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    Tuesday, May 02, 2006

    On Marriage and Monogamy

    I just finished watching a truly compelling docu-series called The Staircase, directed by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, who did the also excellent Murder on a Sunday Morning, which won an Oscar in 2002.

    The Staircase deals with the case of Michael Peterson, who was accused and convicted of murdering his wife, Kathleen Peterson. Though Michael Peterson claims his wife died from a drunken fall down the stairs, the jury concluded that he beat her to death.

    The film is biased and I am far from endorsing its perspective (that Michael Peterson was not guilty). In fact, having spent some time online researching the case, I tend to think he was guilty of the murder. Whether that was proven beyond a reasonable doubt, I tend to think not.

    Peterson was engaged in extramarital relations with men, exclusively, including prostitutes. Whether Kathleen Peterson was aware of these liasons remains unclear.

    Michael Peterson refers to himself as "bisexual" (in fact, "very bi", according to emails) and says his sexual relationship with his wife was good.

    But what's fascinating was the way that Peterson's bisexuality was used as "proof" of marital problems. The prosecution dredged up the information again and again as an antidote to testimony that Michael and Kathleen were "soulmates" in a "happy marriage". ADA Freda Black makes no secret of her disgust for, as she says, "I don't want to offend anyone here, but anal sex," and her certainty that no wife would be happy in a marriage to a partner who had sex with other partners, "and not even women, but men".

    In fact, it seems his very desires for other men would have been threatening to the marriage in a manner no love could withstand. Moreover, it couldn't have been "true love" if he has sex with men, as well as her.

    What caught my attention was how the prosecution, some witnesses, and a great deal of the media covering the case, read Michael Peterson's bisexuality, rather than monosexuality hetero- or homo-, as foreclosing on the possibility of a good marriage and/or love.

    There were two possible (and linked) motives presented by the prosecution, though only one made it into The Staircase. The one the film portrays is that Kathleen had "discovered proof" of her husband's sexual orientation through use of his computer, which had, as ADA Black put it, "HARD. CORE. pornography" featuring military men engaged in sex acts with one another. The computer also contained emails between Michael Peterson and a prostitute named "Soldier Bottom," or "Brad". One implication was that Peterson killed his wife to avoid having his sexual orientation exposed.

    What's rather cool is that, unlike a good many married bisexual men, Michael Peterson was "out" to quite a few people in his life, including his brothers and his ex-wife. When "Brad" testifies, he claims that the majority of his clients are both married and out to their spouses. He even says that he doesn't think many of these people are gay or bisexual, but rather "mostly heterosexual".

    In the prosecution's case to the jury, their disgust with the very notion of real or considered infidelity is palpable and their hostility to sex between men permeates the screen. (And a big part of me gets satisfaction from the fact that ADA Freda Black was involved in a sex scandal not long after the Peterson case.)

    The idea our society has of the "happy marriage", make that marriage in general, is of a strictness to monogamy to which very few of those who are actually married seem able to adhere. We seem to find it impossible to imagine the affair that fails to break a marriage, we find it troublesome even for spouses to be tempted outside the bounds of their marriages. And yet, I know of very few relationships where both partners have, throughout the course of the relationship, achieved "perfect monogamy".

    Which brings me to "The Real Housewives of Orange County," the only reality show since The Real World Miami to have me hooked. (Thanks, iTunes.) After having read about it a lot, particularly as covered by Femme Feral on Fluffy Dollars, I began to watch it and found that, as appalling as a good deal of it is, there's also something interestingly radical going on beneath the surface veneer.

    All but one of the five "housewives" (allow me to note that only one of these women actually qualifies as a full-time housewife) is in a marriage or marriage-type relationship (3 are married, 1 is engaged). So far, only one of these relationships has stuck to the strict measure of monogamy our society mandates.

    Jo is the first women we see breaking the rules, as she goes out with her female friends to a nightclub, and flirting heavily, including an exchange of numbers, with a series of attractive men, though she flaunts her Canary diamond engagement ring.

    Kimberly goes away for a wild and crazy weekend with her women friends, all from the gated community of Cabo. While away, she dances suggestively and kisses several other men, and even suggests, with titilation, that she kiss one of her female friends. (Viewers will remember her altogether disgusting appraisal of the young Puerto Rican man with whom she danced the night away.) She even feels up a man's erection. When she returns from her weekend away, she and her husband Scott have dinner and she regales him with the tales of her weekend exploits and discusses with him whether or not he's hired a prostitute. The conversation is not at all tense; both partners are entertained and seem to be having a good time.

