"Gender: To Be Determined" is collaborative, interactive blog brought to you by University of Denver students in Lindsey Feitz's "Introduction to Gender and Women's Studies" class.

If you are interested in gender, sexuality, and popular culture, this is the blog for you.

There's some incredibly smart, sassy, and saavy analyses that cover a range of topics we're discussing in class. Please feel free peruse our archive and join the conversation.

We'd love to hear your comments and questions!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Marriage: Challenging an Unfair Privilege (Unit 3)

As many of you may know, the institution of marriage is currently experiencing some dramatic changes. Simply, fewer couples are choosing to marry. A recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center, in association with Time Magazine, looks to find some answers to this mysterious revolution.

I will try not to bombard you with too many statistics, but it is necessary to highlight a few that are especially eye opening. For example, the Pew study reveals that, “in 1960, two-thirds (68%) of twenty-somethings were married. In 2008, just 26% were” (“Who Needs Marriage?”). Nearly 7 out of 10 people in their twenties were married fifty years ago. Today, only one in four are. This is a huge change in a short amount of time. One of the reasons for this change is the growing number of women receiving college degrees and ultimately becoming successful professionals. These women are choosing to wait to get married until they are well established on their own; or, they are not getting married at all. When women become primary or equal breadwinners, they do not need men to provide for them. Thus, women are more independent, and they now initiate two-thirds of divorces (“Who Needs Marriage?”).

Another interesting aspect within the “death of marriage” is the growing financial gap between married couples and single adults. The Pew study found that, “In 1960 the median household income of married adults was 12% higher than that of single adults, after adjusting for household size. By 2008 this gap had grown to 41%” (“Who Needs Marriage?”). So, the richer we become, the more likely we are to get married. In other words, marriage provides a financial privilege unavailable to single adults, or those who cannot legally get married.

Finally, more and more couples are choosing to cohabitate. Living together without being married is growing in acceptance and popularity (“Who Needs Marriage?”). Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, arguably the most famous celebrity couple, live together and have six children. They have stated publicly that they will not get married until everyone has the legal opportunity to do so (read Brad Pitt’s comments on Ellen’s show HERE). Americans spend lots of time obsessing over popular culture, and couples like Brad and Angelina hold quite a bit of power in challenging the institution of marriage. Not getting married is practically “the cool new thing” to do.

This study is really fascinating, and I just wanted to briefly provide some evidence that shows the institutional change that’s taking place. Definitely check out the article if you want to learn more.

My argument for this blog would be that as marriage continues to fade in popularity, we are getting closer to reaching total equality within the institution. Near the end of my post I will list a few specific challenges against the traditional institution of marriage that, in my opinion, could help promote equality for all.

After reading Peggy Pascoe’s article, “Why the Ugly Rhetoric Against Gay Marriage is Familiar to this Historian of Miscegenation,” I was overcome with a powerful since of optimism. The parallels between miscegenation laws and the current Defense of Marriage Act were strikingly similar; a good sign in my opinion. Personally, I was unaware of the long legal history prohibiting interracial marriage, and as I read I definitely began to get a since of familiarity. All of these ridiculous ideologies and claims regarding interracial marriage mirrored the opposition expressed today against gay marriage. For example, interracial relationships were defined as “illicit sex” relationships, rather than “real” marriage. We hear this same ridiculous claim today against gay relationships. Interracial relationships were also “contrary to God’s will.” Again, same thing we hear today directed towards gay marriage. Finally, interracial marriage was deemed “unnatural.” People who believe marriage is between a man and a woman rely on the “unnatural” argument to dispute gay marriage.

I believe that history can repeat itself, and if we reflect on our past, we are always moving in a direction that abolishes discrimination and slowly promotes equality (abolishing slavery, women’s rights movement, civil rights movement, etc.). As we move closer to legalizing gay marriage, the legalization of interracial marriage will provide encouragement and legal support for those looking to history to support their case.

