Mad Vow Disease

I’ve neglected this blog for a couple of months now. Mainly because I am trying to finish off my Master’s thesis.

But I want to get back into the discipline of regular posting. So to begin here’s an excerpt from a talk I gave recently about media naratives of same sex marriage. I’ll post some more over the next few weeks because it’s obviously a red hot issue at the moment. Lesbian comedian Kate Clinton recently called it a bad case of mad vow disease!

In the piece below I take a step back and ask what is the general way that marraige is portrayed in the media.

My initial explorations would suggest that the two dominant media stories about marriage present it as either a fantasy or as a social problem. It is either a fairy tale romance of a princess or movie star or it is a story about divorce rates, the problems of working mothers or child custody battles.

There is also a third narrative about marriage, which is part of a wider discourse, that I will call the “new world” or the “new adventure”. It includes articles like one in the Melbourne Age (2/10/03) that explored couples who are also business partners or an article from the Good Weekend (1/2/03) that explored new extended families, where the new and old families of divorced partners – including both sets of ex-partners and their new partners – form a friendly relational unit. This is part of the wider media discourse about emerging social trends and the advent of a “new world”. It is partly utopic and partly dystopic and thus embraces elements of both the fantasy and problem narratives of marriage. This story about new forms of social organization is where narratives of gay marriage intersect with the general media stories about marriage.

In the single biggest media story of a marriage in recent times: the story of Diana of Wales, we can see the intersection of all three marriage story types. It was, at different points in its trajectory, presented as both a fairytale and a problem and was also played out against a story of changing social forms in regard to marriage, the monarchy and the media.

In recent times we have seen the emergence of another princess fairytale in the news. On 9 October 2003 Sydney Morning Herald – and most other Australian papers – led with the story of Mary Donaldson the real estate agent from Tasmania and her engagement to Prince Fredrick of Denmark.

The keynote of the stories published about Donaldson over the weeks surrounding the announcement was the motif of “transformation”: of a commoner into a princess, of an English speaker into a Danish speaker, of a woman fond of “sporty” attire into a wearer of haute couture.

These stories clearly represent an institutional discourse about marriage even when this is cloaked by the fantasy of the lucky princess. This is nowhere clearer than in the stories that have emphasised that “her main job” in the immediate future will be to bear an heir.

The headline of the main announcement story (SMH 9/11/03) is revealing: “Danes denied a kiss but still love Aussie Mary”. This is a romance without visible passion.

In the same issue of the Herald another power couple were featured: victorious Californian Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and his wife Maria Shriver. If anyone was in doubt that this was an American dream sprung to life you only had to listen to Schwarzenegger’s victory script: “I came here with absolutely nothing and California has given me absolutely everything. I want to be the people’s governor”, Schwarzenegger said. He called for support to make “the tough choices ahead” so that “together we can make this again the greatest state in the greatest country in the world”. (SMH 9/10/03)

Shriver is an integral part of that dream. She comes with Kennedy family pedigree and thus links this story with the Kennedy story, with the Camelot myth, with the story of Jack and Jackie.

But this is not really about romance, it is about a pragmatic alliance. The “telegenic and politically astute” Shriver as one report (SMH 9/10/03) called her, is an important part of Arnold’s political strategy. He makes this clear in his thank you speech. The report continues:

Mr Schwarzenegger fought back against the groping allegations with the help of his wife, who is recognised as a talented television journalist. Ms Shriver was the first person the actor thanked for his victory. He told her in front of his supporters: “I know how many votes I got today because of you.” (SMH 9/10/03)

If Shriver’s relationship to the Kennedy’s immediately summons up the vestiges of the dream of Camelot, this defence of her husband immediately summons up another contemporary political marriage: that of Hilary and Bill.

If in the story of Fredrick and Mary we see the fantasy meeting the institution with Schwarzenegger and Shriver we see the dream meeting pragmatism.

What is strikingly obvious from both these examples is the extent to which current media discourse on marriage is still embroiled in traditional narratives of gender and linked directly to other narratives of political power.

Marriage itself is a narrative ritual act. The form it takes is a story that two people tell to one another as a sign of their commitment: to love and to cherish, in sickness and in health, till death do we part.

This story is told in the context of a particular national and particular institutional setting, it is told against the stories of others who have been married before, and it is a story that often contains both dream and pragmatics, both fantasy and problematics, romance and politics.

It is in this context of an institution that is at once idealised and problematised that we need to situate any discussion of same sex marriage.