Call me old-fashioned, but when a man gets down on his knee and talks about building a life together, I expect to hear the words, "Will you marry me?" at the end of the sentence.
That's why I found myself genuinely confused last week while watching the ABC hit-drama Parenthood. The episode revolves around the blossoming relationship between Jasmine — a single mother of a little boy Jabbar — and a handsome, caring, successful pediatrician, Dr. Joe, who is longing for a settled, family life. As the show opens Joe is showing Jasmine pictures of houses, and when he comes to one on a cul de sac he wonders aloud, "Wouldn't it be a wonderful place for a kid to grow up?" He then leans in, earnestly declaring that he wants nothing more than to be with Jasmine and Jabbar. The music builds as he talks about them making a "big step," and — misty-eyed — Dr. Joe asks Jasmine to, ah…move in with him.
Clearly marriage is seen as less necessary for women today than in the past. Women are educated, financially independent, and in control of conception. As Kate Bolick tells us, marriage isn't for everyone and being single doesn't bear the stigma it once did; and as Eric Klineberg reveals in Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, contrary to what we may think, single people tend to be more socially engaged and civic-minded.
Still there's something strange about two adults who are committed to a monogamous relationship, desire a deep and indefinite commitment to one another and a child, sharing an emotional moment over the prospect of moving in with each other. At best, it seems complicated (do you have a joint bank account?); and at worst it suggests that we've come to take marriage so lightly that now even people committed to spending the rest of their lives together are unwilling to tie the knot.
No longer is it enough for the writers of popular entertainment to question marriage (Sex in the City), be down on marriage (The Good Wife) or spotlight being single (New Girl); at times they seem driven to ignore the very existence of the institution.
The scene in Parenthood between Joe and Jasmine was merely one of the more discordant examples of a new pop culture trend: proposal farce — a proposal to do something other than marry, while pretending the activity connotes the commitment of getting married.
And, in fact, Parenthood did a proposal farce double hitter last week. Another character in the show, Sarah, is a 40-year old, divorced mother-of-two, dating a much younger man. Despite Sarah's sensible concern that their steep age difference may be the relationship's Achilles heel, the couple decides to demonstrate their love and loyalty to each other by (not getting married and) having a baby.
While this may be the writers' logical next step in a developing relationship, it struck me as jarring. Why the complete disregard for marriage? These scenes are not simply anti-tradition; they are confusing. Entertainment is literally writing the institution of marriage out of existence.
Radical feminism began by simply devaluing or attacking marriage. Gender feminists of the 1960s and '70s viewed marriage as inherently unjust. If they failed to undermine the concept of marriage — and romance and courtship to boot! — the myth of "domestic contentment" would continue to lure women into an oppressive existence. Betty Friedan went so far as to draw comparisons between marriage and the Nazi Holocaust, explaining how the suburban dream was "burying" women "alive" as if in a "concentration camp." Harsh and hysterical perhaps, but at least they recognized the reality of marriage as an institution. Today's anti-marriage is more like cultural anti-matter that eliminates the problematic concept altogether instead of interacting with it.
Marriage may not always be perfect, but according to a new Pew Research study, real men and women continue to value it. In fact, Pew finds adults place a greater emphasis on parenting and marriage than on "material items," with 85 percent of respondents reporting that having a successful marriage is one of the most important things in their life. Across ages, adults place far more weight on marriage and parenting than on professional success.
What's more, while Hollywood may want to write marriage out of the script, there are well-known and serious costs associated with the decline in marriage. In fact, numerous recent studies (see "The Specter of Divorce" out of Cornell University) and books (see Kay Hymowitz's Marriage and Caste in America and Charles Murray's newest tome Coming Apart:The State of White America, 1960-2010) have examined the deepening marriage gap in lower socio-economic brackets and the cultural and political ramifications of this trend.
Lost love, moving in together, and having children out of wedlock might make for compelling television. But marriage is real, widely aspired to, and yields many significant benefits for individuals and society. We are in a truly depressing and dangerous place when pop culture refuses to even acknowledge that marriage is an option.