I wrote this piece for the San Francisco Chronicle in 2000. Living in San Francisco and witnessing the fight for marriage equality inspired me, a heterosexual woman, to think of marriage in a new way. While I always thought the institution was irrelevant and kind of stupid, I came to see it as exciting and alive. I still do. Thank you to the gay movement for vivifying marriage for all of us.
Recognizing the sanctity – and a travesty – of marriage
Published 4:00 am, Tuesday, February 22, 2000
I DIDN’T think TV could shock me anymore. But then, during sweeps week last week, I watched Fox’s new hit, “Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?” and realized modern television had sunk to a new low.
The show began with the introduction of 50 women, all competing for the grand prize of marriage to a multimillionaire, their union to be sealed with a $34,000 engagement ring.
The women stepped into the klieg lights wearing everything from bathing suits to wedding gowns, exposing their bodies to be rated and judged. Meanwhile, Mr. Multimillionaire was safely shrouded in a darkened booth. The whole scene brought to mind the voyeuristic ambiance of a peep show.
During one of the show’s worst sequences, each finalist had 30 seconds to convince Mr. Multimillionaire that she was the one he should choose. While guitar porn rock played in the background, the women said things like, “I know just how to please a man.”
At the end of the show, Mr. Multimillionaire finally appeared in a tux and chose his bride, the blondest and thinnest of them all.
I was stunned by this degradation and mockery of the marriage ceremony. How can there be any presumption of honesty or integrity in marriage vows when the groom takes them – as Mr. Multimillionaire did – just moments after meeting his wife to be, promising to love her until death?
Are those elements that I thought were key to marriage – vows and love and commitment – without real meaning?
A wedding ceremony should be a sacred celebration, inspired by devotion so powerful that those in love want to make a lifelong commitment to each other publicly.
Yet on the Fox Network, marriage became a modern-day flesh auction with women transformed into a commodity to be purchased by a wealthy man.
I’m not completely naive. I know that marriage was initially created as a financial contract. I know that in Biblical times the purpose of marriage was to control the means of reproduction – that is, women.
I know that when women had no social, political or financial power, when they were not allowed to own property and were only valued for how many children they could bear, marriage existed just to ritualize the transfer of ownership of women from fathers to husbands.
I know that remnants of these ancient roles of womanhood are still prevalent in marriage ceremonies, but I had thought they no longer had significance.
Though brides still traditionally wear white, the color has lost its relevance as a symbol of virginal innocence, once so prized in a woman. Few recall now, when the priest asks if anyone has just cause why the marriage should not take place, that the question was originally meant to determine if anyone had evidence that the bride was, in fact, not a virgin.
Fast forward a few thousand years to the debut of Fox’s top-rated show. After watching these women on TV, whose worth was measured by how well they conformed to limited ideals of beauty, while male worth was measured by wallet size, I was feeling pretty cynical about gender roles and matrimony.
As supporters of the initiative condemned gay marriage for defiling a holy institution, I thought of the irony. An elegantly packaged prostitution ring on prime time television is perfectly legal, yet two people in love who want to make a public and legal, lifetime commitment to each other, with sincere vows, are forbidden legal recognition of their marriage because they are of the same sex.
While “Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?” illustrates the worst of marriage, defeating Prop. 22 would bring out the best of it. Allowing gay people to marry shatters all of the antiquated sex stereotypes that still threaten to be resurrected in popular culture.
If marriage is to survive and thrive in this millennium, it needs to evolve. The marriage contract is a living document. We need to keep the best of it – the love, the romance, the vows – and leave behind those elements that reduce human beings to property.
If Californians really are concerned with family values, they should be fighting for the right of people who truly love each other to legalize their commitment.