When I was in third grade our teacher announced that on the leap year, it was okay for women to propose to men. By the time lunch came around I decided that Josh, the skinny, sandy-haired boy I sat across from, was the one. We staged pseudo weddings in the hallway, constructing rings out of tape or twine. There were multiple engagements and week by week the marriages fell apart as my classmates announced their impending divorces.
Josh and I continued our harmless flirting. I have a faded memory of fighting over a pool noodle on a class field trip. Years later I saw him covered in acne tripping balls on MDMA at a basement bar in East Vancouver. “It’s so sad,” I said to a friend. “He was my first crush.”
Looking back I’m not sure exactly what I thought was so sad about the situation. Was I upset because he looked bad? Because my idyllic childhood fantasy of a heteronormative (albeit femme-initiated) marriage was destroyed by the inevitable ageing of my play-partner? At this point I understood that people change, but unfortunately for Josh, I didn’t realize the absurdity of writing someone off at the age of 16 for doing too many drugs. Clearly I hadn’t gone through my phase yet.
As a teenager I was vehemently opposed to marriage. Not because my parents had gone through a nasty divorce but because they didn’t actually believe in marriage themselves. Growing up, my father would tell me the story of how he proposed to my mother, promising her a ring and a family and everlasting love, just without the wedding.
The child in me always thought this was super romantic. So what if my parents ended up getting married so that they could move overseas and give birth to me? They never needed an institution to prove their undying love. Maggie Nelson stakes a similar claim with the marriage of poets Mary and George Oppen in her book In The Argonauts. She argues that because Mary never wanted to wed and because their union, much like my parents’, was only for ease of travel, forged under a fake pseudonym, their marriage was romantic “by virtue of it being a sham.”
After my father’s passing I became even more skeptical of marriage, and maybe of men in general. I would eavesdrop on my mom and her friends, listening to them whisper about the abuse of their peers, questioning why so-and-so couldn’t leave her husband or how come she was still a slave to her grown children. I began to realize that marriage was not solely a negotiation of love and loss but also an issue of ownership, that these relationships harboured the deepest antagonisms of white middle-class suburbia, affluence and authority. I now understood that the crude jokes and domineering behaviours of uncles and family friends were not simply flirtatious affections rooted in fatherly care, but instead were poorly guised cover-ups of deep rooted misogynistic tendencies, the power plays of middle-aged men with bruised egos. It wasn’t that I hated all men, I just deeply resented the old white ones. So what if I have Daddy issues?
Of course these exchanges of power are changing and to be married does not necessitate an abusive relationship. For the privileged millennial, partnerships are at least conceptualized as equal. Trendy feminist weddings undermine the cringe-worthy traditions of conventional ceremonies as wealthy couples trade churches for bohemian-themed barn weddings. And, for the wealthy graduate of a liberal college, this type of matrimony can feel freeing, revolutionary even. But what are the Instagram-worthy details of an alternative wedding but a smokescreen for marriage’s unfortunate ugly history as a system of control and ownership of women?
Now I’m more aware of my privilege, I understand that for many, marriage isn’t always a choice. And if it is, maybe I shouldn’t be so quick to judge. Just because one of my friends refers to his wife as “the old ball and chain” doesn’t mean all relationships are bad. Still, I couldn’t help but feel weird when my best friend told me that she was getting married. We talked about this. Fuck the patriarchy.
I knew the engagement was coming. We spoke about how she wanted to marry him. They discussed eloping, avoiding the extravagant wedding, the inevitable family drama, the dress. But just months after the engagement the wedding was already planned. She chose a vintage-inspired gown, she’s getting married in an art gallery. I know she feels uncomfortable about the the money, the performance, asking people to celebrate her. But I also know that she loves this man and for whatever reason, wants to be married to him. So I help her pick out shoes and I laugh with her when she tells me that she made a Pinterest account.
I have other friends who are married. One for a visa, another to the man of her dreams who she refers to as “Mr. Big Sexy.” I tend to idolize the former who married for money and as a silent stance against his Christian family who would be crushed if they ever found out that he was married to another man.
In The Argonauts, Nelson juxtaposes her investigation into the Oppens’ marriage with her own journey of marriage and childbirth, exploring what it means to be queer while “begging entrance into historically repressive structures.” Like Nelson, I’ve realized that civil unions don’t necessitate a shared experience across couples, regardless of gender, race or class. And while I now see my father’s proposal as little more than a representation of a childish faith in monogamy and everlasting love, a pseudo-anarchic gesture inspired by his post-1960s teendom, I understand that for him, it was still romantic.
The next time when I go through my friends wedding photos I’ll try not to scoff at the carefully posed pair of Louboutins on top of a sign reading L-O-V-E. I’ll kindly accept the wedding invitations and try to remember, this is for them, not me.
Words by Mary Rich.
Illustrations by Martha Somerfield.