Marriage and meritocracy

I want to begin by saying that the Supreme Court decisions today in favor of gay marriage are an unambiguously positive thing, a step forward for justice and equality. While I am skeptical for various reasons of the gay rights movement’s strategic focus on “inclusion” issues (such as gay marriage and gays in the military), it is my duty as an ally to defer to those directly affected when it comes to setting priorities, and I am very glad to see that the movement has had such a string of successes in recent years.

What I want to talk about in this post is not meant to reflect negatively on the movement and its priorities. Instead, it is an effort to think through the conditions of possibility of this victory. Conservatives are correct that the legalization of gay marriage changes the meaning of marriage — it really does, and in a good way. What is perhaps less noted is that this success presupposes a prior change in the meaning of marriage, or rather a series of changes over the course of the 20th century. Despite the claims of the traditionalists, marriage has actually been a very dynamic and fluid institution in modernity, serving a wide variety of functions and providing a momentary solution to a range of social, political, and economic conflicts. I don’t intend to account for the entire complex process here, but suffice it to say that marriage is constantly evolving — and in fact, much more momentous changes than the acceptance of gay marriage have happened in the last 100 years (most notably, the routinization of divorce).

In recent decades, marriage has taken up a new role with the emergence of a self-confident meritocratic elite under neoliberalism. Instead of serving as one’s entry point into adult life, it acts instead as a kind of capstone, a signal that one has “arrived” in one’s career and achievements and can now afford the time commitments and costs associated with marriage and particularly childrearing. Indeed, the latter costs are increasingly significant given that the children are presumably going to be raised with an eye toward their own meritocratic rise. This cost is recoded as a privilege by the perception that family (which is essentially synonymous with children, since most upwardly-mobile young people tend to settle into monogamous cohabitation long before marriage) is a potent source of meaning and self-expression, a reward for all that hard work of building a career.

If in the Mad Men era the mark of success was the ability to essentially ignore one’s family while enjoying access to a wide range of sexual experiences, now the situation has reversed: monogamy and devotion are the symbol of success. And the reason this can make sense as a symbol of elite arrival is that the trappings of a bourgeois nuclear family can no longer be taken for granted as they were in the postwar heyday of the “traditional family” — they are the exception rather than the norm. In the lower and working classes, successful marriages are increasingly difficult to sustain amid the strain and upheaval that comes from uncertain employment and financial prospects (a problem that is compounded by the systematic criminalization of young men in minority communities). While marriage is still a widely-shared goal, the situation now is similar to that with college: a relatively small elite get to really enjoy its benefits, while a growing number of aspirants are burdened with significant costs (student debt, the costs of divorce) without much to show for it.

Now that marriage has become a meritocratic aspirational goal, it makes sense to think of it primarily in terms of equal opportunity and equal access. Why should a successful young couple be deprived of this valuable status symbol simply because they’re gay? Surely the facts of the DOMA case provide some potent symbolism here. The couple in question was wealthy enough to have to pay over $300,000 in estate taxes — and the surviving spouse was wealthy enough to pay the amount in question and then undertake many years of litigation in order to reclaim it. This was a couple that had most definitely “made it,” and given the broader cultural context, it makes sense that they — rather than the vulnerable and downtrodden gay partners who are deprived of hospital visitation rights or health insurance or who are separated from children they helped to raise — get to be the gay couple whose complaint proves legally decisive.

I am not trying to make a “guilt by association” argument here (though I’d be willing to bet over $300,000 that Ross Douthat’s column in the Sunday Times will be broadly similar to this blog post, with a “guilt by association” twist). The fact that this victory for gay marriage plays so perfectly into our meritocratic culture does not discredit it or render gay marriage itself questionable — I cannot imagine a just or desirable regime of family formation that would exclude gay couples. Much that was problematic about our current regime of marriage still remains firmly in place, however, even after the indisputably positive step of ending the exclusion of gay couples from it.

19 thoughts on “Marriage and meritocracy

  1. So your mention of deferring to those affected by an oppression to decide priorities is interesting to me because it seems that allyship and meritocracy come into convergence here. That is, in many ways, the prioritization of marriage seems to have occurred precisely through this very meritocracy of gay wealth and elitism. Gay bourgeoisie folks have been at the helm of gay marriage movements and gathering corporate funding for this “progress” even as many queer folks who inhabit more vulnerable positions or are more left politically, have questioned and, indeed, attempted to prioritize other issues that deal more directly with vulnerabilities of queer folks who don’t have access to the benefits of marriage because they aren’t wealthy & white, don’t have stable employment, housing, etc.

    In many ways the cries of “second-class citizen” that so many wealthy gay elites are used to reciting wrt exclusion from marriage ring hollow at some level because the material affects of poverty, patriarchy, and white supremacy don’t touch them in the gratuitous ways they visit more vulnerable bodies. What is really at stake, as you point out here, is their ability to access cultural capital, but, also to become tied to a certain heternormative construction of kinship wherein their wealth and status become inheritable through legal recognition by the law.

    So, even recognizing a need to defer to those affected by a certain oppression, it seems that to claim allyship would require a bit more than just deference to a folks who claim a certain identity or oppression given the varying levels of vulnerability that enable or disable certain positions from becoming priorities in the first place.

    Which is why, I think, the SCOTUS decisions on VRA, Tribal Sovereignty in Adoption, and DOMA are so interesting both in their temporal proximity to being passed and in the material affects they have on lives of the most vulnerable. So that, on the one hand DOMA’s reversal enables the further march of a privatized conception of benefits tied to marriage and wealth, and on the other the public political exercise of voting rights by black and brown folks and Tribal sovereignty is undercut. So that there is a privileging here of who is a recognizable or legitimate subject before the law, and it doesn’t look like black and brown and red folks, or poor folks.

