April Scissors is a writer and cultural critic. She works to explore and uncover the historical and present implications of faulty representations of people of color, women, and other marginalized groups in politics, popular culture, and media. Find more of her work at aprilscissors.com and on Vocalo.org 89.5fm in Chicago where she is a frequent guest and contributor.
Two nights ago, I dreamt it was my wedding day. The florist dropped off the flowers in Styrofoam to-go boxes; the caterers wanted to know if and where they could smoke weed before the reception; guests asked me to pour them a Coke; I was overcome with emotion that people I’d never spoken to in college were there to celebrate my big day; and the entire cast of Martin showed up. Finally hitting my breaking point, I cried to Martin that everything was a mess (and I didn’t even know who I was to be marrying). He gave me a hug and in a high-pitched voice mocking me, apparently, he repeated the mantra I’d always given him when things got tough. “Whenever I’m having a bad day, I just put five drops of glitter on my face and everything’s better!”
I woke up to make sure there wasn’t a gas leak in my apartment that would’ve caused me to dream such nonsense, but then I began to process why marriage would even be on my mind. Marriage, and more specifically the politics of marriage is everywhere—with the spotlight unforgivingly resting on Black women. Since Barack and Michelle Obama waltzed through their inauguration—looking blissful, accomplished, and in love—a near obsession has taken hold of mainstream news outputs from CNN to the New York Times about why Black women have such low marrying rates compared to other women. Largely spearheading that conversation has been Steve Harvey—the thrice-married comedian whose advice errs on the side of Black women should consider dating men 15-20 years their senior. He’s been on Frontline, The Oprah Winfrey Show, and more recently, Anderson Cooper’s daytime talk show explaining to the world what (Black) women are doing wrong and how they can get right when it comes to love.
To counteract those images of the Obamas, the media engaged in a massive “anti-black woman campaign” to let Black women know that what the First Family has is an “anomaly.” They responded with this statistic: 70% of Black women are single. So for the last few years scholars, scientists, and journalists have been asking “why can’t all these beautiful, successful Black women get married?! Everybody else can!” Theresa Lasbrey calls it “The Obama Effect.” The unspoken message becomes: “Black women, please do not think you’re going to get that fairytale. Your men are in prison, uneducated, and the ones who aren’t only like white women. So there. Go sit down and watch Martin.”
Taking this narrative out of context of Black women, and opening it up to a larger issue of how we deify marriage in American culture, I recognize that a few things are happening. First, it attempts to make (heterosexual, cis-gendered) women act like hamsters on a wheel—constantly chasing an unattainable dream, dishing out money and developing a complex in the process, with no further gain than where we began. In that framework, women turn to one channel and see Bridezillas; they turn to another and see Steve Harvey telling us to “Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man;” another channel says there’s a “crisis” in marriage and it’s our fault; and finally our politicians are saying that we must protect the institution of marriage. The constant that weaves through all of those conversations is that for women to find success in love, we must not hold back in the mental, emotional, spiritual, moral, or financial investment we make to find our Mr. Right. That is coincidentally convenient for publishing houses, the movie industry, media conglomerates, the Religious Right, and you already know—patriarchy—a capitalistic patriarchy—more specifically.
There are two conversations missing on the subject of marriage. The most obvious one is that not every couple can exercise their right to it. Those aforementioned narratives about the current state of marriage distract us from the fact that marriage, as it currently stands, is an unequal and unjust institution. Images of women screaming at their bridesmaids and putting them on diets distance us from the painful reality that an arbitrary system dictates other people’s fulfillment. Seeing dear friends and mentors in loving, committed relationships who only have access to a civil union hurts me on the deepest of levels, but it also forces me to check my privilege as a straight person and do what I can to change things. I would challenge any person or couple who supports gay marriage to not simply state it, but also find a way to make it a reality, whether that’s through donating to an organization like Lambda Legal, stop eating Chick-Fil-A (which has been so hard for me—those nuggets are damn good), or simply being cognizant of how much you talk about your wedding plans to your nonheterosexual friends, just out of respect and awareness of inequality.
And finally, mass media appears to be afraid to broach the possibility that most women might be fine with not being married. While I am in a committed relationship, I am also a womanist/feminist/independentist who believes that I can create a lasting friendship, partnership, and space for love without strong-arming my fella into running down the aisle at high speed just so our relationship appears more legitimate to Rick Perry and Steve Harvey.
Marriage is beautiful and I hope that we can find a place in American society that allows all people who want to experience it be able to. In the meantime, there needs to be some conversation reform. At its core, marriage is a legally-binding contract. There’s obviously nothing romantic or sexy about that. So instead, I choose to focus on what marriage represents—a deep, evolving love, commitment, respect, and honor of another human being that can offer me the same in return. If we could shift the public conversation on marriage to something like that, instead of the measurement of one’s success at life, I might find something more productive to dream about—like the winning lottery numbers.