Think of the last time you watched a television documentary or read a news item in a magazine or newspaper. Many of these items now begin with a personal story designed to attract our interest. They often tell us little about how the political situation developed, instead providing explicit details of people’s daily lives, their family relationships and feelings. Our ‘personal’ decisions and lifestyle ‘choices’ are influenced in a myriad, often hidden, ways by what happens in the wider world. The ideas currently prevailing concerning appropriate behavior for our gender and age, our cultural and social class positions, our experiences in paid and unpaid work, technological change, legal and policy restrictions, and popular and political discourse can all influence the course of our lives. We are by no means powerless to remake our identities and lifestyles according to our beliefs and desires, but we do so within social circumstances that offer both opportunities and constraints on our choices and actions.
When we are asked to think about family life, our initial response is usually framed by our own close relationships. For most people, these relationships help form their personal identity and continue to provide a life focus. Dwelling on our own family experiences can lead us to assume that our lives are unique. We may also think that we make our major life decisions primarily by ourselves or with the assistance of family and close friends. Family life takes place within national and global culture, under the influence and regulation of laws, policies and economic change. Exploring how family life has been transformed over the past century within different nations provides us with a better understanding of current family trends. Patterns are identifiable because attitudes and behavior are influenced by social and cultural factors, such as our family income and our parents’ education and occupation, our religious upbringing and cultural origin, and the wider values and practices of our society. This work will sketch some of the relevant themes in our understanding of how sex, love, marriage and other family-related subjects. We will also briefly contrast our changing beliefs with some of the ideas that as a result of study of other cultures, and we will comment quickly on the factors that are shaping marriage today.
We cannot assume that all people live the same way; nor should we judge other people’s behavior by our own standards. Our personal prejudices need to be set aside so that we can more accurately describe and explain family trends. Studying personal life from a sociological or social science perspective means that different ways of behaving and thinking can be identified, systematically compared and analyzed within different cultural contexts. Intimate relationships have always been influenced by economic, political, technological and social trends in the larger society, but social scientists have not always accurately described or explained how and why this occurs.
Many social researchers now use the term ‘families’ in the plural, to connote the variations in family life, instead of referring to ‘the family’, which implies that there is only one acceptable form. Furthermore, they try to be as specific as possible about the type of living arrangement or relationship by adding an adjective to make the definition clearer. Social researchers refer to nuclear families, extended families, one-parent families, common-law families, blended families, census families and economic families. For example, as demonstrated by releases such as the surprise blockbuster My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002)—is toward the depiction of weddings from different cultures or of weddings that have a distinct subcultural appeal. In particular, white ethnicity such as Greek signifies a very safe way to multiculturalism, because they favor foregrounding ethnicity and culture while sidelining racist inequalities.
Weddings in diasporic and multicultural cinema often testify to the ability to survive and thrive by “ethnic: groups through “maintaining” traditional familial structures and practices despite displacement. In My Big Fat Greek Wedding, weddings function as signs of community and ethnic belonging constituted through heteronormativity. In other words, wedding film, by naturalizing and stabilizing heterosexuality, reassures ethnic audiences of the possibility of cultural tradition and allows viewers to fulfill narratives of desire, belonging, and community.
There is nothing seriously wrong with the family today. It is just different from yesterday’s product! It is a transitional family characterized by all the uncertainty, but also by much of the challenge, which is found in a growing, changing institution. We are witnessing the growing pains of a family which has had to change from the ways of pioneer and farm life to serve its members in quite different surroundings. The family has changed its form and adapted its code of living to the cramped quarters of cities, to migration and trailer life, and to all the other terrific changes engendered and accentuated by the war. Moreover, we are living participants, we who are parents, as well as our children and quite possibly their children, in this period of transition.
By the middle of the nineteenth century the marriage bargain had altered. Since the bride brought no dowry or only a small one to marriage, the support of the newlyweds came to depend increasingly on her husband’s contribution, whether in property or employment, and his negotiating position was strengthened. At the same time, marriage came to be viewed much less as a matter of property and much more as a personal tie between individuals, with love as the paramount motive for marriage. In this process the authority of parents over adult children diminished while the power of the husband over his wife may have increased.
