Many of us grew up thinking that being coupled with one person—and codifying that union through a government institution—was the ultimate expression of romance. But why do we continue to conform to traditional coupledom despite the data against it? In this episode, we discuss love and ambivalence with Laura Kipnis, author of Against Love and Love in the Time of Contagion. We’ll also hear from Jamie Passaro, a writer and editor based in Eugene, reading from her 2004 essay “Consider the Wedding.”
Laura Kipnis is a cultural critic, essayist, and former video artist whose work focuses on sexual politics, aesthetics, shame, emotion, acting out, moral messiness, and various other crevices of the American psyche. She is the author of seven books, including Love in the Time of Contagion: A Diagnosis (Pantheon, 2022).
Kipnis has published essays and reviews in the New York Review of Books, the Guardian, Slate, the Atlantic, Harper’s, Playboy, the New York Times Magazine, the New York Times Book Review, Bookforum, and New Left Review. She is professor emerita in the department of radio/television/film at Northwestern University.
- Watch our full conversation with Laura Kipnis from May 2022.
- Read an excerpt from Love in the Time of Contagion published by Lit Hub.
Jamie Passaro is a writer whose articles, interviews, and essays have been published in the New York Times, the Washington Post parenting blog, The Atlantic, Full Grown People, Utne Reader, and other places. She runs an obituary business called dear person and officiates the occasional wedding. She lives in Eugene.
- Jamie Passaro’s essay “Consider the Wedding” was published in the 2004 “Marriage” issue of Oregon Humanities magazine. It was republished in the Fall/Winter 2019 issue, “Retrospective.”
Other writing and programs on love, marriage, and ambivalence from Oregon Humanities:
- “The Rebirth of Wonder” by Tricia Gates Brown
- “Three Proposals, Two Weddings, and One Cow” by Jordan Marzka
- “Picture Their Hearts” by Dionisia Morales
- “Here, Not There” by Sarah Gilbert
Keiren Bond: Welcome to The Detour. I'm Keiren Bond, the show's producer, stepping in for Adam Davis this week. Today, we're talking about love and ambivalence with guests Laura Kipnis and Jamie Passaro.
Laura's sister sent her an invite to one of the most significant days in a person's life. She had hired a team to plan this big event, spent countless hours and even more dollars on it, and had invited Laura to be part of this special day. But Laura was skeptical. She didn't want to participate in this pageantry, in this performative social norm that Americans spend $60 billion on a year. You probably guessed it: Laura's sister was getting married.
Many of us grew up thinking that being coupled with one person for the rest of your life and, especially, codifying it through a government institution was the ultimate expression of romance. Through TV shows, films, and magazines, we learned —and learn— that marriage was our ticket to happily ever after. Our guest Laura Kipnis playfully calls this "propaganda." Laura is a cultural critic and essayist whose work focuses on sexual politics, aesthetics, shame, emotion, acting out, moral messiness, and various other crevices of the American psyche.
Her 2003 book, Against Love, was meant to be social satire that ended up being a self-help book for those of us caught between the dream of traditional coupledom and the tension of "This isn't what Disney told me it would be like." Laura has described marriage as a prison, "a premature cemetery of domestic coupledom." She's a satirist, remember.
Many of my friends and colleagues agree. Marriage is an antiquated institution with sexist roots that many of us feel hypocritical engaging in. But in my own case, I cry at weddings and proposal announcements, and add love songs to my wedding playlist should someone I love propose to me.
If you were coupled at the beginning of the pandemic, you had unknowingly chosen your apocalypse partner. COVID wreaked relationship carnage: marriages ended, families split. For those of you who are married, the pandemic challenged you to look inwards at the institution many of you enthusiastically entered into.
In this episode, we ask, Why do we continue to conform to traditional coupledom despite the data against it, despite our own ambivalence? I do want to hear your answer, which I'll ask at the end of the show.
Oregon Humanities' executive director, Adam Davis, sat down with Laura in May 2022 at the Alberta Rose Theater in Portland, Oregon.
Adam Davis: Do you remember what you felt at the last wedding that comes to mind?
Laura Kipnis: Well, I have a lot of mixed feelings about weddings, and I will say, to get confessional, that when my own sister got married, um, I just did not feel that I could be somebody who walked up an aisle. So I've never done that. And she and my family was understanding about it, but, I mean, I would just have felt like a kind of impersonator of myself to do that. So I am probably not the right person to ask these questions of.
Adam: To participate in the wedding or to be at a wedding or, or your memory?
Laura: Well, either, but I mean, I, I couldn't even walk up the aisle.
Adam: So that's what I want to ask you about.
Adam: Yeah. Like, why not? What, what makes it hard to walk up the aisle at a wedding?
