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I gave up commenting on other people's marriages the day I realized that brother-in-law had become a code word in my family for "the born again jackass who's too stupid to know that he's dumber than all of the women and most of the pets in the family he just married into".

We've had more than our share of brothers-in-law in my family.

There doesn't appear to be much gained from the exercise, unless, of course, you are a character in a Jane Austen novel. And even then, you never know the whole of the story, which is, it seems to me, just as it should be. Projecting appropriate marital values onto someone else's husband or wife never gets you very far, since the only people who really know what goes on inside a relationship and what are the agreed upon parameters thereof, are the two people inside it. This renders the parameters of relationships as vast and varied as are the people that make up our species.

On top of all that, there's just no accounting for taste.  Even in your immediate family (see paragraph one, above). There's little to no objectivity involved in an assessment of tastes.

Nevertheless, there remains in US political discourse, a great heaping tablespoon of marital busybodiness sprinkled across the entire political komentariat's breakfast cereal these days.  And it kind of gives me the creeps.

Feminist and sociologist that I am, I am not unaware of the multiple issues of gender, class, racial privileging and heteronormativity that run through all of this marital rubber-necking that our political culture likes to engage in.  There are a great deal of politics that run through interpersonal relationships and the societal expectations and practices that surround and give those relationships meaning. But the politics we engage when we play cultural voyeurs into the relationships and behavior of individual actors on the political scene tends to caricature and even cheapen those political discussions rather than highlight them and expand understanding about them.

For me, this began many years ago with the discussion of the Clinton marriage, and not simply with the embarrassment and disgust that people had of Bill Clinton's actions, but also with the anger and vitriol that many had for Hilary Clinton's decision to stay in her marriage.  

But the tendency to focus on political figures in the public eye with "bad" marital behavior and to capture that behavior as a sign of something greater than simply a matter between that public figure and his or her significant other has long troubled me. Pointing out GOP hypocrisy vis-a-vis the authoritarian and retrograde "family values" policies and ideologies they support yet do not themselves follow is not an effective political approach to my mind, since the focus always seems to remain on the individual, human failing of the GOP "bad actor" rather than on the insanely authoritarian or retrograde policy he or she professes to believe in.  This is one reason I've never found the discussions about Newt Gingrich's marital history to be a productive or even a useful avenue of criticism.  

And now, just today, I come across discussions of both the Romney and Edwards marriages where the commentary surrounding those marriages is generated from what I'd call a "normative stance".  Nasty stuff, really, where even more than making political commentary, the common denominator seems to be passing normative judgements from an all-seeing, but unseen and unspecific social location of  "authentic" relationships and values, in which the non-normal, and therefore "flawed" relationships (and behavior) can be more easily critiqued.

It's a tad bit too easy for me, I'm afraid. Even if it is for the right outcome in the end. I'm more than a bit troubled by the seeming need to normalize and standardize such things, since the consequences of such "normalization"-- especially in a culture like ours that tends toward authoritarian conformity and a lack of appreciation for how the structures of inequity can foster a diversity of experiences that the "normal" just don't begin to address or correct for--rarely  seems to work in the direction of greater tolerance or a more just arrangement.

It doesn't strike me as a particularly feminist way to look those circumstances.  

But, maybe that's just me.  After all, there is no accounting for taste.

Originally posted to Ungewiss Vor on Tue Apr 24, 2012 at 10:04 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.


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