The film My Big Fat Greek Wedding perpetuates the link between Wonder Bread and whiteness. As its Greek protagonist moves into the American mainstream, she swaps moussaka for Wonder Bread sandwiches, and is hence accepted by her white peers whereas hitherto her consumption of ethnic foods symbolized her distance from the American mainstream. Cross-cultural consumption of wedding film relies on the rejuvenation of an anthropological desire for knowledge of intimacy with the other. Weddings have been a site of fascination in anthropology and the ethnographic film. Illuminating the patterns and practices of kinship, cultural tradition, and the political economy of gender and sexuality (the traffic in women), Western (feminist) fascination with the authenticity of the other coalesces around wedding films such as My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
Whatever the cultural climate, whatever the age, marriage has always been a venture into the unknown for the young couple about to form such a partnership. Whatever society prescribes as an ideal for their marriage, whatever concept of marriage they may have acquired through observation of their parents or other couples, their marriage is something unique, if only in that they are two unique individuals. Whether their marriage works, whether they can change it to meet their evolving needs, whether they can work out a mutually satisfying and fulfilling partnership—these are never predetermined. Marriage, therefore, is always an adventure, whether it is entered into with awareness or simply accepted as a “natural” thing to do.
Within each family or kin group, one member, usually a woman, emerged as the “kin keeper.” Larger networks had several kin keepers, but within a nuclear family, the task usually fell upon one member. Kin keepers usually retained their role throughout their lives. Although needs and responsibilities changed, their centrality to the kin group as helpers, arbiters, and pacifiers continued over life and became even more pivotal with age. Kin keepers were at times designated by parents in advance or were thrust into that position by circumstances and by their skills and personalities. Given the wide age spread of children within the family, designating the oldest or middle children as kin keepers was an important strategy for large families. Kin keeping thus carried with it prestige and respect, in addition to the many tasks and services. For a woman, in particular, this position also bestowed a power and influence she rarely held within her nuclear family, where the father was the source of authority and the final arbiter. But kin keeping was also confining and bestowed many obligations on the person so designated.
During the past several decades, people all over the world have expressed astonishment and disbelief concerning the spread of divorce in the United States. Americans in particular have examined divorce from every angle, often reproaching themselves and their tension-laden, urban, industrial society for making divorce a widespread American phenomenon. The historical record, however, indicates that contemporary American divorce is more than a recent outgrowth of a troubled modern society.
Normal interpersonal relations develop habits, recognized roles, orbits of accepted social distances, and confidence based thereon. The divorced find these relations and reliabilities upset, tangled, unreliable. Gossip, unconsciously or deliberately malicious; imputations of conduct or attitude on both sides; stereotyped assumptions about the divorced – these are only a few of the complicating factors. Even efforts to escape from the tangled skeins may enmesh the divorced in further misunderstandings.
The divorced person who clings to a beloved memory is less likely to marry again than the one who had come to hate the former spouse, or (by identification) to hate all members of the opposite sex; but indulgence in fond memories is not a facing of reality. It should be remembered that approximately 50 per cent of the divorced do not marry again. Whether many who do not would if they had the chance has not been ascertained. Persons who seek or welcome divorce with deliberate intent to remarry another already selected mate suffer less trauma than others, of course; but the former spouses of such persons may suffer all the more.
Perhaps the most important difference between our view of marriage and the more common pattern found in other cultures is that marriage is not seen as the primary regulator of sexual behavior. Thus, for example, in most societies premarital intercourse is an acceptable part of growing up. It does not follow, however, that it is “OK” to conceive a child outside of marriage, for most societies prohibit this. Since sexual passion is not bad, as we have traditionally thought, it does not need a sacrament of matrimony to bless it. But since children are heirs to property and privileges that are handed down from generation to generation, it will not do to bring an “illegitimate” child into the world.
There can be no doubt that parenthood produces changes in the lives of mothers and fathers. New parents become true experts on things like strollers, car seats, bottles, diapers, and late-night feedings. Not only does everyday life change for couples as they add more tasks to the seemingly full list of family chores, but having a baby also absorbs much of their time and attention—particularly for new mothers.