Laura: Well to speak more generally, maybe take the focus a bit off of my, you know, personal anguish. Um, I, I mean, I think one of the things I've always written about is social norms, and I've been kind of a satirist of social norms while also at some level adhering to them.
And so, I mean, I do have this very complicated, convoluted relationship to the norm, and, you know, what is more norm establishing than a wedding? I mean, the ritual of it, the performing your love and relationship before an audience, before the community, you know, and the community is there to sanctify a relationship.
And so, you know, I get, I go through all those steps about it. So I can't have these unmixed feelings. So that's why.
Adam: Okay. Yeah. I mean, that's why I'm asking because you, because you write so much about love and marriage in, in a way that I find, like, I dog-eared, every page of Against Love, so much that the corners of the pages started falling off.
Laura: So you amputated the pages.
Adam: I amputated the pages in a way that—
Laura: You castrated them.
Adam: I hadn't thought about that. I hope it was just the pages. But the book is still inside me, so we'll see. In that book, you say at one point that, stories that get repeated and that keep showing up, are not repeated for no reason.
Laura: And jokes! Like marriage jokes that get repeated are not repeated for no reason.
Adam: And jokes usually, I think, sort of puncture marriage a little bit, but stories about love and love and marriage, it seems like. Can I ask if you were gonna caricature the sort of positive, not yet punctured story about love and marriage in this country, what would that story be?
Laura: But are there stories that aren't yet punctured?
I mean, one thing I would say as somebody that thinks a lot about social norms and, you know, one thing about Against Love, which I wrote maybe twenty years ago or so. I mean, it wasn't really against love. Um, because I, as I said against doesn't just mean being opposed to, it also means sort of up against, so it's one of those words that can mean itself and its opposite.
So that kind of pleased me, to be able to, you know, insert that kind of ambivalence, even in it, in the title of the book. But at the time that I wrote the book, which was maybe coming after the Clinton years, where adultery and his adulterous, you know, being was such a presence in American consciousness.
I think since that time, adultery, which was this kind of public way when politicians did it, that people were both like inside a marriage, but also fleeing the marriage. And I was interested in the way that that ambivalence was being played out publicly and on the national stage. But since that time, that kind of ambivalence seems to have become far more frowned on, you know, like adultery seems like it's far more of a crime than it once was, or that it was even a couple of decades ago.
So, sorry, this is a bit of a convoluted answer to your question, but I mean, there's just been this shift, I think, even since I wrote the book in the ways that people are allowed to, you know, express this multiplicity of relations to love publicly, you know, to rebel against it while also being kind of a proponent, as so many of those guys on figures on the right were, you know, like all the people on the Clinton impeachment committee—or not all of them, but quite a lot of them—turned out to be adulterers themselves, who were prosecuting Clinton for the affair with Monica Lewinsky.
So, you know, what I'm saying is there was so much ambivalence playing out publicly around the national stage, and these days, I think that those kinds of figures and, you know, in celebrity culture are just much more vilified than they were. So the norms—I mean, we seem to be living through weirdly far more normative times in terms of love and, you know, the ways that people participate in couples while also kind of trying to escape from them.
Adam: Yeah. Why would that be the case? I mean, why do you think people that are more ambivalent about love or marriage are more vilified now than they were 20 years ago? What's going on culturally, that's moving us that way?
Laura: There is, there is just this strain of cultural conservatism. And I mean, it certainly comes out in sexual mores. And you know, probably in the last decade, and certainly since #MeToo, there's a way that that kind of sexuality, I think it's coded as you know, predatory. I mean, particularly when it's exercised by men, but you know, women turn out to be able to be predators too. So, I mean, there's just much more sexual accusation and moral condemnation than I think there was even 20 years ago, 15 years ago.
Adam: Maybe we can stick with this a little bit as we wander to other things as well, but I guess, something you say in Love in the Time of Contagion is that, I think you quote Ralph Ellison, about how hard it is for us to know ourselves.
And then you say something like, but COVID has in a way been an incredible teacher, it's shown us things about ourselves. Has it shown us in particular about, say, ambivalence about love relationships, marital relationships? Has it like helped us see ourselves more clearly or has it, has it muddled things further?
Laura: Um, both. You know, that’s my answer to all those either/or questions. Yes. I mean, one of the things I did when I started writing this book, um, which was maybe in August 2020, so after the first six months or so of lockdown, and things had just opened up a little bit. I put this questionnaire online and asked people, like, how have your relationships faired during lockdown? And have you learned things about yourself or about your partner, about your relationship? And, um, you know, I did think of COVID as you know, in the same way that it put this microscope on the country and exposed, you know, things that were there all along—the inequalities, the collapse of, you know, our inequalities in the healthcare system, all of that.
