Bringing Down DOMA, Putting Prop 8 in its Rightful Place

gay-marriage-300x184As the token gay lady at Sexy Feminist, I am especially ecstatic to share my thoughts on the Supreme Court’s rulings today.

To fully illustrate my glee on today’s decisions, I direct you to this little meme from Buzzfeed.

Seriously, my first thought is: finally. (As well as a huge sigh of relief.)

Not only was the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) deemed unconstitutional, but the court also dismissed California’s Proposition 8 case. The latter truly surprised me. My initial prediction was that the justices would strike down DOMA, but leave the notorious proposition alone. While long-term effects of the Prop 8 decision are a bit vague, it is clear to me that the court declared that the petitioners do not legal standing. In essence, the Supreme Court has validated the lower courts that have rejected Prop 8.

Now, I’m hopeful that with both positive outcomes, our country’s justice system will pave the way for future progress. That is to say it will be much harder (if not impossible) to defend discriminatory laws still on the books in individual states.

And for the states that have already legalized same-sex marriages, the defeat of DOMA carries an extra significance: your marriage is now federally recognized. (I think this calls for a second wedding and/or honeymoon, right?)

And speaking of the Feds, the President did not disappoint me. Obama released a statement on the landmark decision. The money quote: “The laws of our land are catching up to the fundamental truth that millions of Americans hold in our hearts: when all Americans are treated as equal, no matter who they are or whom they love, we are all more free.”

To paraphrase my latest Facebook status, I knew I would live to see this moment, I just didn’t know it would come so soon. The snowball that began rolling at the beginning of my formative years is now a bona fide avalanche. In the decade plus since I’ve come out, I’ve witnessed the airings of “Queer as Folk” and “The L Word,” Massachusetts legalizing same-sex marriage, Ellen DeGeneres becoming a household name, the defeat of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell; my home state of New Jersey legalizing civil unions, my residence of New York legalizing same-sex marriage, and today, the highest court in the land validating it all.

Now, as MC Hammer once rapped, we’re too legit to quit—in every sense of the phrase.

Why I Loved ‘Behind the Candelabra’

behind-the-candelabra-michael-douglas-matt-damon1Most critics reviewing HBO’s Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra mentioned director Steven Soderbergh’s brilliant decision to temper the flamboyance of Liberace’s life with a gritty and unflinchingly realistic framing of the story. Even the slightest tic toward taking the movie over the top could’ve felt like farce, and besides, there was plenty of over-the-topness in the story — the sets, the costumes, the plastic surgery. Maybe Soderbergh overcompensated a little, thus sapping a bit of the joy Liberace clearly took in sparkly and ornate things. But I liked his approach more than the alternative.

Because he shot it like any straightforward, serious biopic, he instead brought out both the intimacy and the intensity of Liberace’s relationship with Scott Thorson. He also, through that relationship, focused on the politics underlying their lives, and thus the lives of many gay men in the ’80s. The closest they could get to being married was for Liberace to adopt Thorson, a bizarre realization that ought to send everyone running to do whatever we can to get gay marriage legalized. And how heartbreaking to see people still trying to pretend, even after Liberace’s death, that the great love of his life was a woman! There’s something so devastating about not being acknowledged for your place in your great love’s life — even as an ex-spouse, you get some recognition at the funeral for your loss.

And, oh, the vanity! Being gay and famous made Liberace, and thus Thorson, as vulnerable to the pressure to be beautiful and young as women are. I loved the brutal cosmetic surgery sequences — I couldn’t even watch them, which I think is a good thing. We too rarely acknowledge how painful cosmetic procedures are — calling them “nips” and “tucks,” cutesy names that make us forget that this is major surgery. Not to mention that this is the creepy end result. Something about seeing men go through this on screen makes a difference, too, highlighting the inherent weirdness of it all because we’re not as used to it.

Most of all, the film normalized even a rather bizarre relationship between two men, something we could stand to see more of as we march toward the (hopefully) inevitable breakthrough of legalized gay marriage.

