Marriage Envy

By Leonard, Suzanne | Women's Studies Quarterly, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Marriage Envy


Leonard, Suzanne, Women's Studies Quarterly


My title is not original. It is borrowed from an article by Diana Schaub (1996) that was published in The Public Interest, in which Schaub reviews author Andrew Sullivan's Virtually Normal: An Argument about Homosexuality, one of the first of many treatises that would appear in favor of the legalization of gay marriage. Oddly, Schaub does not at any point interrogate the concept of marriage envy, or even name it again, which leaves the phrase to hover over the entirety of her article, subtly sitting in judgment, perhaps, of the motivations for Sullivan's book. Although it remains undefined, the term "marriage envy" nevertheless has the troubling effect of transforming Sullivan's measured demand for marriage equity into a different project altogether, and the accusation appears, I fear, not particularly flattering or kind.

In resurrecting this title, I hope to analyze marriage envy, rather than merely name it. I do not propose to employ the term in the same way either, for my object is not the issue of gay marriage, nor the psychic repercussions that accrue to a group systematically denied the right to wed. (Although I think this would indeed be fascinating work.) Yet it is worth keeping this example in mind because it illustrates a dynamic crucial to the symbolic operation of a charge of marriage envy, one that I will return to during this essay. Apparently, naming one a "marriage envier" is a conversation stopper-intended to either confirm marriage's desirability or deflate whatever argument an interlocutor might be making to the contrary. Because we all want marriage, so the logic goes, envy of those who are married registers as a natural state. In this essay I hope to trouble that position and, in particular, offer some thoughts on how a rise in marriage envy is directly related to, or perhaps a direct result of, the presumption of marriage normalcy. Similarly, I want to suggest that marriage envy does not arise only in people denied the legal benefits of marriage, but in a more complicated and perhaps surprising iteration, has also come to define a particular form of postfeminist subjectivity.

In popular and political terms, marriage holds an increasingly unassailable position in the twenty-first-century United States. This is not to deny that the conversation about marriage takes many forms, since there are deep divides in the country surrounding the question of who should marry and what that commitment signifies. The conservative Right, for instance, has begun touting heterosexual marriage as a panacea for social and economic ills and has publicized this stance by funding abstinenceonly school curricula and programs that encourage the poor to wed. This public valuation of the moral, social, and financial benefits of heterosexual marriage has helped to catapult marriage into the popular consciousness, while at the same time, conservatives use marriage protection amendments as a wedge issue to mobilize conservative voting blocks. While liberals tend to support gay marriage or at least domestic partnerships, they also deemphasize marriage's social value and focus on marriage as an individual "choice" that affords married people a variety of personal and emotional benefits. Yet regardless of these ideological divides, both sides clearly valorize the institution of marriage in some form. Whether one is clamoring for the right to marry, exhibiting a pro-gay marriage stance, or defending marriage's "sanctity" in order to keep the institution exclusionary, these positions all discursively construct marriage as constituting the foundation of family life. Likewise, although second-wave feminists quite publicly devoted themselves to denouncing marriage-frequently calling it an oppressive or patriarchal institution-today's feminists no longer consider marriage a political issue, in part because the nature of this commitment has changed so much in the past thirty-five years.' Thus, it is fair to say that a newly pro-marriage culture has emerged, one that curiously cuts across sexual, gender, racial, class, and political lines, even as debates rage across the country about who should be able to enter into this highly coveted relation. …

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