I think that it put this microscope on our relationships, you know, whether you were in one officially, you know, uh, or not. I mean, I think, we were all kind of forced to examine our intimacies because that was, you know, something that was just suddenly, um, you know, everywhere, you had to, you had to think about it in different ways.
And I will just say to be autobiographical when I had written Against Love, I was not in any official way in a relationship, which made it kind of easy to write about coupled ambivalence. I didn't have to worry about anyone's feelings about it. You know, I could just be as scathing as I wanted.
This time around, I had been partnered—I mean, despite all of my ambivalence—for about the last decade, and then was confined to a one-bedroom Manhattan apartment for five months with this other person. We had lived separately our entire decade-long relationship. So, I mean, there certainly was a lot that was exposed, given the close confines, both, you know, little stuff like the gross stuff under the bathroom sink, but also, you know, the, the larger questions, you know, like how does this person respond to catastrophic events?
And that was something—you know, and what I was interested in learning from people with this questionnaire is, you know, if you had known that the apocalypse was coming, was this the person you would've wanted to be, you know, face the apocalypse with? Or did you learn things about the mate that you possibly knew, but didn't want to admit to yourself or didn't want to tell yourself?
And people were very, I think, interested in being handed the opportunity to have to reflect on, you know, in these answers, about what their lives had been in, you know, over six or seven months. And, and the answers were really kind of eloquent and moving in a lot of cases. And some people really had found that they loved their mate farm more and valued and were connected in ways they hadn't understood.
And other people were just, you know, fed up to death with the habits and the, you know, the things about the person like that they hadn't necessarily wanted to acknowledge what was going on.
Adam: First of all, that seems like a really strong question that maybe should be asked, even whether we have a pandemic or not.
Like there's something very serious about the way you put that question. Is this a person you want to spend a pandemic with? But I, kind of, while you were talking about people's responses to the question of how they were feeling about their partner, I was also hearing another question beneath that, which is: is this the kind of arrangement that most makes sense to face the apocalypse in?
Laura: Yeah. I mean, one of the things that was interesting were the people who were in situations that were, um, not the normal situations, like the third parties. You know, that situation, people who were then separated from a lover by distance or, you know, lockdown mandate.
Because that was one of the things I asked, like, had you been somebody that was having multiple relationships before lockdown and did that continue? And there were the people who were sneaking out and then there were the people who were not. So any non-normative kind of situation fared badly in, you know, under these circumstances.
Adam: Which again, feels like an exaggerated version of the norm, where there are incentives built into the way we are culturally and politically set up that maybe privilege the marital relationship more than other kinds of arrangements.
Laura: Oh, absolutely. I mean, and you know, healthcare is so much more on the agenda these days.
I mean, it was one of the things when I was doing research for Against Love. You find out that all of these economic benefits flow through marital status. I'm sure, you know, this is more known than it was at the time.
Adam: And that's, I think, to circle back to the first thing, I maybe unfairly sprung on you about your experience at weddings was a way to try to get where we, where we're getting now, which is: so much of our lives is shaped by an understanding about marriage.
Laura: Yeah. And what is also interesting is the way the state does intervene. I mean, one of the reasons I didn't want to get married was that I didn't particularly want the state intervening if I decided to end things with a person. But you know, for example, like why is the state, why does the state have an interest in preventing polygamy or multiple marriages? You know, so you start to, if you kind of bore down a little into these norms, you start to see that the way, you know, the things we think of as you know, well, this is how it should be were established at a certain point, but you know, why is it in the state's interest to promote marriage via these financial benefits?
And you know, but it is a way of regulating the population for one thing and then regulating things like inheritance and child raising.
Adam: So that's the beginning of an answer. It's a way of regulating. Uh, why does the state intervene? Why does the state license marriages? What's your sense of why that happens in this country and the way that it does?
Laura: I suppose it's partly the Christian inheritance, you know, that we are a Christian nation despite saying that there's a separation of church and state, but you know, there isn't really a separation of church and state when you look. And, you know, I'm not really a marriage historian, I'm a social satirist.
So I just, you know, read some books about this stuff and, and done some speculating about it. But, I mean, all of these things that we take for granted, like, um, the census or the way populations get enumerated, I mean, all started out as, as forms of social control or like the way that the marriage ceremonies used to be informal, um, or they were done by churches and then they got taken over by the state. I mean, part of it is the way the state, um, needs to accrue authority and power to itself to establish itself as the prime kind of control over populations. So, you know, there's a lot, all sorts of histories to this stuff.
Adam: Yeah. And I love how you said, like I'm not a historian, I'm a social satirist. So I'll only ask one more historical question, and it comes from a reference you make, and then I'll move purely in the satirical direction.