Do You Have To Be Coupled To Give Good Dating Advice?

dating-300x186“Why should I take dating advice from you? You’re single.”

This is a comeback I’ve heard many times for the six years I’ve been writing my advice column, And That’s Why You’re Single.  Apparently, in order for a woman who writes about dating to be taken seriously, she needs to have a man to trot out or cite as evidence that she knows of what she speaks.

My answer to this pointed question is quite succinct. I don’t need a man in my life in order to practice common sense and critical thinking. People throw the fact that I’m single (as far as they know) in my face to try and discredit me.  This one query reveals quite a bit about the person posing it. Namely, that they consider a woman’s ideas and opinions invalid unless she has a man by her side to validate them.

This question isn’t really a question. It’s an attempt to minimize my thoughts. The point of the inquiry is to shame me. Apparently, a woman who isn’t constantly looking for excuses to talk about her relationship is considered suspect. 

What’s funny is that I never hear the same types of criticisms directed at single men who write about dating and sex. In fact, I think single, male relationship writers like Dave Zincenko and Michael Thomsen tend to get more of a pass from their audience. Men aren’t viewed with the same critical eye for being a certain age and still single. They’re supposed to be playing the field and exercising their options, especially if they write about sex. In a case like that, the more experiences the male author deconstructs, the better he is perceived. And not just by his male readership.

I’m not sure whether many women will agree with this, but I tend to believe that a man with an impressive roster of sexual experiences is considered more desirable. His female readers may outwardly act outraged at his admissions, but I think internally they find him more attractive than a man who admits to dating one or two women before marrying his high school sweetheart. What I really think makes the man more sought after is that, because of his “vast” list of lovers, he is seen as a challenge. Men don’t bother to slut shame him. They’re too busy trying to replicate whatever tactics this guy employs to score so easily and often. The women that these writers date don’t see him as a liability. They consider him a catch, if only because of the potential bragging rights that come with “taming” him.

Now imagine a woman using her own Black Book as a source for her writing. If she’s liberal with her sexual admissions and beliefs, many folks see her as a threat. A big portion of her female readership will see her as a traitor because they’re being encouraged to examine their own insecurities that revolve around men and sex.  If she can’t manage to find anybody to settle down, she’s too picky or damaged. The insults and accusations consistently revolve around three things: her looks, her age and her relationship status. Those are considered a woman’s Achilles Heel, and men and women will do whatever they can to sever it. When Candace Bushnell’s marriage dissolved, you could almost hear people running to the Internet to mock her. “Fifty Shades of Grey” author E. L. James repeatedly had to endure comments about her weight and looks, as if she didn’t deserve to be so successful because she wasn’t a size two.

The reason for that, of course, is because most women are expected to wear the fact that they have a boyfriend as though it’s a badge of honor. The act of doing so was ingrained in us as young as our early teens. Being able to say that you had a boyfriend was considered the end all be all. We’d find ways to shoehorn mentions of him into conversations about biology lab or what we ate for dinner. Sharing that you had a boyfriend somehow elevated you over the heads of your peers. It meant that you found a boy that found you attractive.

You’d think that this sort of intra-gender competition would cease after high school. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Read the comments of any article that revolves around dating – specifically the author’s dating woes – and you’ll be treated with numerous stories that start off with, “Well, when I met my boyfriend…” A quick tour of these threads will make you feel like you’ve been transported back to your high school lunchroom. I recently got into it with a commenter over at XOJane. Rather than actually argue the valid points I raised, my opponent snarked back, “You can disagree without being mean. Just sayin’ (oh, and btw, and that’s why I’m NOT SINGLE). hugs.”

In these situations, a woman will trot out her relationship (no matter how new it is) to bolster the validity of her insight. That is what truly makes behavior like this so unfortunate. For years women have struggled to be independent from men. Yet there appears to still be some underlying need to prove to other women that we have male approval. It’s as if some women believe that the ability to utter the words “my boyfriend” grants them access to some kind of higher ground.

