February 1, 2004
What's Love Got to Do With It?
he contest that counts is not between the Patriots and the Panthers. As always, the Super Bowl's commercials will very likely prove the main event, and today's show features a high-stakes ad-agency bout: for the first time, two prescription drugs for erectile dysfunction, Levitra and Cialis, are squaring off in the quest to grab a piece of the Viagra action. Who doesn't want to Monday-morning quarterback their double entendres? We've come a long way from Bob Dole, baby. Total sales for the three drugs approached $1.3 billion last year a market that indexes not just erectile but marital dysfunction. The commercials we've seen thus far tend to depict vaguely forlorn middle-aged couples in need of a second honeymoon. One little pill and bingo! Suddenly the Levitra guy is tossing a football smack through the middle of a tire swing.
But American marriage may be beyond the redemption of GlaxoSmithKline or anyone else. We live in a country where the on-again, off-again J. Lo-Ben nuptials, now mercifully as kaput as "Gigli," got more attention than the Mideast road map. The reality TV craze, from "Joe Millionaire" to "Average Joe," works nightly to recalibrate the definition of marriage into a glitzy form of legalized prostitution. Britney Spears signs on to a 55-hour Vegas marriage "just for the hell of it," and someone else sells pictures of the festivities, including one of the groom sticking his hand down her pants, for up to $100,000 to supermarket tabloids. After the marriage was annulled, Ms. Spears told MTV, "I do believe in the sanctity of marriage, I totally do."
Now comes the coup de grâce: in a campaign year likely to be poisoned by a culture war over same-sex marriage, politicians feel compelled to play marriage counselors. Last month the president from the small-government party proposed a $1.5 billion program that will mount its own advertising push, among other federal elixirs, to promote "healthy marriages." Some might argue that taxpayers' money would be better spent on drug plans that cover Viagra for husbands who leave their wives for the N.F.L., or, better still, on job programs that would increase the ranks of the potentially marriageable. Cynics might say that the president's "healthy marriage" initiative is merely political posturing anyway. Congress will never sign on to such a scheme or so one might hope and meanwhile the president can claim credit for, as he put it himself, taking "a principled stand for one of the most fundamental, enduring institutions of our civilization."
But what civilization, exactly, is he talking about? Since 1970, the percentage of American adults in this enduring institution has dropped from 68 to 56, the percentage of households containing married couples with kids from 45 to 26. As Mr. Bush substituted Saddam Hussein for Osama bin Laden, so he seems confused about the enemy here. Even as he gets bogged down battling gay couples who want the same civil rights as other Americans, the real culprit goes about its business. That culprit is a heterosexual culture determined to reduce marriage to a voyeuristic spectator sport as brutal and commercial as pro football but not nearly so entertaining or harmless. It says a lot about how out of touch Mr. Bush and his speechwriters are with this culture that he repeated Britney Spears's "sanctity of marriage" language in the State of the Union only days after she had made the phrase a national joke.
It's against this backdrop that Diane Sawyer's "Primetime Thursday" interview with
Though I have no vested interest in Howard Dean, it was refreshing that he initially refrained from using his wife as a prop on the campaign trail. (Take Joe and Hadassah's shtick, please!) The Deans didn't want their marriage to be a proto-feminist, anti-feminist or even "Everybody Loves Raymond" role model. They simply refused to pose for the contrived and usually fictionalized marital snapshots that the political press demands and then analyzes to death. If I've learned anything from my own two marriages, it's that no one knows what goes on in another couple's marriage anyway not even the Clintons'.