You say in Against Love that our nation begins in what is essentially a declaration of divorce—that the declaration of independence is essentially divorce papers being served. And that since then, we are anxious about what that means, that there is anxiety throughout. And I guess I'd love to hear a little more about that anxiety.
Laura: Well, everything to do with contracts. You know, again, it sort of flows through this state. But, there are histories of marriage that—and the historian Nancy Cott writes about this, that kind of liken citizenship to marriage. You know, like you are married to your country. So there are all these analogies about citizenship and the nation and marriage, but I was kind of thinking during the pandemic and lockdown, you know, that every couple is like its own little country, you know, with its own constitution and, you know, weird regulations and rules and, you know, its varied histories, varied civilizations.
Adam: I think when it comes to this whole area—love, marriage—it seems to me you're very good at saying the things that many people won't.
Laura: For better or worse.
Adam: Yeah. Well maybe I want to ask just a little bit about that. And this gets back to your statement that you're a social satirist and sort of, why do you think it's important to look more closely at marriage and go, yeah, but, but look at this? Like, why is that a useful thing to do? I agree that it is, but, you know, I haven't written books about it, and they wouldn't be read if I did.
Why is that one of the things you're thinking so much about?
Laura: I think I've been always a little interested or overly interested in hypocrisy, and in Against Love, I had this feeling or you realize something after you've written the book and people talk about it, that there was always something about the elephant in the room subject that intrigued me. So like in Against Love, one of the elephants was just the fact that with longer longevity, you know, people were married for 30, 40, or 50 years. And the question about whether sexual desire for one person actually persists over the course of a 30 or 40, 50-year marriage, or does not.
And I think it was an interesting question about Bill Clinton at that time. Like, well, let's hypothesize that here's this couple and they're together, or maybe they love each other, but perhaps they're not really having sex anymore. So is he, you know, are they both supposed to just kind of hang it up, or can they have outside relationships?
Well, the opinion of the country was that no, you know, was absolutely illicit for him to have these other relationships. So, but anyway, elephant in the room about fidelity and, you know, desire and longevity. Um, it's kind of something everybody knows, knew, but you could only talk about at the level of jokes.
And so I was doing a lot of reading of New Yorker cartoons about, you know, people being really fed up with their spouses and, you know, which had this kind of element of truth, which is that we think of intimacy with another person as this great thing, a thing we desire, but I mean, can you be too intimate with another person?
Like, can you get to know somebody too well over the course of that many years or decades? To the point that, I mean, if you know somebody that well, can you still desire them? I mean, some people would say yes, of course, you desire them more. But I think for many people, romance and the kind of desire that we think of and celebrate is often based on not knowing a person that well.
So all these things are kind of inimical, but yet we're supposed to build lives with people and, you know, persist for decades with them.
Adam: Yeah. And the we're supposed to is probably understated. All the ways we're told this is something we're supposed to do.
Laura: Yeah, sure. And socially congratulated and then, you know, rewarded with things like health insurance.
Adam: Yeah. And it seems like, uh, it seems like it's good to ask about the things we're supposed to do. I think I heard a few things in both Love in the Time of Contagion and Against Love that feel like they're really live questions now. If we're getting told in all these ways that we're supposed to, uh, get married, stay married, be a certain way in marriage. Like what cultural work is that doing? We talked a little bit about a kind of regulation before, but it feels like there's more to say. Like what kind of disciplining is happening there? What's going on?
Laura Kipnis: Well, disciplining, yeah, is the right word.
I mean, I was very influenced by reading Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. And you know, that idea of the panopticon that he talks about, which is in prisons where the prison population doesn't know they're being watched, can be watched by like one central kind of person in a guard tower. And I was sort of likening that to the forms of surveillance that happen within couples and marriages. You know, the endless questions, like where have you been, what time, you know, why are you late? Who were you with? You know, what's this number on your cell phone bill? You know, all that kind of low-level surveillance that happens, you know, partly at the level of the couple, I suppose, to assuage the anxiety that somebody might stop loving you or leave you or be off doing something with someone else, you know, that would injure you. So, I mean, there's the kind of way that the protocols within—domestic protocols within couples kind of mirror the larger forms of surveillance and social control, you know, that happen at the, let's say, national level.
Keiren: You're listening to The Detour with Laura Kipnis and Adam Davis.
Adam: I think you're pointing to a lot of the ways that marriage is doing work to keep us, uh, confined in a certain way. And if I were gonna go like, what are you arguing in Against Love? It feels to me, you're actually, as you said before, you're arguing for something like love, but that that suffers in marriage, that our commitment to marriage—I mean, do you talk about being alive in a way. And so, what is it that we're holding up as more important than that being alive?