I don’t think it’s a conscious action. I think it has been burned into our brains to think that, without a partner, we don’t deserve to have an opinion on certain matters.  Mainstream media, TV and movies don’t help us break out of this thinking, either. I recently bemoaned the cancellation of my guilty pleasure TV show, “Smash,” complaining that all the lead female characters had to be attached to a man, a couple even fighting over one. Olivia Pope from ABC’s “Scandal” has to be tied to the simpering, brooding Fitz in order to make her more interesting. We’ve been conditioned to try and one-up our peers where men are concerned. There’s this subversive need to prove to other people that we are desirable. And the way many of us prove that is by trotting out our partners. Social media feeds are clogged with references to boyfriends and dates. While some of these mentions are expressions of genuine happiness, I think many others are revealed strictly for the benefit of the reading audience. “Look at meeee! Somebody thinks I’m pretty!”

Originally, my decision to keep the details of my love life out of my writing was one of self-preservation. The personal memoir writing format has birthed a popular subsection that I affectionately refer to as the Oversharing Trainwreck. There’s this misguided belief out there that a woman who writes about sex and dating has to exploit her own experiences in order to be considered “brave” or “real.”  The core of any good relationship is intimacy. Taking to the web to spill my guts made it difficult for any man to trust or feel safe with me. Now I choose to keep my love life status to myself to avoid being defined by my ability to get a man.

No woman should be made to feel as though she needs to prove value or intelligence in this manner. Her work–and her life–should stand on its own, regardless of whether or not she has a man by her side. — Christan Marashio

Christan is an NYC-based writer and columnist.

What I Learned from Being ‘Gay Married’

married-300x300Last July, my boyfriend Jesse and I moved in together. The next day, we went to New York City Hall and got “gay married” — that is, we became (heterosexual) domestic partners. We’re among the many straight couples who have become legally linked, mostly for health insurance and other practical reasons, since domestic partnership became an option in several states as the closest alternative to marriage for gay couples. Now that the Supreme Court is debating the legalities of full-fledged gay marriage, we’re also pondering whether we’ll “have to” get hitched to maintain our benefits, should national marriage equality become a reality. In fact, we know one couple who already got married after losing their health insurance coverage once New York legalized same-sex marriage.


Of course, we’re unequivocally in favor of marriage equality. But this lower “level” of commitment has been worth something in its own right to us — not just for the health benefits, but for the ways it helped us see exactly what we wanted from our relationship.

As wary 30-something New Yorkers, Jesse and I built our couplehood in careful, meticulously plotted, much-debated steps. Even the regular practice of spending the night at each other’s places was up for debate. (We’re really into having our own space and alone time.) We waited ten months before exchanging “I love you”s. We declared our reticence about marriage early and often. Eventually, sleepovers became a practical necessity as well as a key bonding experience. That “I love you” felt real and earned. We became domestic partners when we realized that said status would allow me to be on his health insurance and give us at least a chance of proving our standing with each other in the event of, say, a hospitalization or death. (Also: We can rent cars together without an extra fee!) Of course we wouldn’t have done it if the commitment level weren’t there, but we also wouldn’t have done it if we didn’t have reason to.


And marriage? We’re still saying only if we have to, though that seems like it’s possibly in our future.


