Feminism: the pink elephant in America’s living room

In 12 step programs, people talk about the pink elephant in the living room.That phrase, you probably know, refers to the experience of seeing something totally fucking obvious, right there in front of you, in your living room, but no one else acknowledges it.

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What you experience isn’t real. What you see isn’t happening. At best, later in life, those people who were in the living room might say: OK, maybe that happened, but really, it’s too trivial to make a fuss over, more like a pink mosquito.

Today, meaning right now– April 8 at 11:01AM– feminism is feeling like that to me: pointing out the billboards all over town, the motion picture sexism taking place on giant screens across America, and people telling me it’s not real, it’s not happening, it doesn’t matter.

If my now 45 year old self could say something, not even to my child self, but to the 30 year old me, it would be this: you’re not crazy. What you see is real. What you see is happening, and it matters.

In honor of that message, I’m re-posting something I wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle  when I was 31, right after I saw my first “reality” (get it?) TV show. I was scared to write the op-ed, not only because I worked at a talk radio station where many people didn’t agree with me (or maybe just hadn’t thought deeply about the issue “too trivial”) but because, as I put down those words, I realized how I felt about marriage was changing radically. Marriage was never in my life plan. Fourteen years later, I have a husband and three kids. Of course, I can’t credit the gay marriage movement with all of that, but I can’t deny it planted a seed. I see the words right there. (Did you hear that, radical right, isn’t that what you want for the ladies? Maybe rethink your strategy?)

Recognizing the sanctity – and a travesty – of marriage

MARGOT MAGOWAN
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.

Then something happened to restore my faith. The debate on Proposition 22, the ballot initiative on gay marriage, caught my attention.

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.

One month after I published this, in March of 2000, Proposition 22 passed in California. In May of 2008, it was struck down by the California Supreme Court as contrary to the state constitution. Today, 17 states have legalized same sex marriage.

6 thoughts on “Feminism: the pink elephant in America’s living room

  1. I remember my frustration at trying to articulate to my high school friends why the band name The Cherry Popping Daddies was so damned offensive. I was ridiculed for being prudish and for being hypocritical (because I liked sexually explicit songs by other bands). I felt like lighting my hair on fire and jumping up and down over this issue because it was SO OBVIOUS. But instead, my friends rolled their eyes at me and made it clear that the problem was mine.

    Ignoring the pink elephant in the room is a form of cultural gas lighting. It’s part of the reason why feminists are accused of having no sense of humor. There is no giant pink elephant here–you must be crazy you humorless bitch.

    • Thanks Milly, watching gays fight for a “right” that I took for granted, considered a bore if not an outright prison, really inspired me.

      Margot

  2. “What you experience isn’t real. What you see isn’t happening.” People are always trying to tell me this. Then after citing more examples than should be necessary I’ll get a concession that “it might be there, but it’s not a problem.”

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