A movie about the President and First Lady’s first date will be coming to my local suburban multiplex next week.
You can understand why the movie was made, and why it was made now, but it’s still pretty funny that it was made, and that it was made now. When regular, slightly corny “How I met your mother” stories from the guy with the nuclear codes open in hundreds of suburban movie theaters, it probably signals either an over-enthusiasm for our elected monarchs, or the irresistible appeal of normalcy as it vanishes from our lives.
Normalcy is a powerful force. One of the core insights of those pushing for gay marriage from 2000 to 2014 was to present it as the inevitable culmination of long historical processes, rather than a unique change to law and tradition. As Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion in Obergefell vs. Hodges put it, echoing the historians who had submitted an amicus curiae brief to the court:
The ancient origins of marriage confirm its centrality, but it has not stood in isolation from developments in law and society. The history of marriage is one of both continuity and change. That institution—even as confined to opposite-sex relations—has evolved over time. For example, marriage was once viewed as an arrangement by the couple’s parents based on political, religious, and financial concerns; but by the time of the Nation’s founding it was understood to be a voluntary contract between a man and a woman. See N. Cott, Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation 9–17 (2000); S. Coontz, Marriage, A History 15–16 (2005). As the role and status of women changed, the institution further evolved. Under the centuries-old doctrine of coverture, a married man and woman were treated by the State as a single, male-dominated legal entity. See 1 W. Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England 430 (1765). As women gained legal, political, and property rights, and as society began to understand that women have their own equal dignity, the law of coverture was abandoned. See Brief for Historians of Marriage et al. as Amici Curiae 16–19. These and other developments in the institution of marriage over the past centuries were not mere superficial changes.
Rather, they worked deep transformations in its structure, affecting aspects of marriage long viewed by many as essential. See generally N. Cott, Public Vows; S. Coontz, Marriage; H. Hartog, Man & Wife in America: A History (2000). These new insights have strengthened, not weakened, the institution of marriage. Indeed, changed understandings of marriage are characteristic of a Nation where new dimensions of freedom become apparent to new generations, often through perspectives that begin in pleas or protests and then are considered in the political sphere and the judicial process.
It is as yet unproven whether the changes to an egalitarian structure that Kennedy describes as having “strengthened, not weakened, the institution of marriage” will in fact allow it to survive, or if marriage (for non-religious people at least) will mostly go the way of the dodo. “New dimensions of freedom,” whether social or technological, may not always permit the old dimensions of commitment to persist.
In the meantime, it is somewhat interesting how, perhaps, the love affairs we go to the movies to see become more conventional, the more rare conventional love becomes. No Lancelot and Guinevere, Tristan and Isolde, Romeo and Juliet, Anna and Vronsky for us; if almost everybody’s loves are doomed, what’s the fun in watching doomed love unfold?
Our time- worried about the end of the bourgeois family but eager to help that end along, bemoaning the disappearance of black marriage but doing everything to increase that disappearance’s speed, labeling most kids as in need of immediate rescue while fantasizing endless middle class children and stable neighborhoods with whom to rescue them, treating an expanding multicultural elite as its greatest accomplishment while obfuscating that elite’s existence, triumphalizing demographic transformations while sneering at long foretold signs of social collapse– requires the current First Family, en famille, as the binding principle of a fundamentally divided governing coalition., an embodiment of bourgeois virtue, rooted in tradition yet adapted to our changing times and their own grand destiny, hip yet old-school, cosmopolitan through Barack yet connected through Michelle to the core of black American experience, bound through the two girls to the ascendancy of next generation feminism, glowing with good health amid our general dissipation, to normalize and resolve the tensions within love and family, at least in image if not in fact.
Like the subjects of earlier reigns, for whom the marriages of monarchs (like William III and Mary II above), if stable and fruitful, could portend an end to civil bloodshed and a beginning to civil peace, we look to our elected monarchs to resolve our “new dimensions of freedom,” to tell us, through the stability of their domestic lives, that civil brawls shall not disturb the quiet of our streets.