Another historical achievement for the gay rights movement is the recent repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell." In Barrry Adam’s article, “The Defense of Marriage Act and American Exceptionalism,” the author discusses the national identity of the United States, stating that, “Superpower states are clearly gendered as male” (267). The dominant military culture of the United States spreads and promotes hegemonic masculinity, therefore “homosexual men are made to represent military failure and a threat to national security” (268). Now that gays and lesbians can serve openly in the military, the United States has taken another step towards acceptance and equality that will be a catalyst for the legalization of gay marriage.

Challenging traditional marriage, spreading the privilege

We are moving in the right direction, and while marriage is mostly exclusive to heterosexuals, there are some gendered traditions within marriage that seem to promote binaries and discourage progress.

1) The bride taking the groom’s last name. This tradition is weird, and I think people are starting to realize this. For example, this article discusses a newlywed couple in Seattle, where the groom chose to take his wife’s last name, because, as he put it, "I'm a big ole granola liberal and I wanted to tweak the tradition while showing my wife I love her." (Awwwww). The process was difficult (men must go through the expensive legal process of changing a name), yet this shows people are starting to challenge the patriarchal institution of marriage. Also, more couples are choosing to combine their two last names with a hyphen. Personally, I really like this idea and believe if more people chose to defer from the traditional “woman takes man’s name” practice, the institution itself would shift. Specifically, the distribution of power would be more even between the two partners and ultimately marriage would be more inclusive.

2) Asking the bride’s father for permission to marry his daughter. Also weird. And creepy. Clearly a practice that supports patriarchy, assuming the bride cannot totally make the decision to get married by herself, and her father’s permission is necessary to “bless” the groom’s wish. Um, gross. If you wish to talk with your partner’s parents before taking the next step, why don’t you talk to both of her parents? And to really flip things upside down, what if the bride-to-be confronted the groom’s parents prior to marriage? Let’s balance things out people.

3) The proposal. Now I’m guessing this one’s a long shot, but what if women proposed to men? This challenges the romanticized and anticipated moment in which the man gets down on one knee; a moment that many women, and men, dream about and look forward to. I’m guessing most women would not be comfortable proposing, because they never have expected to and probably believe that they can’t/shouldn’t. I say eff that. Again, let’s shake things up. If we had more women proposing to men, our notions of marriage would change dramatically. Power would be more evenly distributed, and people’s definitions of marriage would become broader.

These are just a few marriage traditions that I have thought about. I believe that they create power differences, placing men above women, and in turn promote heteronormative attitudes that discourage gay marriage. The future is bright however, and I think by challenging the system, heterosexual couples hold just as much, if not more influence, than homosexual couples in the fight for a new definition of marriage.


1) "Who Needs Marriage? A Changing Institution" - Time Magazine

2) Brad Pitt on Ellen - Access Hollywood

3) "The Defense of Marriage Act and American Exceptionalism: The "Gay Marriage" Panic in the United States" - Barry D. Adam

4) "Why the Ugly Rhetoric Against Gay Marriage is Familiar to this Historian of Miscegenation" - Peggy Pascoe


  1. Great post! I think it says a lot that in 2008, onyly 26% of 20-somethings were married, down from 68% in decades past...namely, that women have made tremendous inroads in gaining independence (not to say that all women who get married in their 20s do not value independence). I would guess that a central reason for young marriage in the past was because of a lack of financial means and desire for a stable income, mostly provided by a man. Now, women attend college in droves, become professionals, and do not have this degree of reliance on a "breadwinner," as they are the ones putting food on the table. I also agree that since gays and lesbians can now openly serve in one of our country's most intrinsically hegemonically masculine institutions, more strides have been made toward gay marriage. Even so, I wonder exactly what it will require to shift many people's stereotypical definition of gay and lesbian relationships from "illicit, unnatural sex" to "these people deserve love as much as any straight couple." Hopefully potential changes in heterosexual marriage rhetoric will influence that of homosexual marriage.