Laura: Well, I think, you know, security. I mean, one of the things that I was writing about in Against Love—and I used the imagery or figure of the cemetery a lot, like premature graves, you know, and people being interned in these premature, I don't know, plots—that, um, yeah, it was seen as preferable to uphold the stability of a couple, particularly if there were children, whether or not you were miserable. So it wasn't that I was against the couple form or against stability, but I was kind of against the, um, all of the demands on people to stay in situations that they were miserable in. And I did have the idea at that time, and I'm not sure if I would—I'm not sure if I still think this as much as I did then, but I did think that it promoted a kind of political passivity or it promoted a kind of passivity or the resistance to changing your life and had a kind of analog with the things that we don't ask of our nation politically. So yeah, I was interested in the way this kind of stasis—this long-term, low-level misery that a lot of people were, you know, living in had had analogs with, you know. Well, we know this country sucks. We know, you know, the conditions are unequal, but we're not going to really question or change anything. And I think that has, I mean, I think there's more social discontent articulated now, you know, I mean, let's say since Occupy [Wall Street], maybe than there was at that time.
Adam: But it'd be interesting if there was more social discontent articulated and more vilification of people pushing against the norms of marriage. That would just be interesting if they were running in opposite directions.
Can I give you back two sentences of yours—or at least parts of sentences—from Against Love?
Because I think I just want to read them out loud. One from about the middle of the book, and this is just on what you were just saying: “The conditions of lovability are remarkably convergent with those of a cowed workforce and a docile electorate.” Did you hear that? So I'm going to hold on the second one; the second one's a little more profane.
I'm going to just read it one more time and then I wonder how it echoes for you now. “The conditions of lovability are remarkably convergent with those of a cow workforce and a docile electorate.” How does that land?
Laura: These days, you know, like I say, I think that there is more articulation of discontent and anger about social conditions than there was when I was writing that, which was, I think 2002 or 2003, which seemed like a far more complacent moment. You know, those things have changed. And, but one of the things I was going say, that's also changed—and to go back to the question of why it's harder to talk about gender than it was when I was writing this book The Female Thing—I mean, I think I was writing about a more binary model of gender, of male and female, which are social roles and kind of stereotypes, the stereotypes that we, you know, live.
And I think the politics of gender has sort of shifted now. And it's kind of not done to talk about binary, but I still think there is far more binary gender and people steeped in living in those kinds of roles, you know, than maybe we are acknowledging. So I'll just say one more thing that, uh, you know, one of the things I've written about in other places is the ways that I think the version of feminism that is more operative at this moment has been one of the more, kind of, the more conservative strands of feminism, you know, like mainstream feminism, as opposed like socialist feminism.
Adam: Because you talked about socialist feminism, I want to step to the earlier quote. I said I was going to quote you twice. Here's the other one. And this is not a trigger warning, but there is profanity in a sentence. “A citizenry who fucked in lieu of shopping would soon bring the entire economy to a standstill.”
Laura: You know, I've been accused of like being overly invested in, you know, some naive kind of liberationism. So, you know, you could say that's, like, naively liberationist. So I have to undercut my best lines. Yeah. It's pithy.
Adam Davis: But I mean, but it's interesting that you said you've been accused of being naively liberationist because it seems to me what you're often doing is saying, “Look how naive we are. We're so naive about love and marriage.” And you help us see the ways we're naive. So it'd be interesting if that was the accusation leveled against you. That surprises me. It seems to me what you're often doing is you're puncturing those dreams that we hold. So that, like you said before, about hypocrisy.
But it's then it's interesting to think about—if I can just bump it back a level to satire—like satire can, it seems to me, it can serve a number of different functions, or a polemic can serve a number of different functions, and you call Against Love a polemic deliberately at the beginning so we know, like, read this as a polemic, read this as something like satire. Why satire?
Laura: I mean, there is a way that the satire, the irony, I think is like—what is it? The, you know, what makes the medicine go down? Like more easily? I think there was a song about that.
Adam: I think there was. I mean, I would say just listening to how people respond to certain lines of yours that you're saying something very tough about the choices we make with our lives and we react by laughing and cheering. Uh, that's medicine going down, but then the thing with medicine is what's it for? I feel like medicine has a picture of health in mind. And I should say, like, I was cracking up reading your book, cracking up in the best way, like completely laughing at all the ways that I don't live up to what I think I'm being and being delighted by my own failures. But then what stays is a question of, okay, “Then what?”
Laura: Right. Yeah. That's where I think I'm a little, I have some difficulty with the, “Then what?” Yeah. I mean the painful self-recognition, I'm like, yeah, I can do that. But then what. You know, and I think it is, in my case, a certain kind of disaffection with the left. I mean, I think of myself as very much on the left, but also hating the left. You know, that's my, the couple, my ambivalence about my coupled state with the left. So, you know, the, and then what, um, is the question of this moment.
