I always assumed that I would get married someday. Until recently, I never questioned my reasons for assuming it; marriage seemed like an inevitable stepping stone between birth and death, like something that happens to a person rather than something a person does. It wasn’t until my brother’s wedding that I realized the terrifying enormity of this thing that, up until that point, I thought everyone stumbled into one way or another. Watching someone I loved, someone who in my mind was still only about 17 years old, commit the rest of his life to another person, I was forced to reckon with how poorly the love stories of my childhood prepared me for the realities of marriage. Beyond the fairy tale, beyond the wedding, my media education had left me pathetically in the dark.
It’s no surprise when you realize how heavily the “marriage plot” figures into our pop culture narratives, especially those targeted towards young women. The marriage plot is at the core of virtually any romantic comedy: boy meets girl, boy and girl circle around each other for the better part of the story, boy and girl overcome all obstacles and realize they’re meant to be together forever. The defining feature of the genre is that the story ends in a wedding (more traditionally) or some other kind of presumably permanent coupling for the protagonists. Once you become aware of the marriage plot, it’s difficult to unsee it. Think of every Disney movie you watched as a kid, every rom-com and sit-com you’ve seen in the past year and virtually anything starring Meg Ryan. The marriage plot is one of the few basic formulas by which we know how to consume and understand narratives about women. And, like any formula that distills a wide range of human experiences into a narrow set of possibilities, it fails to tell the whole story.
One reason the marriage plot fails to accurately or insightfully represent real relationships is that it is, quite literally, archaic. The genre was encoded in Shakespeare’s comedies, which were defined less by humor than by their wedding finales, and then popularized in the 19th century novels of Jane Austen. But there’s a significant disconnect between what marriage meant for women in a pre-feminist age and what it means now. For Shakespeare, Austen and their respective contemporaries, marriage was essentially an economic contract between the groom and the bride’s father. The bride’s consent was largely irrelevant and, whether or not there was any real love involved in the match, her position relative to her new husband was servile at best. I was always struck by how much less interesting I found the heroines of these stories after their weddings; take Beatrice, the heroine of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” who, despite being one of the more opinionated and spunky women of English literature, ceases to have any lines at all after her wedding. She is literally silenced by marriage, her identity completely obfuscated by that of her husband.
What’s more, the marriage plot and its prevalence in female-centric narratives suggests that marriage — or more accurately, a wedding — is the most significant event of a woman’s life. In Shakespeare’s or Austen’s time, this might have been true; women were denied entry into most professions, couldn’t own or inherit property, and had virtually no economic or reproductive rights, making marriage the climax of their lives even though they had very little say in the matter. These stories end in weddings because, beyond that point, the woman more or less ceases to exist with any degree of independence. So why is it that the marriage plot is still the most popular template for romance today, when by all accounts we should know better?
I’ll admit that I’m as susceptible to a good romantic comedy as the next person — so susceptible, in fact, that I’ve been under the spell of the marriage plot for a long time without even knowing it. The media available to me as a child and teenager taught me that romantic love was the most important pursuit of my life. But the key word here is “pursuit.” I was supposed to pursue love, or more accurately to be pursued as a passive object of someone else’s love, and then the most interesting part of my life would be over, the rest of my story left to vague conjectures of “happily ever after.” On the screen, or in the pages of the book, that kind of narrative offers a rush, but when I stopped to imagine it applying to my own life, it became deeply unsatisfying. I doubt that the media directed at young men contains the same message. Their narratives have problems of their own — the glorification of mindless violence, enforced heterosexuality and emotional constipation to name a few — but they also tend to be stories about taking action and fighting in the pursuit of an ideal rather than passively waiting to be chosen. Romance, if it shows up at all, is secondary to or conflated with sex.
This isn’t a hopeless case. As much as the marriage plot continues to dominate the popular imagination around romance, we’ve already begun to see a shift in the focus of women’s narratives in the media; “Lady Bird,” “Big Little Lies,” “Moana” and “Hidden Figures” are only a few recent examples of stories that are more interested in the ambitions and platonic relationships of their protagonists than in their marriage prospects. The marriage plot also faces an interesting challenge from the increasing representation of non-heterosexual romances. While some gay love stories have erred towards the ostentatiously tragic (see “Brokeback Mountain”) and others conform to marriage-plot conventions in an effort to normalize non-heterosexual experiences (see “Love, Simon”), these narratives are inherently less tied down by the limitations and ingrained inequalities of heterosexual marriage, and therefore open up a third possibility for the portrayal of romantic love: as one event in the complex web of factors that make a person who they are, rather than the sole defining aspect of their life. I hope that the generation after mine takes their cues from these stories, and doesn’t make the mistake of sitting around waiting to be chosen just because John Hughes and Walt Disney told them to.