  2. Your post made me laugh on several occasions--in a good way, of course. I loved your side-comments and the brief story about the "granola liberal" made me laugh out loud considering I was born into the completelyyyyy opposite type of household. Anyway, I hate to bring down the mood here, but I am a traditionalist when it comes to marriage. HOWEVER, I would also like to add that I do believe homosexuals should be given the right to marry. What I meant by traditionalist was more the traditions you mentioned, what with the last name change and proposal. My boyfriend and I have strongly considered marriage for awhile and as crazy as this must sound, I look forward to the things you poked fun of! Haha, but reading this made me question why I feel that way--so thanks! I narrowed it down to the fact that I like traditions, and I suppose it has just been instilled in me to fantasize, in a way, about these sort of things because they seem so normal in our society. Anyway, I agree completely with Amy and yourself when it comes to gay marriage. I loved your comment saying history can and will repeat itself--you said that in a way that made the phrase positive! Not so long ago, as you mentioned, interracial marriage was finally made legal and eventually I too hope so very much that marriage can be redefined in order to give this privilege and right to homosexuals. Great work!

  3. YAY! I loved this article! I love how you sort of bashed the traditional roles of marriage haha cracked me up! I feel the same way though! For being a female I'm definitely going to be one of those girls who doesn't get married until I have the degree and career that I want and I am financially comfortable to my standards. I COMPLETELY agree that history repeats itself and interracial marriage is the perfect precedent for taking gay marriage to court! I feel that if everyone just got over the traditions and realized that we are living in a new generation everyone would be happier. Everyone stresses out and makes a big deal over the smallest things that essentially have nothing to do with them. Gay marriage should be allowed 100%!

  4. Thanks for the comments everybody!

    @Alexis - I'm glad you thought about and questioned the marriage traditions I challenged - that was really my goal, and I was hoping people would have various reactions. I totally understand your desire to experience these marriage traditions. Personally, I really look forward to proposing and would be disappointed if I didn't get to do so, or if my girlfriend proposed to me. I wish I could say that I wouldn't be disappointed, but I know I would. The name changing tradition is the one that I think has the greatest potential to shift, specifically having both partners hyphen their names. I'm all for this and plan on changing my last name to include my girlfriend's, and visa versa.

  5. This was amazing! I really love how Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are taking a stand for what they believe in, but at the same time, it would be slightly pathetic if more people got into the debate for gay marriage for the sole reason of Brad and Angelina getting married. Your tips for creating equality in marriage are superb! I love the idea of the man taking his wife's last name. It would be a small thing to do, but it would make a difference.

  6. Good article, good analysis. I'd just like to make a side comment and point out the inequalities that those who are not married face. The U.S. government gives tax incentives and tax breaks to married couples, while unmarried couples are denied these benefits. I personally believe that the government should have no role in marriage. It seems to institutionally discriminate against too many individuals. Your analysis and this point makes me so cynical about marriage and makes me not even want to get married (assuming that the government would allow me to get married, of course.)

  7. @Emily - Thanks for the comment! I'm not that plugged in to pop culture, but I respect Brad and Angelina's decision and just wanted to highlight it as a positive example. If more straight couples followed in their footsteps things would start to look different (not to support Brad and Angelina getting married, just to support marriage inequalities).

    @Nathan - I appreciate your insight on the tax break mess - totally agree. I probably should have included this in my blog, but then again it's such a big issue that I really could have been writing for days. I'm with you on keeping the government and marriage separate, but that will never happen (ha, a bit cynical as well). I don't even know if I want to get married because I know I'd be taking advantage of my straight privilege and in turn oppressing the entire gay/lesbian population. In other words, I'd feel pretty hypocritical. It's definitely a frustrating topic but deep down I feel that everyone will eventually have the opportunity :)