[As we enter the month of weddings, this week I’ll feature a series on interesting, relatively unknown, and meaningful American lovers, fictional and real.]
On some of the idealized and the more realistic depictions of love and marriage in our contemporary popular culture.
It’s been said by literary scholars that one of the origin points for the realistic novel, in the mid-19th century, was when authors began seeing marriage as the starting point for, rather than the endpoint of, their novels. Obviously literary history is a good deal more complex than that, but it’s certainly interesting to note the overarching shift from novels that end with variations on “Reader, I married him” to those in which unhappy marriages form a core plot device, and the ways in which individuals and societies respond to them a core element for characterization, setting, and theme. Yet it’s more accurate still to say that the realistic novel allowed for these different narratives—of marriage as a romantic ideal and of it as a practical reality—to co-exist in literary texts; one of the greatest American novels about marriage, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899), focuses on the conflict of precisely those different narratives in its central character’s perspective, identity, and communities.
While our 21st century popular culture has become so expansive that it’d be foolish for even the most daring American Studier to argue for any dominant threads, I’d certainly argue that this conflict between idealized and romanticized images vs. realistic and practical depictions of love and marriage continues to form a core theme for our cultural texts and conversations. I’m not sure if I can think of any romantic comedy film, for example, that doesn’t end with either the marriage of its focal couple or at least the sense that said couple is moving in that direction; at the very least, the arc of every romantic comedy depends on us rooting for the couple to overcome the obstacles that life (often aided by themselves) throws their way and achieve that happy ending. At the same time, some of the most successful and awarded independent films in recent years have depicted with brutal and unflinching honesty the hardest realities of married life—I’m thinking in particular of the at times almost unwatchably painful Blue Valentine (2010), with its non-chronological structure that contrasts Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling’s romantic young love with their disintegrating marriage.
If contemporary films tend to focus on one narrative of marriage or the other, television provides for a different possibility, one more akin to the realistic (and, specifically, the serial) novel: the opportunity to present both ideals and realities of love and marriage within a single text. Since the birth of my older son in December 2005 I’ve watched exactly two shows that don’t feature talking animals or adorable preschoolers, and neither of those (24 and Lost) spent too much time depicting married couples; but I get the sense that many of the best-received and most enduring recent shows have indeed had such complex couples at their core: The Sopranos, Friday Night Lights, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and more. Even some of the best-loved sitcoms of the last couple decades have relied heavily on couples at once hugely realistic and yet ultimately idealized: Marge and Homer Simpson, Ross and Rachel (and eventually Monica and Chandler), Jim and Pam, and many more. In each case, there’s a great deal to be said about the portrayals of love and marriage on their own terms—but I’d also stress how fully they consistently depend on an audience’s interest in the best and worst of marriage, on the romantic ideals for which we all still strive and the more realistic lives that we all come to inhabit.
Changing gears this week with the next guest post! See you then,
PS. What do you think?
6/8 Memory Day nominee: Frank Lloyd Wright, the architect, designer, writer and philosopher, educator, and American legend whose legacies have informed countless aspects of contemporary society and life.