That “only if we have to” attitude about each stage of our relationship has lent it a deliberate quality we both take comfort in. We’re analytical people. Call us cold commitmentphobes if you like, but investigating domestic partnership has given me a better understanding of marriage — and even, in a way, made it more romantic to me. What can I say? Having almost gotten married once before, having a say over each other’s do-not-resuscitate orders and sharing our assets without tax penalties sound far more romantic than picking out bridal bouquets and paying too much for cake. Here, a few things I’ve learned about marriage from being domestic partnered:


Domestic partnership is not marriage. We chose it as the simplest, quickest alternative so we could stop paying more than $600 per month for my COBRA health coverage. But no institutions arerequired to recognize domestic partners’ legal status; many companies simply choose to. Hospitals don’t have to give you a say in your partner’s care and the status doesn’t hold up in court for much. Marriage, in fact, instantly confers more than a thousand benefits and advantages to those who undertake it. Speaking of which …


People get married for good reason! I scoff at the gauzy, taffeta, compulsory nature of heterosexual life commitment. I resist its patriarchal underpinnings. But damn if married people don’t get a lot of great stuff! There are those thousand-plus rights, possible tax advantages (though you don’t always win by filing jointly, I’ve learned), massive legal simplifications if things go badly, and gifts! We have a decent income as successful professionals, but we’d get our new apartment in order faster if we could register.


Divorce is a bitch. Obviously it would be emotionally draining to split up from the person you thought was the love of your life — I truly have a hard time entertaining the idea of someday living without Jesse. But I also know how life goes, and I’m a staunch realist. Having watched others go through New York’s divorce process, complete with a year-long cooling-off period before making it official, I am not eager to participate. So far, this difficulty has served as the main impediment to any marriage plans for us. That’s why I love the ideas that have been floated, at least in theoretical circles, for more sweeping marriage reform than just allowing for gay couples. “Temporary marriage,” “group marriage,” and easier divorces are among them, as this New York Times piece points out. I particularly like the idea of making civil unions the nationally recognized form, and letting people figure out privately what “marriage” is to them.


Weddings are at least part of the problem with marriage. A Marie Claire piece even showed thatmore couples are simply getting “permanently engaged” as a way to show their commitment without dealing with all the tulle. I understand the allure of that arrangement, though it strikes me as self-defeating. You’re doing this to demonstrate your commitment to the world, to ask society to recognize your status as a couple, but it seems all a permanent engagement would invite is people constantly haranguing you about when the big day is. I dragged my own ill-fated engagement out, so I know. I personally prefer either going through with marriage or taking a stand against it. For Jesse and me, just figuring out that we don’t need a big white ceremony made us consider marriage more seriously. When he came up with the idea that we could have a small ceremony at our Zen Buddhist temple, wearing our black robes, with vows given by our teacher, that had me pondering a wedding seriously for the first time since I swore off marriage. And who knows? Maybe someday it will happen — if we have to, and we want to.

Feminist Relationship Dilemmas

relationship-dilemmas-300x300To continue with our “Loving While Feminist” series of posts — we’ve already talked dating,boyfriends, and girlfriends — we’re tackling feminist relationship dilemmas today.

Dilemma #1: It turns out it’s time to get married after all. You’ve spent a ton of time dissecting and critiquing the institution of marriage. You know it has historically treated women as chattel. You know almost every part of a traditional wedding ceremony is deeply sexist, hopelessly materialistic, or both. Then, as time goes by, you fall in love with a wonderful man. You move in together. You are a freelance writer, so you really wish you could share his corporate insurance. You would like to be able to visit him in the hospital if he gets sick or have an automatic say in his health decisions if the worst should happen. Maybe you even daydream about a nice, small wedding — what’s wrong with declaring your couplehood to the world? We say, go for it! You don’t have to do your wedding or marriage the way others do. Have a small or totally private ceremony. Become domestic partners instead of spouses. Hammer out your own custom relationship contract. There are plenty of ways to customize committed relationships these days.

Dilemma #2: You’re sure you don’t want kids, but you don’t want to be on the pill forever.Consider an IUD, which is all the rage now that better options are available. Or discuss a vasectomy with him — ladies don’t have to carry the entire contraception burden.

Dilemma #3: Money — ugh. We wish we had a cure-all for the ills that can be caused by sharing finances. (If you have one, please let us know.) Mostly, what has worked for us is: staying calm; voicing all of your fears, financial secrets, and concerns as soon as they come up; and checking in with each other frequently to make sure everyone is feeling that things are as equitable as possible. Not equal, but equitable — one partner’s bound to make more than the other, but as long as the contributions to the household feel balanced, that’s all that matters.