Adam: Like, can I ask about that? About how the focus on love and marriage feels like it is political in ways that, uh, I don't know. Do you see some, do you see movement in either direction politically related to that stuff?
Laura: I mean, I will just say that I've always been very interested in that intersection of, you know, politics and personal life, Marx and Freud, you know? Um, so it's just, yeah, how those things get worked out. Because, I mean, I suppose it was a moment I was coming of age, you know, in terms of feminism and left politics, you know, there was a kind of focus on the body and questions about the body. And so I think all of that is part of the layer, layering in the stuff that I write.
Adam: Yeah. Maybe what I want to do is actually go back to something very specific and push back at this question.
Laura: Oh, is it going to be weddings again?
Adam: It is. It actually is going to be weddings—not necessarily your response. What I'll do is I'll say something that I feel when I'm at a wedding, as a way to open it up a little. The ring moment. The ring moment feels just like a huge puzzle to me. Because it feels like everybody there is watching this performative confinement and we feel a kind of delight, while we watch one person putting a ring on another person's finger.
Laura: And the yolk around the neck.
Adam: And other body parts. It just feels like, so it feels like what that is. And it feels like, and it feels like both parties are delighted to be doing it. And all of us in attendance are delighted to be doing it. Even though many of us let's say, have either been divorced or have seen all the ways this [can] go wrong.
But sort of like, just to go back to the academy for a moment, when you're writing a dissertation proposal, you know, you're making it up. Your committee knows you're making it up. You both pretend it's real.
So with a wedding, why do we continue to willingly suspend our critical thinking and go, “Here we are. As ambivalent as I may be much of the time, let's all have this fantasy together.”
Laura: While dressed in the costumes of the landed gentry from another century.
You know, I mean, depending on the class level or aspiration level of the participants, but, you know, look at the costuming!
Adam: I do remember what I was wearing at my wedding. I do remember that I actually didn't have a ring. I had a watch. I had my grandfather's watch, in part because I was resistant, even while participating, to some of the pageantry of it, but I also willingly stepped into it. And I think because it's such a core story for so many of us, I guess I'm curious about that. I'm curious about how that dream has taken such deep, hold on so many of us, even with the ambivalence that we could have looking around.
Laura: Yeah, so, okay, you're trying to get me to be sentimental. Okay, I mean, there is something there can be, and is often, something very lovely about pledging yourself to another human being and opening your heart to that person and forming a unit together that's going to, you know, stand up to all the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. And you know, it is, I mean, definitely it's hopeful and lovely.
Adam: It’s funny because I was not trying to get you to be sentimental. I was trying to see if you were going say yeah, here we buy into this and here's why it's totally absurd. I mean you say in Love in the Time of Contagion, you say, “We're a suggestible species. And viruses aren't the only contagions—so were ideas and feelings.”
Laura: Yeah, and when I was thinking about the ideas in Against Love, I was interested in thinking about how much actual propaganda there is out there. I mean, every romcom, every romance song, country western song—well, a lot of those are about split ups—but you know, there's just a kind of constant implication—is that the right word?—to, you know, get you to love, couple up, settle down. You know, I mean, when people used to be able to afford real estate, you know, put a down payment down on something. You know, there is a constant, if you start looking, constant level of pressure, and if it was the natural thing, would it need this much pressure?
Some recognition is happening.
Adam: Do you think this country is particularly weird about this stuff? Or do you think we're just like everybody else? And if we're a little bit uniquely strange about it, do you have a sense of why?
Laura: Somebody once said to me—a cultural theorist—it's something I've always thought was fascinating, that this country is like in equal measures, the legacy of puritanism and also experimentalism.
So, you know, I do think there are those competing tendencies that are embedded in our history and probably in our, yeah, in the culture, and in the humor. I mean, there is something that can often be really weird and zany about America and its kind of humor and, you know, you drive down the highway and there are those big hot dogs on the road—you know those big, like, 50-foot hot dogs on the roads. You know, there's a strangeness to America and the landscape, um, but then also a lot of propriety at the same time. So it is, I mean, I suppose that's what is interesting about being an American is all of that competing history that is somehow roiling in there.
Adam: Yeah. I don't know if it would be encouraging or discouraging to think that, like, we have a uniquely strange and maybe flawed relationship to marriage as a nation, or if it, it felt more like, yeah, we're like all the other countries that try this thing, we too are screwed up in the same way.
Laura: You know, maybe we could go back to, you know, as a country founded as a divorce, you know, it was a divorce decree or the Declaration of Independence was an announcement about something. And, you know, one would like to think also independence of spirit and, you know, conceptual independence.
