that follows probably wouldn’t exist.

1996: While the ten-year run of Friends did not primarily feature a lesbian relationship, the episode known as “The One With the Lesbian Wedding” is quite a milestone. Long before the legalization of gay marriage and civil unions, Carol and Susan walked down the aisle and declared their love in a relatively traditional ceremony. On a particularly sweet note, Ross, Carol’s ex, offers to give her away in lieu of her father who disapproved of the marriage.

1997: Ellen DeGeneres as Ellen Morgan comes out on Ellen in the now-infamous “Puppy Episode.”While the show’s ratings suffered and DeGeneres’s own personal revelation that she is gay set off a major backlash, it wasn’t long before she was back on top—hosting the Emmys in 2001, performing a new stand-up comedy routine on HBO, and of course, launching her daytime talk show, The Ellen DeGeneres Show. Oh and need I mention marrying one of the most gorgeous women alive, Portia De Rossi? She’s also a Cover Girl—which is both a milestone and an awesome slap in the face to her critics.

1999: Our first feature film on the list is none other than But I’m a Cheerleader. Now considered something of a cult classic, this Jamie Babbit film not only featured a lesbian couple, but a lesbian couple at a “gay rehabilitation center.” Graham (Clea DuVall) and Megan (Natasha Lyonne) are in high school when their parents send them to True Directions (the name is so ridiculous it’s meant to be laughed at). I not only give this movie props for its frankness and humor but also for giving us a happy ending. It is one of the few lesbian-centric films that does not feature one of its characters going straight or dying some untimely death. (Two sadly common plotlines.) Thanks, Jamie Babbit for inventing the lesbian romantic comedy. (Also check out her 2007 flick, Itty Bitty Titty Committee, also with a happy ending.)

1998: In High Art, a heroin-addicted lesbian photographer, Lucy (Ally Sheedy) gets involved with Syd (Radha Mitchell), a shy girl-next-door. It’s the ultimate in escapism for both parties and naturally, given the subject matter, the cinematography is both breathtaking and surreal as the women create their own world, separate from their realities. Unfortunately, the reality of drug addiction proves too powerful to ignore. While it does fit into a certain depressing stereotype, High Art still deserves recognition for how it addressed the homosexual desires of a supposedly straight character—as awkward, thrilling, and overwhelming as they are in real life.

Incredibly heartbreaking, but a story so worth telling, Gia not only grapples with same-sex attraction but drug abuse, self-destruction, and HIV/AIDS. The real-life supermodel, Gia Carangi was known for her tenacity and passion, and those closest to her knew of her attraction to women. Even in Gia’s darkest moments—whether losing her lover or falling short of kicking her addictions—the film is riveting from start to finish. You simply cannot take your eyes off her, and not just because she’s played by Angelina Jolie. (Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Jolie won a Golden Globe for her performance.)

2000: This retrospective wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the monumental series, Queer as Folk. It helped turn “queer” into a household (not to mention positive) term in the early 2000s. While there was only one central lesbian couple on the show, Melanie and Lindsay spiced up the group dynamic. During the show’s five-year span, they had two children, got married, separated and reconciled twice, and led successful careers. This couple ran through the gamut of emotional highs and lows, making them feel particularly genuine.

2001: Buffy the Vampire Slayer earns a space on the list as featuring a two-and-a-half year relationship between female characters, Willow and Tara. Clearly, this storyline was not just for the ratings.

2004: The L Word. The first all-girl, all-lesbian/bisexual television series. The L Word picked up the banner that Queer as Folk started carrying four years earlier. These characters were just like any other dysfunctional group of friends—except they liked girls. Oh and they were all wildly successful and lived incredibly well in expensive Los Angeles. It tackled difficult subjects, too—child rearing, affairs, cancer, gays in the military, to name a few. I’d like to believe that it will pave the way—if it hasn’t already—to more series and films, albeit with a little less underwear and a little more realism.

2005: Oh those California girls of The O.C. While I admit the teenage soap opera is one of my favorite guilty pleasures, I have to call the show out on its cheap use of girl-likes-girl storyline in season 2. Marissa (Mischa Barton) and Alex (Olivia Wilde) have a brief affair and share a couple of smooches on screen. No sooner do they get together then Alex leaves Newport Beach and Marissa ends up back with her true love, Ryan Atwood. Huh? Sounds like someone (cough, Marissa, cough) was killing time before her former BF was conveniently available again. Of course, when I first watched the budding Marissa-Alex romance, I was excited—ready to stamp my seal of approval on any mainstream television show that had the guts to feature a gay couple. And that enthusiasm is probably how I justify owning all four seasons on DVD.