Dilemma #4: Chores — also ugh. This is loaded with particularly feminist implications, what with the whole history of women doing all the housework. We’d never advocate dropping your feminism, but just beware that your feminism can push you into irrational territory here. We can sometimes tend to load doing the dishes or cooking dinner with the resentment of our female ancestors when, well, someone has to do dishes and cook dinner, and sometimes it might have to be you. Again, as long as things feel balanced between the two of you, that’s what’s important.

Dilemma # 5: Putting motherhood before your career. Let’s be clear once and for all: “having it all” is a nonsense term that exists solely to guilt women into feeling like failures if they don’t master the impossible task of a soaring career, a hot-and-steamy romantic life and supermomdom. If you decide to have children, you get to decide what balance is best for your family. And if that means taking a break from your hard-earned career, yes, you’ll miss it (and you should), but it doesn’t have to be forever. And the job of taking care of a child and raising him or her to be a conscious, valuable member of the world population is the hardest and most important job in the world. It’s something to be proud of.

Gay Marriage: A Personal Reconciling

gay-marriage-200x300Two years ago, I convinced my girlfriend at the time to read Dan Savage’s The Commitment.

I figured what was basically a treatise about passionately fighting for one’s right to wed, by a guy who was so formerly blasé about the idea of marrying his boyfriend of a decade, could convince her that gay marriage was the way of the future. A choice many queers were making, in just about every conceivable fashion (much like our straight counterparts). Besides, we lived in the most exciting city in the world, New York. We shared a love of all things artistic and we knew how to entertain ourselves (and each other) on a shoestring budget. How could our marriage be boring? It would be an adventure, just by the very nature of who we were and where we lived.

Or so I thought.

After she read the book, a switch was flipped. I don’t know if it was the book itself, per se, or if it was our relationship changing to the point where she could envision us sharing a life together. We were already sharing the same apartment, families, vacations, and money.

A short time later, on my birthday, she proposed. And in true egalitarian fashion, I returned the proposal on our anniversary a month later. We exchanged rings. We playfully called each other “wife” and told my family that our rings were not so much “engagement rings” as they were “rings of intention.” (To wit, my cousin’s husband affectionately declared that that is what “straight men should get from their fiancés.”)

But as our euphemisms vaguely suggested, we had no concrete plans, only “intentions.” We had made a deal: We decided we wouldn’t get married until I was finished with my master’s degree or New York state legalized same-sex marriage. Three months after we broke up, our beloved state did in fact do just that. For obvious reasons, it was a bittersweet victory.

On the one hand, I was thrilled for couples who could take that next step—or rather, leap—not only for themselves but for queer people everywhere. I knew this wasn’t the end of the battle, but clearly we had made some kind of progress. And then came the resentment. And the anger. And the pain. And the shock of having my life turned upside down, ushering in a new—and what I perceived as cold—world order.

Suddenly, 28 felt old. It felt left behind. I found myself keeping score, comparing the accomplishments of my 20-something counterparts to my own like never before. Suddenly, nothing I was doing or had done was good enough. With gay marriage, it seems, comes the immediate pressure every straight woman feels: Get married, or die alone.

The hilarious irony in all this is that when I was a teenager, I assumed I would settle down later in life (even before I realized I was gay), in my early to mid-30s perhaps. When I was 15 I guess I thought this sounded like the trajectory of a worldly person, someone who goes on crazy adventures before meeting the love of her life and buying that house in the country, maybe even contacting a sperm bank and preparing second-parent adoption papers. But in the reality of my situation, that trajectory no longer felt like something to desire.

I had had my adventures, I thought. And dammit, I was still having them—I took the plunge (finally!) to get my MFA, I changed jobs after several years’ worth of misery, I traveled, I had a lease on my own apartment in Manhattan. I had made amazing stuff happen—and the bulk of it with a loving, supportive partner by my side.

