The movie was nothing special: a scheduling glitch turns best friends Anne Hathaway and Kate Hudson into enemies when their weddings at the Plaza Hotel end up falling on the same day; after ruining each other’s ceremonies, in the end, they reconcile. At around the same time I saw the movie, the New York legislature was voting to legalize gay “marriage,” which made me take the film a bit more seriously than I might have otherwise. (And probably more seriously than the film deserved.)
One line in particular struck me as off. As they sit giggling and awed in her office, famed wedding planner Marion St. Claire (Candice Bergen) tells the brides-to-be, “A wedding marks the first day of the rest of your lives.”
The line rang a false note because both of the future brides were already living with their boyfriends, and had been for some time, so it was hard to see what was going to change so radically in their lives. For both of the women, the wedding itself—the party and ceremony and dresses and flowers and location—was what really mattered, not any change in lifestyle or family structure.
Of course, the characters in the movie were caricatures, whipping all the sparkles and froth that come with a wedding into comic obsession, but the attitudes underlying the exaggeration are real. Over lunch several months ago a Jesuit priest was talking about preparing a couple for marriage; they asked what an appropriate donation to the church would be. When he suggested that they give the same amount of money they were spending on flowers, they blanched. “That much?” they said. We are willing to pay more for what we value more.
David Brooks devotes the first chapter of his insightful book Bobos in Paradise to weddings, noting that the trend in bobo weddings (those of the educated upper-middle class) is toward idiosyncrasy, the more exotic the better. It’s now a social obligation to be more creative than the next couple. Brooks notes a trend since the 1960s toward composing one’s own vows:
The people who used the traditional vows were making a connection to the generations that had come before, taking their place in a great chain of custom. The people who wrote their own vows were expressing their individuality and their desire to shape institutions to meet individual needs.
Setting aside the irony that obligatory individuality is itself a form of social conformity, what Brooks is getting at, and what a silly film like Bride Wars reveals, is what I believe is the basic difference between the two side of the gay “marriage” debate: the question of whether marriage is an objective or subjective good.
It’s first perhaps necessary to diffuse the poisonous charge that traditional marriage is “discriminatory,” though this comes up even in mainstream media sources. Marriage is a privileged institution; in recognizing marriage, the state is providing a subsidy to those who enter into that institution. Such subsidies—which range from tax benefits to a certain (dwindling) social prestige—are meant to encourage a certain type of behavior. The charge of discrimination is nonsensical because a privilege, by definition, only goes to some people and not to others; the real question in the marriage debate is, what sort of behavior should the state be encouraging?
It should come as no surprise that those who have ethical objections to homosexual behavior do not want to subsidize it, but it is grossly unfair to accuse them of discrimination, a charge which could not be more corrosive of civil debate and public discourse. Their position is merely that of tolerance, neither punishing nor rewarding homosexual relationships.
States choose to subsidize marriage because of the social goods that come out of the institution. The primary social good coming out of marriage is, of course, children. Our society’s attitude toward children is sadly not as welcoming as it should be, with children seen by many as a burden, a drain on resources, almost a threat. Nonetheless, without children no society has a future—a sentence so obvious I would be reluctant to write it if it were not so patently forgotten in our “culture wars.”
I should probably address another objection one commonly hears around this point in the debate, even though I don’t think it a particularly good one. What about sterile couples or those who choose not to have children? The answer to this objection is that in recognizing marriage, the state is not endorsing particular relationships; legislators do not take a vote on every couple applying for a marriage license to determine if their relationship will provide society with social goods that merit subsidy. In recognizing marriage, the state is subsidizing an institution, not a string of relationships. To use an imperfect analogy, the state may encourage the institution of public libraries because of the social goods—a better educated populace—they provide, even though some people go to public libraries just to use the air conditioning in the summer, not to become better educated. Besides, even childless couples contribute in some way to the primary good of marriage by entering into and living in the type of relationship in which children are generally produced and ideally raised.
Implicit in the argument for gay marriage is the move away from marriage as an objectively defined social institution with definite goods and toward the idea of “marriage” as any relationship that provides me with subjective goods: feelings of being loved, some notion—in our civil law, rather weak—of stability and commitment, sexual satisfaction, and the like. In this way of looking at the issue, I define how I want to live, and civil marriage amounts to state validation of my decision.
I would argue that what a movie like Bride Wars demonstrates is that the problematic attitudes underlying the push for gay marriage have already taken root deeply in general societal attitudes toward marriage. As marriage has come to mean less and less objectively—a wedding no longer signifies a change in lifestyle, since couples are already living together; nor a permanent commitment, since divorce is as much norm as exception; nor even an openness to children—people have tried to load the old forms of marriage with greater subjective, often sentimental, weight. Gay marriage represents a threat to traditional marriage, not because of what it is in itself—because heterosexuals will somehow be lured away from their heterosexuality—but because it represents state endorsement of what is already a faulty understanding of the nature and goods of marriage.
The tremendous social consequences of the breakdown of the traditional family mean that, win or lose, the fight for traditional marriage is worth waging. Perhaps, however, in order to be effective, the field of battle needs to be broadened beyond gay “marriage.”