We can no longer deny the importance of the fact that families are where we first learn, by example and by how we are treated, not only how people do relate to each other but also how they should. How would families not built on gender be better schools of moral development? First, the example of co-equal parents with shared roles, combining love with justice, would provide a far better example of human relations for children than the domination and dependence that often occur in traditional marriage. The fairness of the distribution of labor, the equal respect, and the interdependence of his or her parents would surely be a powerful first example to a child in a family with equally shared roles. Second, having a sense of justice requires that we be able to empathize, to abstract from our own situation and to think about moral and political issues from the points of view of others. We cannot come to either just principles or just specific decisions by thinking, as it were, as if we were nobody, or thinking from nowhere; we must, therefore, learn to think from the point of view of others, including others who are different from ourselves.
Marriage is a social as well as a personal event. For couples who go through the normal stages from courtship through engagement to marriage, a good part of the engagement period ordinarily is devoted to working out the wedding arrangements and making plans for a new home. A certain amount of mutual exploration and adjustment is possible during this period, but being engaged is not the same as being married. Unmarried cohabitation is probably the closest approximation to marriage, but even here there are some subtle but nonetheless real differences. The fact that many unmarried couples who are living together decide to get married is clear proof that, at least in their eyes, marriage is different.
The time after the children have left their parent’s home and become independent has been called the “empty-nest” stage in the developmental sequence through which the parents are passing. This stage covers the period from the departure of the last child to the beginning of retirement—an average of about fifteen years. If the trend toward earlier retirement continues—as seems likely—then this stage will become shorter. The use of the phrase “empty nest” to describe this stage in the family’s life cycle suggests that it is a bleak and lonely period, especially for women.
Couples in these middle years have an opportunity to experience a new sense of independence, to rediscover each other, and to achieve greater intimacy. Middle-aged people today are generally healthier and more vigorous than people in this age group were at the turn of the century. What is more, their income is apt to be near its maximum. On the other hand, the couple may find that their relationship has changed during the period of child rearing and that they have grown apart. When she tries to return to her career, the wife may find that it is impossible for her to compete with younger people and with people her own age who did not drop out to raise children. What is more, the couple may discover that they have lost the ability to spend leisure time creatively. Thus, time may weigh heavily on couples in their middle years. This problem is likely to affect women more than men. The wife who can no longer find her fulfillment in bringing up children, finds no particular pleasure in housework, and cannot return to a job or career is faced with a major problem of adjustment.
Except among a handful of inordinately rich people, money is a subject that is likely to be associated with some form of conflict in most partnerships. This problem is not limited to marriage partnerships. With more and more couples living together without a marriage contract, the issue of money management takes on new significance. It is easy in principle but difficult in practice to live with someone and not tend to merge economic resources. Without a marriage contract, these merged resources are sometimes difficult to recover in the event of a breakup.
The public affirmation of same sex coupledom is relatively new, though of course non-heterosexual one-to-one relationships are not. Until recently, it was conventional to play down or ignore the relationships of homosexual men: a stereotype of predatory promiscuity was prevalent in the literature and in popular perceptions. By contrast, lesbians were seen as more likely to form couple relationships, and this difference was strongly related to assumptions about different male and female sexual and emotional needs. There was also a prevalent stereotype about the inegalitarian nature of many homosexual sexual and emotional involvements, defined or fractured by generational, class, racial or domestic inequalities. The dominant ethos among lesbians, gay men and bisexuals is of egalitarian relationships.
All over the world, the institution of the family has changed in the course of the past century. Some changes have been epochal – the erosion of patriarchy, the worldwide establishment of birth control, and some large populations setting out to natural decline. Sex and marriage have changed radically before, and their mutations in the twentieth century do not yet amount to a new global era. But from a provincial European or North American outlook, the sexual revolution and informal coupling are about to take unprecedented dimensions. While family change has been universal, the starting-point, the timing, the pace, and the amount of change of the dimensions of family relations studied in this work have differed greatly across the globe. Even within regions changes have varied widely, like patriarchy in Western Europe, marriage in Southeast Asia, or fertility in Latin America and in South Asia. To grasp and to convey one pattern of global secular change, then, is a daunting task.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding. 35mm, 96 min., Playtone Co., Los Angeles, Calif., 2002.