Marriage Misrepresented


Conservatives governments all over the world advocate small and decentralised leadership. At the same time, they argue for their right to legislate against (and, in the USA, listen in on) people’s private lives: their rights to marry or adopt (if they’re gay), or the right to have an abortion. In Australia, the wording of (heterosexual) marriage ceremonies has come under scrutiny. The media colludes in this.

Why does the New York Times think it is interesting to run yet another story on the Clintons’ marriage but it’s left to the tabloid Globe to report on the Bushs’ arrangements? According to The Globe:

George and Laura Bush’s marriage has collapsed as his approval ratings plummet and a host of mounting personal problems rip the First Couple apart and push them to secretly lead separate lives! The Globe has learned that while George and Laura still appear as the first couple at various public functions, they hardly speak to one another in private and don’t even want to be in the same room together. ‘When the cameras aren’t on, they have nothing to do with one another,’ a longtime friend confides to The Globe. ‘There’s no interaction at all. For all practical purposes, they’ve broken up.’

George W Bush is, after all, the current President of the United States. His right to privacy, it could be argued, is tenuous. He is also arguing for his Administration’s right to spy on its own population. And as he aggressively pushes a Christian Right agenda on issues such as contraception, abstinence and marriage, it’s ‘liberal’ or Left-wing couples whose relationships come under government/media scrutiny.


The following statistics were given by The New York Times to support rumours that Hillary and Bill’s marriage was a sham: ‘Since the start of 2005, the Clintons were together about 14 days a month on average, according to aides. Out of the last 73 weekends they spent 51 together.’

Personally, I think spending 51 out of 73 weekends together suggest that, actually, they want to spend time in each other’s company. Fourteen days a month, given the jobs Bill and HiIlary do and how long they have been married, seems like good going.

Marriage, as discussed by politicians and the media, has become an unrecognisable institution. It is decreasingly, I suspect, something that any gay couple, or indeed many heterosexual couples, would envy. It is one that does not allow couples to spend time apart, or to negotiate the tricky sexual moments that almost all long-term marriages go through.

As Virginia Stephen wrote in a letter to her husband-to-be, Leonard Woolf, marriage is a ‘tremendous living thing.’ Her marriage survived 30 years and the different sexual orientation of its partners. Rather than a living thing, marriage, as described by conservatives and the media, seems static, claustrophobic and simplistic.

In the USA, such conservative formulations and pressures on marriage have resulted in much higher divorce rates in Republican States than Democratic ones. In 2004, the US Census Bureau found that nine out of the 10 lowest divorce rates occurred in Democratic States. Divorce rates in Republican States were 50 per cent higher than the national average. For example, (Democratic) Massachusetts had a divorce rate of 2.4 per 1000 population. The rate for (Republican) Texas was 4.1.

Plenty of fish in the sea!
Thanks to Sharyn Raggett

The recent ‘Rex Hunt Affair’ in Melbourne is a case in point about our changing expectations for marriage. Regular listeners to Hunt’s radio program may well have been repelled by his hypocrisy, when the outspoken upholder of ‘traditional family values’ was exposed as having had a, shall we say, less-than-traditional sexual life. But I felt that the fact Hunt had paid for sex during a difficult time in his marriage, while misjudged, seemed to be a pragmatic (and not particularly unusual) way to maintain the marital relationship that was very important to him.

But then a few days after the Hunt ‘revelations,’ an opinion piece run in The Age managed to make the insulting suggestion that the reason why women like Rex’s wife, Lynne Hunt, stand by their man is that as single, divorced women they will lack status in the community:

If you are married to a well-known man like Bob Hawke or Bill Clinton, you get a lifestyle. You are finally safe and secure. People recognise you. You go to lovely places and have lovely holidays. You are not alone.

There are several assumptions at work in a statement like this. One is that companionship and friendship are far less important to marriage a pathetic kind of consolation prize than sex. Most married couples would state the opposite. There is also the assumption that the wives of ‘high status’ men never sleep around themselves, that they are always the victims.

What is the point of this confined, unsophisticated and confused representation of marriage? One effect is that newspapers are filled with gossip, innuendo and personal confessionals rather than investigative reporting. I assume it’s cheaper this way. It is also, probably, less demanding on readers though if the 31 pages of The Age’s online comments in response to the Rex Hunt Affair are any indication most readers think this kind of stuff is none of our business.

It also indicates that newspapers usually fall in line with the conservative agenda of most current governments. Certainly, it means they do the governments’ dirty work for them.

In the United States this has had the effect of driving many potential candidates out of politics because they would inevitably fail the media scrutiny of their personal lives most human beings would. And there is no doubt that many fine politicians, on both side of the political fence, have been lost in the process.

In Australia, the eradication of legislation that protects workers’ rights received fewer column inches than the repetitive and circular arguments around ‘wedge’ issues like gay marriage, or the behavior of the hapless, but now single, Shane Warne.

In the media, personal behavior is endlessly scrutinised, corporate behavior less so. This (often dummy) emphasis on the private sphere allows governments and newspapers to sidestep their responsibilities to the public sphere. By public I mean such things as welfare, education, workplace relations, transport infrastructure and global warming.

In the case of Hilary Clinton, it means there will be a lot more discussion of the nature of her marriage than the nature of her policies. One of the interesting things about the television show, The West Wing, was that people talked about policy, not sex. The show presented us with a most lascivious fantasy: that politics meant something and effected real people’s lives in a complex range of ways. But that kind of talk is just too dirty these days.

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