See, the problem was that I thought I had found someone who would be there through all the new and exciting pursuits as well as the day-in, day-out sometimes-drudgery of routine. I didn’t feel tied down, I felt wide open and released. I believed it was to the credit of our rock solid relationship—meanwhile, giving myself no credit whatsoever.

When our relationship ended, I even found myself using the term “divorce.” I mean, after all, that’s kind of what it was. There was the dividing of possessions and money owed and repaid. And of course, there was the emotional dividing as well.

It was the closest thing to marriage I have ever experienced. And with gay marriage, alas, comes gay divorce.

Even after all the heartache and struggle and therapy sessions, I would still do it all again. I still want to take that leap of faith. Keeping two people together, whether it’s two women or a man and woman or two men, is a monumental feat not to be taken lightly. And what I gained in those three years is invaluable, but I also gained something from our ending.

I realized I do take care of myself—and not just in typical adult manner (bill paying, food buying, appointment scheduling , etc.). I’m learning about my limits; when to reach out for help and when to take my own advice; how to bestow generosity but not to a fault; how to assuage my fears and doubts without any added reassurance. I may have even figured out how to forgive myself.

Because I’m a poet myself and because I think poetry can represent the truest form of expression, I’d like to share this excerpt from “This Deepening Takes Place Again” by Emily Kendal Frey. She writes: “If losing me / is the worst thing to happen, / your life is still a good life.”

Yes, it is.

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.

Sexy Feminists Read: Anna David’s ‘Falling for Me’

FallingforMe-pb-199x300In Anna David’s new memoir, Falling for Me, the author sets out to find the empowering side of being single by following the advice set forth in Helen Gurley Brown’s groundbreaking 1962 book Sex and the Single Girl. So should we be living more like women in the ’60s? We talked to David (whose book launch we’re sponsoring in New York City Oct. 10) about that — and why it’s still so hard to be single.

You recently ignited a bit of a blogger controversy by asserting in a post that “women had it better in the ’60s.” Do you really think women had it better then, hands down? Or just in certain ways?

Definitely just in certain ways. Which is what I said in the piece! But I get that when people want to pick a fight with you — or are, say, angered simply by the title of your piece — they don’t see words that might minimize their vitriol. My point was that I wish women would stop making statements about things that don’t matter. I love Gloria Steinem and am incredibly grateful for all that she’s done, but for her to go around making a stink about the Playboy Club TV show when everyone knew the show was terrible and wasn’t going to make any kind of cultural impact seems silly. Instead, I’d rather she talk about things that do matter and we can change, like how judgmental and cruel women can be to one another simply because we always see each other as competition.

How do you think the perception of single girls has changed over time? Or has it?

Well, contemporary society certainly didn’t invent the notion of a spinster or the idea of a single woman being lonely, damaged, or desperate. But when there were fewer opportunities for women, I think it was probably much easier to concentrate on finding and working on a good marriage. Yet our generation was told — or at least I was — that we had to have incredibly successful careers as well as successful marriages. And I know very few women who manage that but hundreds of men. Of course, we now also have millions of shows, blog posts, Op-Eds, Tumblr groups and what have you out there to perpetuate the idea that we should be able to have it all or that single women are pathetic. We put these cultural messages out there; I mean, if you think about The Real Housewives of New York, Bethenny was repeatedly called the “underdog” when she was single. Then she landed a husband and she’s the show’s great success story, off to her own series!

But I don’t really know why we have such a hard time making singlehood okay; maybe it’s threatening to a still patriarchal society that needs procreation in order to survive. Maybe it’s that no matter what we do, some women are always going to find fault with others for their choices.

How do you think we can change the way single women are perceived?

