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Is Marriage a Status Symbol or a Rebuke to Uppity Women?

Why do accomplished women get handed a marriage script?

Marriage is for flaunting. That’s what Andrew Cherlin said in an op-ed in the New York Times. Cherlin, author of The Marriage-Go-Round, has been studying marriage for decades. In contemporary American society, he says, marriage is increasingly separating the richer from the poorer.

Cherlin calls college-educated Americans “the winners in the new economy.” More of these winners get married than the economically less well off. “Marriage has become a status symbol,” Cherlin believes, adding:

“People marry to show their friends and family how well their lives are going.”

I think this is the scholarly version of Bridget Jones’s “smug marrieds.” Married people, this perspective seems to suggest, are flaunting it. With their rings they are saying to single people, “Nyah, nyah, we are married and you are not!”

It strikes me as odd that the best educated Americans would cling to such an utterly conventional arrangement as a way of brandishing their self-ascribed status, but I guess we are not living in the 60s anymore.

What has me wondering about the messaging of contemporary marriage even more than Cherlin’s op-ed are the scripts being handed to high-achieving female characters in popular culture. In some ways, these are good times for women on TV and at least one girl in a movie. Diane Lockhart on The Good Wife is successful and super smart. On Criminal Minds, Alex Blake is a brilliant linguist and awesome federal agent. Kate Beckett on Castle is so great at her job, and so widely recognized for her talents, that she has just been offered a prestigious dream job in D.C. In the season finale of each of these shows, though, a marriage plot is thrown into the mix. [spoiler alert]

Diane seems completely energized by her high-powered job, plus she has something going on the side with cowboy guy. So why does she propose to him? Alex loves her job but her husband wants her to leave it and move with him to Boston to teach at Harvard. (Reid to urge her to seize the opportunity, which he describes as rewarding in a way that is so beyond what she can get from the job. Right, Reid says this. Does anyone really think that Reid would be happy giving up his behavioral analyst position to follow a spouse?) Kate wants the job and decides she is going to take it – until Castle proposes and we are left hanging until the new season. Since Castle is, after all, the namesake of the show, it seems unlikely that she will pursue her dream, though perhaps she will suggest what Alex does – a commuter marriage.

In the movies, we have Merida, the young heroine of the movie Brave. Her father understood what Merida wanted to convey to her mother: “I don’t want to get married. I want to stay single and let my hair flow in the wind as I ride through the glen firing arrows into the sunset.” Disney is now introducing Merida as their new princess, only without her beloved arrows, and with a thinner and shapelier figure and a princess-y dress.

Following Cherlin’s formulation, I suppose one interpretation of all of these plot twists is that women are getting rewarded with prospect of marriage and fairy tale endings. They are getting a status symbol that they can flaunt.

I think an alternative interpretation is that all of these female characters are getting put in their place. Sure, their scripts suggest, they have jobs to-die-for, jobs they love, jobs they are great at; but that’s not enough. What they are really supposed to want is a man. Not just a man they can spend time with or even live with, but a man they will marry. That’s what will make them complete women, in this, the 21st century.

Merida’s fans are having none of the matrimaniacal silliness. More than 200,000 people have signed a petition from protesting the prettifying of the inspiring character. “Disney: Say no to the Merida makeover, keep our hero brave,” is the message of the petitioners.

Why can’t we keep more of our highly accomplished female television characters brave and single, too?

More from Bella DePaulo Ph.D.
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