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Jul. 5 2010 - 9:09 am | 466 views | 0 recommendations | 9 comments

The romance of individualism

A bride tossing her bouquet of flowers. Catego...

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Ah, Americans love a good romance.  It’s our most popular genre of literature.  If you consider romantic comedies, it’s one of our most popular genres of film.  And there are a plethora of reality TV shows, from “Buy the Dress” to the seemingly unstoppable “Bachelor” and “Bachelorette.”  But a huge part of the ideology of  romance is the US is not so much about the smoochy smoochy mushy stuff, but about the romance of individualism.

Think about it.  How many weddings have you been to where the couple said: We wanted to do something different.  So they had their wedding in a falling down farmhouse in Tuscany or a warehouse in Brooklyn.  They wore red, or jeans and tee shirts.  They hiked a mountain or got married underwater.  I have a friend whose daughter is trying to get married- as in perform the ceremony- while skydiving.

And the wedding isn’t the only place to display the romance of individualism.  Proposals are getting increasingly elaborate and “unique.”  In fact, potential grooms are told that if they don’t propose in a unique way, they will regret it for the rest of their lives.  According to RomanceTips,

After all, you want the proposal to be very original and memorable. You want her to marvel at your creativity and planning. After all, you only ask someone to marry you once. You want her to have a great story to tell to her mother, girlfriends, and, someday, your children.

The increasingly elaborate proposal now must involve a trip somewhere, or a thousand candles in the backyard, or skywriting, or a nationally televised sporting event, or anything that marks the groom as “unique” and “creative.”  One of the interesting things about the “traditional” marriage proposal as we know it, the down on bended knee in a restaurant, is it was invented by the diamond industry as a way to mark the diamond as a not everyday item, as sacred if you will.  Prior to the 1940s, proposals were between grooms and prospective father-in-laws and did not involve an elaborate ritual.  But with the increasing popularity of the diamond engagement ring, in part because of the brilliance of DeBeers’ “Diamonds are forever” advertising campaign, the diamond sellers thought they should sell a special way of presenting their goods.  In order to really sell us the ritual, DeBeers didn’t just sell it in ads, but convinced Hollywood to put the bended knee proposal into their movies.

And now the “uniqueness” of our romances must be displayed not just in the weddings themselves and the proposals, but in the ritual “first date.”  According to a story in today’s New York Times, a new dating site allows single New Yorkers to propose their first date rather than the usual dating profiles of “likes” and “dislikes.”  The first dates proposed are not only highly idiosyncratic, but they tend to happen in waves.  In other words, the hip, young New Yorkers looking for the perfectly individualistic romance are doing the exact same things as other hip young New Yorkers looking for the same thing.

New data from a Web site suggests that not only do many people plan similar dates, but like lemmings, they also collectively migrate from one theme to the next. In March, scores of New Yorkers opted to have their first dates over tacos: fish tacos, dried cricket tacos, taco tours of Brooklyn, even post-surfing tacos at Rockaway Beach in Queens. But by month’s end, tacos went out of vogue, and fondue became the fare of choice for first dates. In mid-April, singles relinquished their cheese forks and embraced bring-your-own-beer dates instead. A few weeks later, outings for lobster rolls were all the rage. By mid-May daters cooled on lobster rolls and were eating oysters.

The interesting thing is not that primarily educated, primarily white, primarily young New Yorkers would all engage in the same sort of activities.  Sociologists have shown over and over again that our position in the social world determines our “taste.”  What’s interesting is that they are so committed to seeing romance, the most formulaic of undertakings, as a chance to express individualism.

Avoiding romance in the US at this point in time is a bit like avoiding taxes.  The government grants us rights and privileges based on marital status (over a 1,000 of them).   Gay and lesbian Americans, at least the ones who are primarily white and educated themselves, fight bitterly for the “right” to marry.  Most of our culture is obsessed with “true love” and “happily ever after.”   And so, even though most Americans are in fact unmarried, those of us who are part of the ruling romantic elite- or at least would like to be- do what everyone is supposed to do:

We go on a date, fall in love, get married.

At some level of the cultural unconscious, we know we are in fact doing exactly what is expected of us, what everyone ought to be doing.  And so, we attempt to both march lockstep with the ruling ideology of romance and simultaneously mark it as “our own.”  Imagine lemmings each in a different brightly colored wig as they fall off the cliff that is true love.


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  1. collapse expand

    First, you’re writing about this uh, romance thingie, as if it were some terrible marketing campaign (lemmings?). As a society we would like to see people live healther, happier lives. For most this means finding someone we love and care for to share our lives with. The alternative is what? Living with Mom and Dad? Living alone? Living in a commune?