Adam: Which is maybe the last thing that I'll ask before opening it up. And that is that I was surprised when you said that the—I liked it that the Declaration of Independence is actually a declaration of divorce. I had thought you were going to say, look at how important the declaration of independence is for us. And yet on the domestic level, dependence is the model that we continue to inscribe between two people over and over.
And so, on the one hand, we love the idea of the rugged individualist. And yet, like this morning—and I'm not making this up—this morning, I was happily using our new vacuum cleaner, and I had a mask on because my wife had COVID—has COVID; it's just about gone. And I was imagining that I was going to be here tonight. And I was thinking, “Here I am at nine in the morning on a work day vacuuming with a mask on in my own home. What does this picture of marriage mean?” You know, and it does feel like, this is not the rugged individualist right here. That's not the picture.
So maybe the way I put that—I said it was going to be a question and I'm quite far from a question now. Maybe those two strains, the individualist strain and the strong push towards dependence domestically. How do you see those two working together?
Laura: I mean, to be, you know, to sound like a patriot for a moment. I mean, there is, you know, embedded in the history of America—you know, I'm thinking of American literature and the kind of voice, and I've always been really interested in a certain kind of voice that's like a weird, zany, funny voice of people like Melville or Twain. The funniness and weirdness of this voice, you know, it does seem so distinctively kind of a product of all of those histories. I mean, so the rugged individualism also kind of comes out in a kind of tonality or tone that I think—I do think of it when I'm writing those voices. You know, one could say, yes, those have been male voices, but I've always been very intrigued with them. And also, I mean, they are also all about the conflict between the rugged individualist or the frontier and, you know, the civilizing, um, imperatives. And, you know, it's often been women that are supposed to play the role of the civilizer, you know, and civilize that ruggedness and domesticate, you know, be the domesticator. And, you know, which is sort of, to me, as a, you know, punitive female, like a, you know, like a boring role to be cast in.
So, I mean, maybe that goes back to the wedding, the ambivalence about the wedding and the marching up the aisle, in some weird, fancy clothes that were bought from the occasion. You know, still that symbolic—to put myself in that role of walking up the aisle would seem to be renouncing something that I'm very attached to, which is the ability to step into Huckleberry Finn's shoes and, you know, strike out for somewhere.
Adam: Yeah. Independence.
Laura: Yeah. And it's, you know, I mean, I'm also somebody that’s, you know, held a university job for many decades, so, you know, there is a limit to how much striking out I have done, bu, you know, imaginatively, I mean—like at the level of the sentence, let's say, I like to think my sentences are adventurous.
Keiren: Laura Kipnis is professor emerita in the department of radio, TV, and film at Northwestern university and is the author of Against Love and Love in the Time of Contagion.
Jamie Passaro is a writer whose articles, interviews, and essays have been published in the New York times, the Washington Post’s online On Parenting and the Atlantic online, among other places.
She lives in Eugene with her husband and two daughters, runs an obituary writing business called dear person, and works as the managing editor for Luminaire Press. We reached out to Jamie because she wrote an essay called “Consider the Wedding” in a 2004 edition of the Oregon Humanities magazine, which you'll hear from shortly.
This essay, bridges concepts of the intellectual and emotional split Laura touched on earlier, with the wedding industry's pervasive influence on American culture. Here's Jamie.
Jamie Passaro: The invitation was plain—white with lavender print in Garamond, one of Kimberly's favorite fonts. We were invited to a winery to celebrate with Kimberly and Eric as they became husband and wife, reception immediately following. I knew the invitation was coming, but I received it with a certain sadness.
Kimberly, at thirty-two, was one of my last unmarried friends. I loved her email dispatches from the dating scene, her Sunday morning phone calls. Before she became engaged, we kept in touch almost weekly, even though we lived in different states. It seemed that Kimberly was mostly happy living alone. She bought and fixed up a bungalow on her own, she traveled abroad by herself, she had a fun group of friends. Still, she wanted what I had: a spouse with whom to share her life. Even though a part of me envied her unmarried life, I encouraged her in this endeavor to find the future Mr. K. And even though this husband was what she envisioned, I see now that my prodding produced a tension between us: that she thought I was implying she needed a partner to complete her. She referred to me as a smug married in one of her columns.
But this story isn't about smug marrieds or smug unmarrieds, or the pros and cons of either enterprise. This is about the fifty-billion-dollar wedding industry, which feminist scholar Chris Ingraham calls “the wedding-industrial complex.”
In the weeks before the wedding, I realized it wasn't just Kimberly getting married that I lamented—it was that she, my independent friend, was getting married and what seemed to be a rather traditional way. The diamond ring, the handoff from the parents to the husband, the pastor, the party, all that pageantry, all that calculated joy. Of course I'd bought into the tradition of it too, though I'm still not sure why.
