This is the flip side of the cliche that women have to civilize men to make them marriage material. Because being a civilizing influence means your husband gets to be the fun one, you have to nag him to do the dishes (like the sitcoms so many conservatives freak out about).
Consider, for example, the unfunny, unromantic rom-com Knocked Up. As Meghan O’Rourke says in Slate, Seth Green is out for a good time until the prospect of parenting with Katherine Heigl forces him to shape up and grow up. Green is nervous about giving up his fun times; Heigl’s Alison and her sister “are entirely concerned with pragmatic issues. We never see Alison or her older sister, Debbie, pursue or express her own creative impulses, sense of humor, independent interests; their rather instrumental concerns lie squarely in managing to balance the domestic with the professional. It’s as if women’s inner worlds are entirely functional rather than playful and open.”
Or consider the odious Sean Connery film A Fine Madness. Connery, playing a selfish jerk — er, a rule-breaking free spirit — has no use for fidelity, monogamy, day jobs or consideration for others. His wife (Joanne Woodward) labors at a waitress job to support him so he can finish his poetic masterpiece. At the end, it’s clear that due to Woodward getting herself pregnant (the movie doesn’t use the phrase but that’s the tone), Connery’s jackass will be tied down to domesticity and supporting a child. We’re supposed to feel sorry for him, not Woodward for being stuck with him.
Or the novel The Warded Man, where the primary function of women is to grumble about how men keep going off on adventures instead of staying behind to raise a family. Women in specfic have often been portrayed as dream-wreckers, as The Hathor Legacy website says about the 1930s short story He That Hath Wings, about a man who can fly, but sacrifices the skies to marry a woman who slowly drains the joy away. As the Hathor Legacy says, “his wife is the personification of Society and Expectations and Domesticity. She’s his golden prison.”).
Underlying this USC is the assumption that women really don’t aspire to anything but marriage. It’s their end goal, their dream, the be-all and end-all of everything for them. They lose nothing, men give up their freedom. Writer Tracy McMillan made that point in a godawful HuffPo article some years back entitled Why You’re Not Married (I’m not giving her any clicks but you can google it). McMillan assumes that women just have to get married, the way lemmings supposedly rush into the sea and drown. Marriage, as McMillan paints it, sounds kind of sucky: “You’re just going to need to get rid of the idea that marriage will make you happy. It won’t. Once the initial high wears off, you’ll just be you, except with twice as much laundry” but she’s convinced her single readers are so desperate to get a ring they’ll happily trade it for a life as live-in laundress, maid and cook.
Yet at the same time, McMillan says this is fair because men are the ones who pay a price for marriage, as it “involves sacrificing their most treasured possession — a free-agent penis — and for us, it’s the culmination of a princess fantasy so universal, it built Disneyland.”
The possibility that women like having free agent private parts does not occur to her. Or she ignores it to make her point (a TV writer in her fifties has to be pretty blind not to have noticed some women do, in fact, enjoy sex without commitment).
And it didn’t occur to Edmond Hamilton, author of He That Hath Wings (which I still think is an excellent story), or other male authors of that era. As The Hathor Legacy puts it, they didn’t grasp “that perhaps the women who tempted the Davids of the world into marriage (seemingly against their will) and tamed their wild sides…well, maybe those young women had wings of their own, or wanted them, and the last thing they wanted was to have a man latched onto them, and were as trapped by societal expectations as any male was.”
I made the same mistake in some of my earlier writing. I think I’m doing better now. I certainly hope I’m right.
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