I think we can all work on being open to one another’s choices. And look, I’m as much a part of the problem as anyone because I judge the shit out of women who are perfectly capable of working but instead rely on their husbands entirely — especially when they try to make a big show out of their “work” when really it’s some dilettante-ish thing their husband is funding. And the truth is I judge them because I’m jealous, on a certain level. A part of me wants to have a man say, “Honey, don’t worry about the money. How about you try making that scrapbooking business idea a reality? You’ll have my full support.” Yet ever since I’ve become aware of the fact that my judgment is based on jealousy, I’ve been trying to curb it — by reminding myself that I don’t know what these women’s lives are like, that I don’t know what they’ve traded or had to swallow and that maybe it’s a lot more challenging than anything I do. And with awareness, couldn’t we all — even the Smug Marrieds — stop congratulating ourselves so much and in turn finding fault with the way other women are living?

Is it a failing of the feminist movement that we haven’t been able to move past this?

Yes, in a way I do see this as a failure of the feminist movement because it’s something we can change and we don’t need men to help us. And it’s about spreading positivity rather than negativity. I mean, I get that anger is often required in order to make a difference, but when certain women make the same arguments over and over again about how there aren’t enough women allowed in one field or another, I just don’t know how effective it is. Most people subconsciously tune out those who sound angry because they assume the people aren’t being rational — that’s a psychological fact. And sometimes those arguments fall into that category. Of course, what I’m talking about isn’t something you write an Op Ed or create a Tumblr group about and then hope men change but actual humble efforts of self-examination and trying to change ourselves, which is arguably the most challenging thing in the world.

What was the most important thing you learned from the journey you took in this book?

It was that I had to stop defining my life based on what the world seemed to think it should be. I love my parents but I was definitely raised by people who have very specific ideas about How Things Are Done and love was sort of doled out based on how “successful” you were. I spent years trying to please them and not succeeding and then very much took that attitude into the world; I was going to succeed at this life game if it was the last thing I did. But in growing up like that and then continuing to be that way, I’d neglected to really ever ask myself what did I want? What made mehappy? And really hitting an emotional bottom and then deciding to devote my life to the principles of a book from the ’60s forced me to get to a place where I could really start to question what I’d always valued and to build a life that involved more than just creating a bright, shiny career. Maybe it would have happened anyway — maybe this is just the place I’m at in my life — but I came to realize I could change those things I didn’t like and learn to really love what I did.

Can we ever balance our seemingly innate yearning for love with, well, all the other things we have to do in our lives — careers, friendships, and the general pursuit of fabulousness that seems to be required of modern womanhood?

It’s definitely possible. I think it takes a certain emotional maturity that I’m only now beginning to feel like I possess. But we have to make sacrifices and give up certain fantasies. The fact is, I know only two married women with incredibly successful careers and in both cases, the husband essentially agreed to remain entirely subordinate — to either give up his career entirely or to just do it more as a hobby. I think a lot of Type A women want a Type A man but most of the Type A men seem to want yes-women. This idea a lot of women have about having it all — the big life, the great career, the successful husband, the group of friends, the fabulousness — is, I think, a fantasy. And somehow doing my book taught me that that’s okay, that it’s not about doing or having it all but being happy with what you have.

What’s the biggest problem with the way we approach sex today versus the Sex and the Single Girl days?