2008: Grey’s Anatomy hooked its huge following with some good old-fashioned relationship drama. In season 4, however, the show took an unexpected detour from the roads of McDreamy and McSteamy when Dr. Callie Torres (Sara Ramirez) began a relationship with Erica Hahn (Brooke Smith). Together, they embark on their first same-sex relationship. Unfortunately, while Erica embraces her newfound sexual identity, Callie does not. But have no fear—in season 5, Callie finds a new love interest in Arizona Robbins (Jessica Capshaw)—and the courage to face her feelings. The couple has overcome many obstacles—from disapproving parents to deciding whether or not to have children. After much struggle and heartache (as only Grey’s Anatomy can deliver), the couple finally wed in season 7. Much like Melanie and Lindsay of Queer as Folk, Callie and Arizona are another great example of a lesbian couple in a long-term relationship with its many ups and downs, like any of their straight counterparts.

2010: Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) seem like the run-of-the-mill lesbian couple with two kids and a white picket fence in The Kids Are All Right. The only monkey wrench? Their kids are about to discover their sperm donor father. While this film caught some criticism for the lesbian-has-an-affair-with-a-man plot, I commend it for its portrayal of a marriage (in nearly every sense of the word, these women are married) that has been strained. Julianne Moore’s monologue on struggling to keep it all together is so moving, anyone can relate—gay, straight, or otherwise. Interesting trivia? This film was written and directed by Lisa Cholodenko, the same woman who wrote and directed High Art. Unlike her earlier effort, The Kids Are All Right was widely recognized in the mainstream media and was even nominated for several Academy Awards.

To the writers, producers, and actresses of these shows and films, bravo.

5 Qs with ‘New Girl’ Creator Liz Meriwether

LizMeriwether-207x300New Girl on Fox was this close to making our list of feminist shows to watch this fall — and has garnered our affection more with time — so we were thrilled to have a chance to talk to Liz Meriwether, the creator, writer, and executive producer of the show. Meriwether told us about creating a female centric show, the emerging prominence of female comedy in Hollywood, and the polarizing presence of star Zooey Deschanel.

Was it hard to pitch a series that revolved around women to a network?

It wasn’t hard. I felt really encouraged by the way the network received the show the whole way through. I think the first time I met Kevin Reilly, who is the head of Fox, he said to me, I want to keep this female character really unique and I want you to protect her throughout this whole process, which was really rare and the first time I had heard that from a network exec. I actually found that there wasn’t resistance to an odd female character at the center of the show, which I found really gratifying. I really don’t think the show could work if the network hadn’t understood it and really supported it.

There are a few comedies that premiered this season with female leads and have done really well. Do you have any thoughts on why that is?

I don’t know. I feel so lucky to be a part of it, and it really surprised me. I really love how all of the different characters in the new comedies with female protagonists are all different. I think people have a tendency to lump female comedy into one box and I really love that the different shows that are doing well right now have really different styles and really different characters at the front of them. I personally think that they are all really funny, so I’m just really happy to be a part of this…whatever it is… new moment.

Have you noticed more opportunities for female showrunners and comedy writers in the past few years?

I think with [the success of] Bridesmaids, there is just sort-of a feeling of trust from the people in charge that women actually want to see shows and movies that are written and created by women, as opposed to shows created by men that women are just supposed to like. I feel like that trust, from a business sense, is really important for empowering more women creators of shows.

One of the things we love is how real and how rich the characters feel. How were you inspired to create your leads?

I feel like there is a part of me in all of them — well, maybe not the model character! I mean I think originally Jess was based on me and it was me writing about male friends that I had. I looked around and realized that I had a lot of guy friends and I was wondering why that was and what I went to them for that I didn’t go to my girl friends for. I think what was  important for us was really making sure that all of the characters felt real and that the show felt real. We’ve made that our focus with all of the episodes and the stories.

Zooey Deschanel, the star of New Girl, is a polarizing figure among women. (Is she cute or too cute?) Were you worried about women’s reactions to her, or did you know she was right for the character?

I never really realized that before the show came out. I just loved her acting and I loved her music. I just loved Zooey and I never saw her as a polarizing figure. I still sort-of don’t; I think she’s just an amazing actress and I feel like the character is a complicated and she has a lot of different layers. I’ve definitely seen some of the criticism, but I haven’t really understood where it is coming from totally. I think I was really just writing about myself and my main goal was to give Zooey really fun, interesting things to do every week. I just wanted to be honest with myself about the character and present a really funny interesting female character on television.