Wednesday, July 16, 2008

“The Meaning of Wife”: When Nothing that was Actually Old is New Again

By: Caitlin Murphy

While walking through the insanity that is Penn Station early on a Tuesday morning, I was in a different state than the normal look-straight-ahead-and-maintain-efficient-steps routine I usually maintain: I was actually hyper-aware of marital imagery.

After finishing another chapter from Anne Kingston’s “The Meaning of Wife”, I almost laughed out loud to really see an advertisement for “Bridezillas” on WeTV at the exit of my train. I’d passed by the advertisement for several months without ever truly pausing to think about the implications of the entrenched message it sends about brides-- women who are getting married turn into emotionally unstable, child-like beasts that act on primal, deep-seated urges. These urges, we’re told, “naturally” affect us all, but certain women get more “passionate” than others about it. Not more than a minute later, I noticed a young woman carrying chocolate-brown bag that had pink dots and big, swirling letters that read “Bridesmaid” on the side. Once again, this revealed another entrenched message I had never quite reflected on before-- that the actual wedding day is a kind of fashion statement that is far more important than the actual marriage.

Both of these seemingly innocent encounters with bride/wife imagery shocked me into the realization that there is a steady flow of marital images that we subconsciously gloss over daily. However, no matter how little attention we may pay to these details, they play an important role in filling in the “gap” that has developed in defining brides and wives since the 1960s.

As Kingston posits, a “wife chasm” opened up following the slew of new legislative rights women won for their bodies, their finances, their career choices, their property, and their self. While there was a positive re-definition in what a woman legally could or could not do, there was a non-existent “catch up” in terms of what a woman socially and culturally could do, be, act like, and want. Since no new script was provided for women that found themselves with these new rights, there was a glaring “gap” in what the new definition of what a woman, and a wife, would be. Commercial, corporate, and political forces, while initially met with the “wife-lash” that followed the 1960s, found the huge niche easy to fill with a variety of messages that were generally accepted by the 1990s, which heralded a very deliberate shift from “wife-lash” to “wife-lust”.

The kinds of marital messages that I’ve been taking in and accepting subconsciously (such as that brides innately go off the deep-end during the wedding process-- itself a showy, elaborate affair) are purposefully packaged to appear as if they are timeless pearls of wisdom. However, if looked at closer, the over-the-top, “traditional” weddings that are expected today were never truly “traditional”, as only royalty could actually afford them. One of the most damaging messages, Kingston points out, is that the frustrated, burnt-out wife that can’t “do it all” is a new character in modern society that needs to deal with her own personal issues. (When in reality, she has been around for centuries, in any society that attributes more rights and responsibilities to wives outside the home and expects her to take on many new, extra roles without any additional government, societal, or corporate support.) Kingston points out that the attempt of women to “do it all” has ironically left many women in the kind of robotic, “Stepford Wives” state that the original film was tongue-in-cheekily suggesting as the solution for independent, feminist-prone women. Worse, there is a complimentary message that even if a wife can “do it all”, she must love keeping a blissed-out, warm, loving home through the fruits of her domestic labor, no matter how banal or arduous the chore. Kingston puts it bluntly: “A chore is a chore.”

So what is the solution in a society in which chores are weighted with emotional love, titles like “Bridesmaid” are weighed as fashion labels, and brides are weighed as “naturally” unstable, irrational beasts? We have to un-do exactly what is keeping these martial images entrenched in the “wife gap”– we have to strip the subconscious weight that is holding their place and make way for the kind of definition “wife” has needed for decades. This new definition would suggest something that at this point in our “wife-lust” culture would seem quite radical: that “wife” must become a gender-neutral term, as it captures all of the domestic duties and emotional support that two partners must be willing to share. As Kingston points out, this kind of re-definition requires an admittance on the part of the government and corporations that they must step in provide the kind of aid and support the modern family necessitates, but just as importantly, it involves finally looking at women and men as human beings who can only handle a certain amount of responsibility and emotional pressure. Perhaps then, the battle cry of “the feminist movement screwed me over” can be restated in the next generation of young women and wives as “we still have a way to go”.

The Younger Women’s Task Force–New York Chapter holds a monthly book club that discusses issues such as those brought up by Kingston with a group of intelligent and fiery young New York women that care. The book club will be meeting this month to discuss Kingston’s “The Meaning of Wife” at 7pm, July 16th, at Tea Spot, located at 127 Macdougal St.

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