When post-Iowa panic drove Howard Dean to reverse himself, it was sad, even though his wife gave her assent. The Sawyer interview was painful to watch not just because it was one long chain of "When did you stop beating your wife?" questions on the subject of the candidate's temper, but because Judy Dean was clearly shy and unpracticed in the art of spin. The only image she cared about passionately was the one she projects to her children and her patients. She seemed genuinely ignorant of the whole media game. "I don't like watching TV that much," she told Ms. Sawyer. She hadn't even seen her husband's infamous "scream" until a friend gave her a tape of it the day after. Not watching TV and not wanting to be on TV has in itself become a form of virginity in America, rarer than the other kind, so rare as to be poignant. There was nothing fun about watching it being violated for public consumption, even if the Deans were wholly complicit in their own video deflowering. (So much so that the Dean campaign would soon distribute 120,000 videos of the show to New Hampshire voters.)
Like everyone else, Ms. Sawyer likened the Deans' joint appearance to the Clintons' Super Bowl Sunday "stand by your man interview" on "60 Minutes." (Celebrate its 12th anniversary tonight.) But the Deans were not defending themselves against charges of marital turbulence and infidelity. Quite the contrary: they were defending themselves against charges of having a marriage that was if anything too deficient in the melodrama that might lend it entertainment value and too private to be repackaged as a circus. Now they found themselves damned if they defended their attempt to keep their marriage off the public stage and damned if they didn't. No sooner would they explain how they tried, as Judy Dean put it, to "balance" their careers with their personal lives than Ms. Sawyer would point out that the Clintons "had a young daughter at the time they campaigned" or that
The implication of the questions was clear: where do the Deans get off refusing to turn their marriage into a spectator sport? It was downright un-American. Why couldn't they display their marital bliss with the same polish as that other happy two-career political couple, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver?
As it happens, the Deans were not the only celebrity marriage that Ms. Sawyer covered for ABC News of late. Just two months ago she interviewed a couple far more famous, Trista Rehn and Ryan Sutter. On Dec. 10, Trista and Ryan, as they are known, were married in prime time on ABC in the most-watched American wedding in history, second in audience by only a hair to that of Diana and Charles. God knows it was something to see, an epic display of everything that's gone wrong with American marriage, all packaged and sold as "the wedding of your dreams."
For those who had the good fortune to miss it, Trista is a physical therapist and former Miami Heat dancer who had previously tried and failed to snare a guy on the ABC reality show "The Bachelor." ABC brought her back for "The Bachelorette," a gender-reversed retread of the same series, and after much prime-time deliberation she chose Ryan, a firefighter, as the winner over 24 other men seeking her hand. The network turned the marriage into a four-hour extravaganza (over three nights) in which the couple gleefully surrendered their privacy. According to Trista's "Bachelorette" contract, published by the Smoking Gun Web site, only one activity was off-limits: the producers promised that no hidden cameras would be "positioned to intentionally capture images of you urinating or defecating in the bathroom." (The consummation of the marriage also went unseen, but you never know what might be auctioned off on eBay.)
The betrothed were paid $1 million for allowing the cameras to facilitate our voyeurism. The wedding itself cost nearly $4 million, also paid for by the show. Much of the endless televised foreplay that preceded the ceremony was therefore devoted to shopping, with Trista taking to the wares of Rodeo Drive as joyously as the hooker played by Julia Roberts in "Pretty Woman," another Disney entertainment. This, too, is in keeping with the present marital culture. As Rebecca Mead reported in The New Yorker last year, Americans now spend $40 billion annually on weddings, a bigger business than McDonald's or PepsiCo. Marriage may be in decline, but its value as a brand lingers on.
Yet neither the $1 million cash nor the $4 million ceremony that sealed their marital contract were mentioned when Trista and Ryan were interviewed by Ms. Sawyer on "Good Morning America." While the Deans were treated like freaks, the stars of "The Bachelorette" were treated as a perfectly normal all-American couple. And perhaps these days they are. Trista and Ryan's wedding broadcast was the top-rated show in virtually every major television market, the one exception being Washington, where it was beaten by a rerun of "Law and Order." If only more of our politicians had tuned in, maybe someone would have figured out that it could be harder to restore the sanctity of marriage than to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.