I think we’re as confused about sexual mores as we’ve ever been. Back in Helen’s day, girls either slept around or didn’t and most didn’t. But we were raised at a post-women’s revolution time, where we were told that liberated women could do whatever they wanted. And yet we were raised by women who’d come of age during Helen’s time so that message, to me anyway, always came out contorted or conflicted. Just because we have the Pill and the freedom to do whatever we want sexually, that doesn’t mean we’re always going to feel great about it. I’ve felt ashamed or like I did too much or like I shouldn’t have done something after many sexual experiences and I think many women feel an intrinsic level of shame when they have sex outside of a committed relationship. The fact is, sex is still, on some level, something women give and men take and we act like it’s not — like we’re liberated and everyone’s in the same boat. We’re not. And in many ways I think it was healthier when female sexuality was regarded as more of a gift — when it wasn’t so easily accessible. Until the day that a man could be called a slut and it would be viewed as something other than a compliment — a day I don’t really foresee coming — I believe the way we view and approach sex will be screwed up. I also think that while sex is everywhere — porn stars like Jenna Jameson and Sacha Grey have broken out into the mainstream, Kardashian-wear is sweeping the nation — our society is still so repressed. We’ll worship these sort of déclassé examples of female sexuality but won’t have open, honest communication about sex. And then everyone’s so shocked when wealthy golf players and politicians are embroiled in sex scandals. I actually have one section of my book that’s sexually very graphic and a few months ago, I panicked: called my editor and asked if we could take those six pages out. It was too late as it turned out, but my sudden shame wasn’t about me — I’d written the pages, after all, not to mention had the experiences I documented — but about how other people would judge me. And I think that if we as a society were as open and honest about sex as I wish we were, I wouldn’t have been so scared of that.

Feminist Dating Dilemmas

datingdilemmas1After our “How to Be a Feminist Boyfriend” post sparked its share of debate, we realized how ripe for discussion this intersection of politics and personal life is. Just goes to show that heterosexual dating is an endless minefield in a world that’s otherwise pretty clear-cut when it comes to implementing feminism. (In areas like the workplace and the law, strict equality is the standard; in relationships, where power dynamics constantly switch, some of us like to be tied up in bed, and, in any case, we need men, by definition, it’s a little bit more fraught.) To that end, we offer up some thoughts on more specific situations a feminist can find herself in — and our thoughts about how to approach them, many culled from previous posts on related topics. As always, these are just suggestions — feel free to offer up your own. (We know you will!)

Dilemma #1: You want sex, and he doesn’t. This sounds straightforward, but can get tricky in the heat of the moment because we’re so socialized to believe men always want sex that it’s hard not to take their moods — or lack thereof — personally. We hope, however, that you’d give his headache the same respect you’d expect for yours. In fact, he might even be trying to spice things up or preserve a little mystery by holding back; a night off here and there is a compliment, not a curse. Though if this goes on for too long, a talk is probably in order — either you or he or both of you may have your signals crossed.

Dilemma #2: He wants things in bed that you don’t.
Man, Third Wave feminism is confusing, isn’t it? We’re supposed to be constantly breaking through our hangups to explore vast expanses of new sexual territory to take advantage of all that our foremothers fought for … or something … right? And yet, we might just not be that into having a threesome or making a sex video or anal. Stop trying to figure out why you don’t like some stuff — we all get to just not like stuff. Sure, give it a chance if you’re iffy about it and he’s dying to do it, but if something really makes you uncomfortable, draw the line. Not doing so can be the beginning of the end of any relationship.

Dilemma #3: Your insurance sucks and you’re paying hundreds of dollars a year — or even a month — for contraception that keeps both of you safe. Yeah, we’re still harping on this; ask him to pay half!

Dilemma #4: The paying-for-dinner thing. This caused a lot of discussion on our message boards last time we mentioned it; we’ll try to clear that up here. In short, equality absolutely means sharing costs in a relationship, no doubt about it. (“Sharing” can be different for every couple and evolve over time based on how much each partner makes, etc. But that’s between you and your partner.) There are men out there who like to use feminism as a way to duck that first dinner check completely; there are women out there who never offer to pay a dime. We think both of those kinds of people are wrong. Ladies, always offer to pay or split the check. If you find over time that you’re the only one ever picking up the tab, and you don’t want to, say something or ditch the guy for good. And, it should be said, this works the other way around, too. Some women like to be “taken care of,” but it’s important not to feel constantly indebted to the man in your life. Also, it’s just more fair.

Dilemma #5: He badmouths feminism. Too many of us have been on that first date where the guy makes some derogatory reference to what boner-killers “those feminists” are. Let us hope you never give him a second date. Let us hope further that you tell him why. We wish we had. We were young then. We’re sorry.