  2. You’re right of course. I may have been too clever for my own good here — my expression of humble submission was a rhetorical ploy to try to increase the odds that people could actually hear what I’m saying rather than just instinctively objecting: “Oh, so gay marriage is bad because rich people want it” or some stupid thing like that. My hope was that I would passive-aggressively undermine the mainstream gay rights position from within. But that’s probably too many rhetorical layers for a blog post.

  3. “… Much that was problematic about our current regime of marriage…”

    Just curious, what is your idea of the ideal “marriage regime”?

  4. “Full communism”, hear hear. Only outside of capitalism would marriage become a human decision as opposed to a business decision.

    Those of us who have been active within queer leftist “scenes” or organizations have long ago renounced any and all allies who have been pushing for gay marriage. In fact, this particular struggle has radicalized many of us…we’ve quickly realized that gay marriage “activism” is merely the desire to refine a more effective “homonormativity” that is merely a nice capitalist parallel to heteronormativity. As a result, the small gap that used to separate mainstream gay culture from radical queer culture has over the past decade or so become a huge chasm. And that’s a great thing- false allies are only effective once they are revealed to be enemies. Now we just sit back and watch as our culture’s aesthetics and signs are taken up and commodified by capital while the political substance is ignored. It can only be a good thing to reduce political substance away from identity.

    The decision to change the meaning of marriage has very little impact on the lives of those without bourgeois credentials; very few of the queer radicals i’ve met around the world even think it worth mentioning, except in jest. This news lands with a thud for those of us who have no interest in being good capitalist subjects.

    And Adam, thanks for your efforts to “passive-aggressively undermine the mainstream gay rights position from within”, but even those of us who have been doing exactly that (non-passively) for years have realized through much trial and error that it is a futile task. This SCOTUS decision just signals the disappearance of gays, once and for all, into the mainstream. They spent all their cultural capital (a hateful term, i know) on this, the ability to enter more easily into the meritocracy.

  5. I am the proud father of a 5 year old, and have considered having more children with my current girlfriend, but, beside from the fact that I can’t afford it, really, the more I look around me the more I see very clearly what Adam is talking about, the total commodification of children (I heard that recently children became liabilities rather than assets, from a strictly monetary perspective), and I start to think that, like with the potential multiple true meanings of marriage/long term relationships, we will not know the potential multiple meanings of childhood, motherhood, fatherhood, etc. under the aegis of neoliberal self-entrepreneurship.

  6. And, too, as a married father of three I am kind of surprised by the hocus-pocus around class and race: being a parent with other parents in school gets us ‘together’ into a community, be it the parent’s association or the audience at the Kindergarten graduation, and school divisions are often centered around class, but the a new stratification emerges among parents to recreate a microcosm of intolerance and privilege that reflects the world they believe they have ‘won,’ while still victims to it. Sorry, thinking out loud and taking out my own frustrations…

  7. If marriage is becoming nothing but a financial transaction perhaps the best way to defend marriage would be to abolish it. Set up civil unions for those who wish to share assets (meaning not just heterosexual and homosexual civil unions, but maybe even Platonic ones as well) and revoke marriage as something that the government even has a role in recognizing. Then people who do get married would perhaps do so out of more noble motives (such as actually loving one another) and not for the sake of a long term financial investment. An added benefit would be that people wouldn’t have to pretend to like each other just for the sake of purely cynical mutual interest and thus not make other couples look bad by association. I think there’s a Ganf of Four song about this somewhere…

  8. I didn’t tell you what to do (unless you count my recommendation of “full communism”). Obviously you read far enough into the comments to have read Amaryah’s comment — interesting that you’re getting huffy with me but ignoring her!

  9. Certainly marriage has been shaped by neoliberal values and the nuclear family has become a commodity that only an elite few can afford. I get it. But perhaps once the swanky wedding is over and the Peg Perego is selected, marriage and childrearing still have a power beyond neoliberalism to train us to virtues quite unlike the habits of the marketplace: fidelity over time, patience, and above all, hope. I learned the virtue of hope in hospital waiting rooms with sick kids far better than I had in academic halls or in activist gatherings. It’s hard not to sound maudlin here. But perhaps the family–even as it has evolved in neoliberal society– can, by the grace of God, be a site for neoliberalism’s undermining. For me the good news about yesterday’s ruling is that such a possibility is not closed to gays and lesbians. That’s good news not just for them, but also for the neoliberal family, that may now, because of this ruling, be trained in virtues that resist the heteronormative, sexist and nationalistic orientations that ensnare it.

  10. Jane, that view of family and marriage seems to suggest that commitment over time, patience, etc., are not available to people outside of marriage, which seems an odd move to make especially given the history of queer expulsion from families and new models of kinship that have been taken up by many queer folks in place of a nuclear family tied to marriage.

  11. Not at all. I was just saying that marriage and childrearing can be a school of virtue that is, in fact, at odds with the habits of neoliberalism. It’s not the only one. And my last sentence was trying to say that gay marriage may well transform the family beyond its current neoliberal configuration. Or so I would hope.


    “You are right about all the benefits that come with marriage, that so many homos would like to have. But gee, why should those benefits be tied to state legitimated monogamy? Why aren’t the young ones on the barricades for universal, single payer national health care, rather than hoping to get private insurance through marriage? Why not march for more open immigration policies rather than hope to bring just their legal spouse into the country? Why not allow everyone to choose their next of kin for medical decision making and all that, regardless of the nature of the relationship?”

  13. Pingback: Clarissa's Blog

Comments are closed.