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KICKING TELEVISION: TV and the Death of the American Marriage

KICKING TELEVISION: TV and the Death of the American Marriage

The first episode of season two of Transparent begins with a wedding. “Kina Hora” opens with a long, uninterrupted shot of the Pfefferman clan, draped in expensive, virginal white vestments, opulent garb against an epic California coastal backdrop. The series, which is the anti-thesis of tradition in society and on television, chose to invite the viewer into its sophomore effort by indulging in the very essence of tradition. Despite the immaculate aesthetic of the event, the wedding and its participants and guests were ugly, and in such a depiction Transparent stood with the traditions of its medium in presenting marriage as a deeply flawed and false institution.

Transparent explores the challenges of relationships. It beautifully examines how individuals construct, compromise, and conform in order to find happiness, or at least endure the journey. At the center of Transparent lie several marriages: the transitioned Maura and his ex Shelly; the newly betrothed Sarah and Tammy; Sarah and her ex Len; Josh and his partner Raquel; and all the bits and pieces, characters and relations who intersect and intertwine. It’s a look at marriage that introduces the contemporary evolution of our culture to the medium of television, a medium that tends to treat marriage with contempt. It’s also a medium that has evolved with the advent of streaming services like Amazon, which allows shows like Transparent the freedom to discuss an institution like marriage with less attachment to the traditions that permeate the network model. 

In “Kina Hora”, the defining moment—as the ugliness of the event meets the realities of the institution—finds Rabbi Raquel (the exceptional Kathryn Hahn) describing weddings as, “a ritual. It’s a pageant. It’s a very expensive play.” The same could be said about television itself. It’s part of our lives, an ongoing and unannotated play, in many parts, in many forms, with no end in sight. It’s a filter by which we quantify and qualify our own attempts at life. The streaming services have broadened the modes and conversations by which we apply that filter. And for the most part what we know as “television” seems to deplore marriage.

I got married this past summer, which was a surprise to many because I had never expressed any interest in marriage. This is not because I didn’t believe in love, which I did; or eternal happiness, which I aspired to; or gifts, which I rely on. I didn’t really want kids, but that became irrelevant, as marriage and kids ceased to be connected the way they once were. I think diamonds are a contrived industry, but I’m not wearing one. Ceremonies seemed opulent and gluttonous, but we eloped. Marriage, to me, had seemed simply a precursor to infidelity and divorce.

I’m not sure why I believed this. My parents have been together for more than 40 years and are very happy. My sister has been married for a dozen years or so, and my niece and nephew report no issue. Many of my high school friends are married and don’t complain about it much. But still, I had issues with the institution. And then, a few weeks ago, I was reading one of the many asinine and short-sighted op-eds that link television and movie violence to American gun culture, and I decided to blame what I believed to be the death of marriage on TV as well.

Television has killed the American marriage.

Unlike the facile arguments that blame media for gun violence, I decided to attempt to link my hypothesis to fact before asking my editors at Indiewire to publish it. Kind of like what Fox News does except the complete opposite. Is marriage, as television to me implies, dead—only worthy of farce, ridicule, and revile? Apparently, the meme that 50% of all marriages end in divorce is actually untrue. According to a New York Times study, “The divorce rate peaked in the 1970s and early 1980s and has been declining for the three decades since.” The piece also cites Fox, ABC, and Bravo references to the divorce rate myth as fact. The same media that both perpetuate and deride TV and film violence as contributing to a violent culture apparently do the same for the institution of marriage.

Violent shows bear ad revenue, as does programming of punditry that condemns them, as does the contemporary news model that treats myth as fact and viewers as sheep. Entertainment is an industry, and I like capitalism as much as the next guy with a paralyzing disinterest in nuptials. But I like facts and informed discourse too, which doesn’t explain why my own fears about marriage were tied to a straw man with commitment issues.

Interestingly, the Times piece begins with a reference to Chris Martin (a musician of some sort) and Gwyneth Paltrow (Blythe Danner’s daughter) ending their marriage. Of course it does. Even a respected outfit like the New York Times can’t make a concise argument in this day and age without tying it to B-list celebrities. It’s a trope of contemporary discourse that we filter issues through celebrity and media institutions. Television is a convenient barometer by which we tend to measure ourselves. It’s in our homes, a flawed mirror reflecting society and our notions of self. Am I as pretty as Rachel? Am I as funny as Chandler? Am I as successful as… well, none of the Friendswere particularly successful, but they had nice apartments and love and friendship and pet monkeys.

But beyond the aesthetic comparisons, there are institutional quantifications, which has lead me to believe that what has actually died is the representation of marriage on television. Once marriage was the aspiration of television, a narrative progression borrowed from Shakespeare. Boy meets girl, boy marries girl, and if it lasts more than four seasons everyone gets rich in syndication money. Weddings were sweeps staples, the ultimate achievement of television narratives: Luke and Laura, Jim and Pam, Ross and Emily. Weddings were beautiful, happy, defining moments that led to a lifetime of martial bliss, either on screen or in the world we imagined as completed series continued in our minds.

The current TV landscape sees marriage as either a cartoonish institution or one unworthy of reverence, perhaps as a result of the false meme or as a contributor to it. The sitcom revels in the former; a contrived wonderland where marriage is bliss, where flaws are adorable, and divorce is just a preamble to second chance happiness. Modern Family is a mockumentary meant to capture the contemporary American marriage, but instead it gives us animated generalizations. Phil the goofy loving father is married to Claire the overbearing mom, whose pratfalls bring us such joy. Jay is on his second marriage to the buxom Gloria, whose accent and ethnicity are a source of endless amusement. Cameron is married to Mitchell, and they’re both men, which is hilarious!

Two and a Half MenThe MiddleThe GoldbergsMindy: these shows all portray similar caricatures of marriage. Marriage is goofy. Men like football and synthetic cheese and drinking and they have penises, while women like shopping and makeup and Jon Hamm and they have vaginas. The dichotomy therein is a hoot.

In dramas marriage is a dismissed relic. The genre just doesn’t seem to like marriage very much. The modern day pulp of Shondaland savours infidelity common as oxygen and rarely attached to repercussion. The adulterous spouse can still be a president or a tenured prof or happy. Game of Thrones is filled with marriages of convenience and despair. Parenthood aspired to a more realistic depiction of marriage, but still filled its six seasons with adulterous leanings and desperate compromise. Maybe that’s what marriage is. Maybe mine is too new. Maybe I’m naïve. Maybe I should ask my wife.

These two representations perhaps help explain my media-driven fear of commitment. While marriage itself is a healthy and vital institution, television revels in its mockery. In actuality, marriage is a joyous union, an entry to a better life, not one of restriction or farce. I like being married, though I’m not very good at it yet. I’m heavier than I was when I was single, attentive but somewhat lazy with my affection, and not as responsible as a married man should be. But I’m trying. I aspire to better. I wish TV felt the same way.

Mike Spry is a writer, editor, and columnist who has written for The Toronto Star, Maisonneuve, and The Smoking Jacket, among others, and contributes to MTV’s PLAY with AJHe is the author of the poetry collection JACK (Snare Books, 2008) and Bourbon & Eventide (Invisible Publishing, 2014), the short story collection Distillery Songs (Insomniac Press, 2011), and the co-author of Cheap Throat: The Diary of a Locked-Out Hockey Player (Found Press, 2013). Follow him on Twitter @mdspry.

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