When I was a young waiter, hanging out with some fellow waiters, the topic of marriage came up. One of them, a Pakistani named Aziz, told us he had an arranged marriage. In typical American fashion, we were appalled — horrified by the idea that someone would choose our spouse for us.
“Everyone here wants to choose who they marry, then it doesn’t work out,” he shrugged. In a moment of stunned silence we realized that Aziz was right. Setting aside the pros and cons of arranged marriage, in the United States today, there’s no question that the institution of marriage is on the rocks.
Roughly half of U.S. marriages end in divorce. In late 2014, the Pew Research Center released fresh data on marriage, revealing that 20 percent of adults in 2012 had never been married, compared to nine percent of never married adults back in 1960.
As the ranks of unmarried adults hit an all-time high, those surveyed revealed a surprising indifference towards marriage itself. 50 percent said that society is just as well off if people have priorities other than marriage and children. 45 percent said they’re either not sure if they want to get married, or they don’t want to get married at all.
Of their reasons for not being married, 95 percent of the singletons claimed they haven’t found someone with the qualities that they’re looking for in a spouse. Have we created a culture of impossibly high romantic expectations? Or are other forces keeping all those knots untied?
In the landmark PBS series and best-selling book The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell discusses the spiritual aspect of marriage that our modern society has all but forgotten.
“When you make the sacrifice in marriage, you’re sacrificing not to each other but to unity in a relationship,” he says. “Marriage is not a simple love affair, it’s an ordeal, and the ordeal is the sacrifice of ego to a relationship in which two have become one.”
Yet we seldom promote, or even discuss, the idea of sacrifice in our contemporary American culture. Our modern myths, the stories and messages that inundate us from film, television, and advertising, present both unrealistic images of marriage, and messages that work against the ideal of marriage as a spiritual union.
My college students are especially drawn to Campbell’s ideas on marriage, and I regularly poll them on what they’ve been raised to do and believe. The young women say they’re in college to get a good education to get a good career so they won’t need to rely on anyone (a man) for their financial security.
Many of them are surprised to learn that 50 years ago, the main reason that many women went to college was to meet a husband. Once married, they became full-time wives and mothers, dependent on their husbands for financial support.
We all know that this didn’t always work out, so it’s both a practical and admirable goal for women to aim for financial independence. At the same time, 78 percent of never married women surveyed in 2014 stated that finding a spouse with a steady job was “very important” to them — proving that old ideas die hard.
Despite their goals of financial independence, the young women in my classes unanimously admit that they’ve been raised since childhood to fantasize about their wedding day as “the most important day of their life.” Bridal themed toys are marketed to girls from age 3 on up, and for nearly 80 years, Disney films have promoted the idea that finding your prince and getting married equals living “happily ever after.”
Further stoking the coals of this fairy tale wedding fetish is the wildly popular Disney Princesses line of dolls, toys and costumes, many of which feature the pantheon of Disney heroines in bridal gowns – including those who are never shown getting married in the original films.
Even a modern Disney heroine like Mulan, whose primary goal is not to look for love but to defend her country, is now depicted as a bridal icon. The fiery Merida in Brave spends the entire movie resisting her parents’ attempts to marry her off. Yet sites including girlgames.com now feature a “Merida Wedding Dress Up Game.”
Disney now offers grown women the chance to transfer their childhood obsession with fairy tale weddings into their actual wedding. With Alfred Angelo’s line of Disney inspired wedding gowns, women can evoke Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, and Tiana on “the most important day of their life.”
The most anti-Disney heroine, Elsa from Frozen, wisely tells her younger sister, “You can’t marry a man you just met,” and she has no love interest at all. Yet she too has inspired an Angelo wedding gown. (Potential grooms may want to think twice if their bride-to-be’s role model is an ice queen.)
Disney films and romantic comedies give young women a tremendous amount of information on how to get a guy and marry him. But our modern mythology offers them almost no information on what to do the day after the wedding, or in the years to come.
The messages that bombard young men through advertising are even more contradictory to the ideals required for a successful marriage. When I ask my male students to name ads that target them, they immediately mention Axe body spray. For decades, these ads, aimed at pubescent boys, show a typically geeky young guy who sprays himself with Axe and is instantly pursued by billions of hot young women. Not one, billions.
Beer ads have used images of sexy women for more than a century to entice their male market, yet the myth of the beer commercial remains constant. When the guy orders the right beer, he’s instantly surrounded by multiple hot young women. Not one, multiple. In Dos Equis’ “Most Interesting Man in the World” ads, when he orders the right beer he’s surrounded by multiple hot women — who are 30 years his junior.
Car ads are predominantly aimed at men as well. While many of these ads show the guy’s car attracting the attention of hot girls, nearly all of the ads show images of a car speeding down the highway, through the desert, around mountains, or over rough terrain. The myth of the car commercial is: buy this car and you get freedom!
By the time a young man today reaches his early to mid 20’s, when men traditionally began thinking of marriage, he’s been inundated with subliminal messages that if he uses the right body spray or buys the right beer, he can have multiple women. If he buys the right car, he can have unlimited freedom with no responsibilities. Both of those fantasies are in direct conflict with the attitudes required of a loyal, committed husband.
Young women are bombarded by conflicting messages that they must become independent enough to not need a man, as they’re encouraged from childhood to fantasize about having the perfect wedding. This fantasy fuels both anxiety and some very bad bridal behavior, gleefully depicted on nine seasons of the reality TV show Bridezillas, where each bride constantly insists that it’s her day, and her wedding – with nary a mention of the man she’s planning to marry.
Many factors contribute to our changing attitudes towards marriage, from the absence of stigma once associated with unmarried couples living together, to the social acceptability of divorce. But the subliminal messages of our popular mythology have the most powerful impact.
Traditional myths were created by each culture to provide guidelines of behavior and lessons in how to navigate life’s challenges. But the stories and images we absorb from our modern mythology are not created to guide people towards a harmonious life. They’re created to sell movie tickets, DVDs, toys, beer, cars, wedding gowns, and body spray.
Why do we not get messages about the importance of sacrifice in creating a lasting, fulfilling marriage? Because you can’t promote sacrifice to get people to buy stuff.
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Adam Sandel is a screenwriter, playwright, and journalist who lives in San Francisco. He teaches Literature, Critical Thinking, and Mythology and Folklore at De Anza College and Berkeley City College.
(featured image via kmichiels)
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