    Second, we would prefer that people set down roots in our society because it represents commitment and long term growth. It is also a convenient unit for raising a healthy next generation to support us in our old age. Thus, making a bit of a celebration of Romance is not an evil marketing campaign, it is an imperative of society.

    Third, as for the individualistic streak, this is an outcome of living in a multi-cultural country, where people of every walk of life intermarry with many others. To make that work we have to get creative and bend the traditions a bit. Even those who marry within their own race, class, religion, or creed, still feel obliged to make it their own. We should want them to feel commitment to the ideal of marriage.

    Why write about this as if it were some unconscious act of government sponsored marketing?

    • collapse expand

      Thanks Jake for hitting every ideological claim of the romance ideological complex:

      that married people are more “stable” and therefore better citizens than the rest of us

      that children raised in marriage are better off than those not (most studies show that children raised in LOW CONFLICT marriage are better off, but high conflict marriages not so much- besides once we control for class and education level and income, these marriage effects go away)

      that the alternative to marriage is living with mom and dad or being lonely.

      I’m not arguing that marriage is bad- or good- just that there is an ideology behind these claims not backed up by the evidence and that most highly industrialized countries stopped basing civil rights on marital status a long time ago (and thus have much lower marriage- and divorce- rates than the rest of us)

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  2. collapse expand

    (As Martha Stewart might say), romantic faith is a good thing. But it takes constant care. Our vows were taken from F. Scott Peck. We vowed to nurture spiritual growth in one another. Can’t really say that this is the only way for people to be together, but making that vow and making a public ceremony out of it gives us a touchstone for why we want to be together–something more than infatuation.
    A simple ceremony: some flowers, a friend singing, a benediction from a friend, an inspirational reading, the vows, a shared prayer for the courage it takes to succeed, an Ode to Joy as the recessional. Wear white for purity, not virginity. Dancing and vegan food at the reception.

  3. collapse expand

    Americans do many things in lockstep, insisting at every step it’s all highly and deeply individual. It’s hardly limited to romance.

    • collapse expand

      True Caitlin, true- like our fashion or our home decor or whatever. But I feel- maybe it’s because it’s the topic of my current book project- that there’s something more insistent- like if i showed you my new dining room table and you said “where did you get that” I’d tell you- BUT if you wanted to steal my wedding idea, I’d have to get angry.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  4. collapse expand

    Great post. What I think is the most sad is that a lot of true romantic feeling is being lost to spectacle. It may have been a marketing campaign, but there is a touching simplicity to the bended knee in the restaurant proposal. In the rush to be individual and “creative” I think we’re losing the ability to honestly and simply express love. And yes, it would be a sign of progress if we could all receive the same benefits without having to get married at all.

  5. collapse expand

    I dunno, Laurie. I’m thinking this is primarily a New York thing. As someone who was raised in the NYC metro but now lives in Northern California, I find that New Yorkers are the ultimate lemmings. With so many strivers living there–people who strive to be fashionable, people who strive to be rich, people who strive to be artists–the entire lifestyle is built around status-seeking and having the “right” creds. You have only to witness the insane waiting lists for NYC’s most prestigious PRE-schools to see this behavior in action.

    So it follows that romantic gestures have to be big and visible so as to have the appropriate bragging rights within the social circles those strivers want to be a part of.

    Quite honestly, I’ve stopped reading any part of the New York Times that isn’t the op-ed or the world news sections because everything else is so obnoxiously au courant and MUST DO. It used to be that only people on the WASP-y Social Register even cared about having their wedding announcements in the Sunday Times. Now, everyone from brick layers to architects are featured, and for what? A chance to tout their resumes in another bid for shameless self-promotion?

    Because that’s really what this is all about. And while many people are guilty of this misdemeanor, I find that the Northeast (and New York in particular)the most egregious offenders because it is, after all, the center of the universe.

  6. collapse expand

    Competition marriage. The last American girl I dated was in competition with 4 of her friends, all upper middle class whites, to marry first, have the coolest wedding, get the best ring, etc. I actually had her Frothing mad one time for not buying her tiffinays (for the little blue box in the little blue bag wrapped in a red bow), instead opting for a massage package after she ran her first and only marathon. The others got jewelry that year. One even got a $20k engagement ring that she insisted was the one if she was going to get married to the boy in question.

    What was the purpose of this? In the end it was competition child rearing. Whose the first to get pregnant, have the smartest kids, best athlete, etc.

    Sad, sad, sad…..

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    I'm an academic who does not believe in abstract knowledge. Like Marx, I think the point isn't just to describe the world, but to change it. Unlike Marx I don't have Engels sending me my monthly rent. So I have a day job teaching sociology at Middlebury College. In my real life, I'm a fighter (taekwondo) and a writer

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