Marriage has always been an economic institution, media studies scholar Laura Kipnis reminds us in Against Love, another critique of modern marriage. While marriage was once needed to ensure property distribution through inheritance, she says, now it's needed to sustain a consumer society. The wedding is just the beginning of a lifelong hunger for more stuff. How does this happen? How in these post women's movement times does it get to be that a wedding becomes a woman's perfect best day?
I'd wanted a simple wedding and a simple dress to match, but somehow, five months before my wedding, I found myself in a bridal boutique modeling $2,000 gowns for my mom and her best friend.
I ended up with a lovely Priscilla of Boston number with a train—a train! I hadn't wanted a train, but the French woman at the boutique was convincing and the dress did make my waist look small. My dress must have seemed ridiculous to Kimberly, the friend who got married this summer. She knew I was more of a barefoot on the beach sort of bride than a train and bustle bride, but she was kind not to laugh as she helped zip me into the dress on the afternoon of my wedding day.
I'd known Kimberly since she'd been my editor at our college newspaper. Our paths had diverged when, at my first newspaper job out of college, I fell in love with the man I would marry two years later. Kimberly was the only one of my friends to challenge my decision to get married. It didn't fit with her idea of who I was then, and she told me so. It took me years to forgive her for that, and not until recently, seven years later, have I wanted to thank her. It's not that I regret my decision to get married. It’s that I've come to appreciate her honesty. I've come to appreciate her questions, which came at a time when it was easy to get caught up in the swirl of wedding planning, the spree of buying.
In Against Love, Kipnis glowers, “As everyone knows—and if not, the advertising industry was invented to educate you on this score—steady doses of the proper commodities will help assuage the sense of amputation and resentment that come from doing a mindlessly boring thing for most of your life on earth.” That mindlessly boring thing she's referring to is marriage.
Kipnis employs a rather cynical view, that marriage leaves most people wanting more, that the emptiness translates into rampant, consumerism anti-depressant use and often adultery. We've all heard the statistics: half of all marriages today end in divorce. A recent study from the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University found that 40 percent of married Americans don't describe themselves as very happy. So it's not surprising that some scholars link the self-help industry to the wedding industry.
But I have to admit that I had fun looking at the wedding magazines. And when I get my Sunday addition of the New York Times, one of the first sections I turn to is the wedding section. But to read Ingham and then to engage in this wedding voyeurism is a bit like watching a PETA film and then going out for filet mignon.
But Ingham also explains the white wedding's mystique in American culture with a compelling personal anecdote: “Watching video after video of wedding stories, there are times when I would feel my emotions and my intellect split apart. Tears would be streaming down my face as I empathize with the characters in a movie, while, at the same time, I would be taking notes critiquing heterosexual imagery.
But how many women share this point of view? And so what—so what if a woman wants to have a fancy traditional wedding?
To this Jellison says, “A woman who knows better but has a showbiz wedding sends out a dangerous political message to the rest of the world regarding such ideas as the role of wife being the most important one a woman can play, the wedding day being the one that eclipses all days and accomplishments in her life, etc.”
At the wedding ceremony, which took place outside the winery in a grove of trees, Kimberly walked through the grass on the arms of her parents, smiling big, laughing even. Her mom made the dress, and she looked herself, not all froofy or done-up or swathed in white. I cried; I really did. And I'm not usually a wedding crier.
The best part of the ceremony was a homily, which was given by a friend of Kimberly's from college, a Lutheran pastor named Katie McCallum. “Will there be enough time for one another in the midst of busy jobs and schedules, will there be enough money to go around? Will there be enough family and friends to support you? Will there be enough love when there is much to be forgiven? Will it be enough?” It was such a bold and elegant question to pose at a wedding. I wonder, what if every couple planning a wedding started there, with that idea.
At Kimberly and Eric's wedding reception, we raised our glasses of sparkling wine in a toast; we ate homemade Norwegian cake; we swayed tipsily to the music from mixed CDs friends had made; we snuck away and decorated their getaway car with balloons and streamers. But what I'll remember most is the question. It's a question I like very much, a question I'd like to pose to Brides magazine, to Vera Wang, to the peddlers of wedding insurance—should the unexpected happen—to Crate and Barrel, to the newly engaged, and to wedding planners everywhere. Will it be enough?
Keiren: Jamie Passaro is a writer who lives in Eugene. How is your marriage different from the norm? Why did you get married? What feelings do you have about marriage now, if you are married and have they changed? Let us know by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Detour is made possible by the National Endowment for the Humanities I'm Keiren Bond, the executive producer. Adam Davis is our regular host. Our editor and engineer is Dave Friedlander. Our assistant producers are Alexandra Powell Bugden, Karina Briski, and Ben Waterhouse. Thanks for being with us. See you next time.