Marriage is not in style. That’s the word from The New York Times, whose editors recently announced the Grey Lady’s “Weddings” section is now going to “tell stories of commitments that are not necessarily associated with marriage.”
In an interview with her colleagues, the Weddings editor, Charanna Alexander, explained the change: “What we’ve been seeing is that a lot of people are not getting married and are not committing in that traditional sense. But they are starting families, and they are creating homes together in a different way. We want to explore that: What does it mean to be committed in 2022?”
To be honest, the Weddings section has been a kind of outlier for years. The rest of the Times has gone all-in on celebrating the liberation of divorce and the joys of polyamory. Just this week, a columnist responded to a mother who disapproves of her daughter bringing along her married boyfriend on their vacation. The mother is told to “respect” her daughter’s choices, “read up on polyamory” and be more “open-minded.” Another column touts the benefits the author derives from living downstairs from her soon-to-be ex-husband and his new girlfriend.
The Times says that it is getting fewer announcements of weddings, and so in some sense, I guess, it is merely following the news. But the Weddings section has never been about the news exactly. It was always covering a certain elite segment of society — the famous, educated, wealthy and powerful — people who continue to get married at surprisingly high rates.
While it’s true there has been a significant decline in marriage among the bottom quintile of earners in America — dropping from 60% in 1979 to 38% in 2018 — the top quintile has remained remarkably steady, going from 82% to 80% in the same period. In other words, by publishing wedding announcements, the Times was accurately reporting on what its readers do and aspire to do. The editors were preaching what they practiced.
It’s also true the Times expanded its coverage in various ways over the years, giving more coverage to same-sex weddings and oversampling weddings that added to the section’s racial and ethnic diversity. There were some brief glimpses of couples without Ivy League degrees — “parents like a union electrician, a retired firefighter and even a courier have popped up beside orthopedic surgeons and authors,” as the Times explained in a defense of the section in 2009.
But the truth is that there was never very much class diversity in these announcements. While I’m not blaming the Times for the fall of marriage among working-class Americans, the newspaper has certainly done everything in its power to tell its audience (including politicians, policymakers and educators) that marriage doesn’t matter, that it’s an antiquated institution serving only to subjugate women and keeping both men and women from living out their most authentic lives.
Opening up the wedding section to other types of commitments — people who decide to move in together, or co-parent, or consciously and serially couple and decouple, or who engage in polygamy or polygyny or polyamory or who marry themselves or their pets — will of course entertain Times readers. There will be plenty of clicks on these outré arrangements. Meanwhile, the vast majority of the newspaper’s readers will continue down the traditional path of an actual marriage with a real wedding ceremony, some basic vows and some clear expectations for long-term, even permanent, commitment.
Instead of giving readers an accurate picture of what marriage looks like in the 21st century — marriage that it is commonly practiced among the middle and upper classes to ensure their children’s success and that it is celebrated as a way to strengthen families and communities — the editors will demote it to one among many interesting arrangements. Instead of telling them about the implications of divorce or single parenthood or group parenthood for children’s social, emotional and economic outcomes, the editors will pretend that marriage is a choice that only matters for the individuals entering into it.
Doing so will send a message to readers — and the rest of the public — that marriage is unnecessary. It will be a little secret of success that the elites continue to hold while the lower classes fail to understand its importance.
If the Times were truly interested in the egalitarianism it touts, it would highlight the actual weddings of people from across the economic spectrum.
Or better yet, it would also offer a new column called “Twenty Years Later,” in which we learn about the lives of children who were born into those marriages featured in the section, and how they continue to thrive thanks to a very particular kind of commitment their parents made.