    Vicki, on a recent episode, attends her 25 year high school reunion. Her husband laughs at the fact that spouses are not allowed and that clothing is "optional". It is clear that he is entirely unconcerned. Vicki flirts and smooches and cozies up to several men at the reunion and it is also acknowledged by another woman that they shared a "girl kiss". We also see her flirting heavily, in front of her husband, with cops on a boat and with a few of her teen son's friends.

    Jeana is not shown much outside of her family and home (if at all) and her relationship with her husband is clearly distant. Practically an arranged marriage (her mother-in-law chose her picture out of a magazine for her major league baseball star son), the discomfort between the two partners is obvious. Though we are privy to no details as to whether or not the two are involved with or interested in people outside their marriage, there's nothing much there anyway.

    Jo and her sleazy fiancee, Slade, eventually break up over her hard-partying ways and Slade brings up again and again her business card collection, obtained over nights at the clubs with her friends. Slade, of course, has a no-holds-barred "flirtation" (read: sexual harassment) with his assistant.

    What most amuses me about all this is the fact that, despite the marriages seeming to remain entirely stable and loving, despite the spouses' general shrugging at the flirtations their wives show other men and sometimes women, the editing of the show's "Next On The Real Housewives" and "Previously On The Real Housewives,"
    is obsessed with manufacturing a false "this marriage is in trouble" idea. These bits always show kissing and provocative dancing with "danger" music, keying the viewer up for some kind of marital stand-off, which never occurs. Not only is there no confrontation, the women are across-the-board honest with their partners about what they do when they're not around. The only relationship that is affected by all this is the from-day-one-terrible relationship between Jo and Slade, who don't seem to share any real connection whatsoever, and whose relationship should have ended long ago. Slade's disdain of Jo's partying seems less about her flirtations with other men (though that's part of it) than about her unwillingness to play "Mom" to his two children, her heavy drinking, and her "immaturity" (she is fifteen years his junior).

    And this is why reality TV is important. Now, I will freely admit that most of it is rather horrible and a good deal is probably staged, but what this show allows us to glimpse is the reality of marriage vs. the media and cultural construction of marriage, monogamy, and commitment. The editors and producers of the program obviously have set up the "transgressions" of these women as problematic, but don't have the footage to back it up. These marriages are not in trouble, and, even with the power of editing, the truth bubbles up to the surface - though society frowns on the idea of a spouse flirting, kissing, groping, exciting other people (men and women) outside her/his marriage, there seems no damage done.

    I freely admit that, so far at least, no actual sexual liason occurred between the "housewives" and their extramarital "interests", but all of them expressed a desire to engage in such liasons, and fantasized about not feeling the strictures of marriage around sexual practice.

    Which brings me to my point about the Peterson case. Love and monogamy are considered equivalent and mutually inclusive; one does not exist without the other. Yet, it is far more likely for a marriage to stay together with the revelation of "infidelity" than to divorce over it. It is also far more likely for mixed-orientation marriages to continue after the "revelation" than to divorce over it. A great many of these marriages are as happy as marriages where both partners are strictly hetero- or homo- sexual and are only sexually active with one another.

    What all this monogamy=love and sexuality=confined to one person and one gender pressure does, in fact, is contribute to the break-up of marriages and families, relegating desire or activity outside one's partnership to deviance, making it proof of lovelessness. In fact, the spouse that remains in a mixed-orientation marriage or in a relationship where sexual activity takes place "outside the marriage" is read as having no self-respect or self-love, and the partner who "cheats" (even if such "cheating" is openly acknowledged) is not legitmately in love.

    It's probably a crazy hope of mine, this hope that reality TV's (in this case, inadvertant)portrayal of marriage that doesn't fit the straitjacket of conventional heterosexual monogamy will start to breakdown the public expectations of "everyone else's relationships" and, eventually, the viewers' own.


    Blogger Rey said...

    Interestingly enough, I think the public will remember the producers' imposed ideas upon the Housewives' marriages, rather than analyze the reality of them as you have. People want ideals, especially impossible ones, from their reality TV so they can watch, be disgusted, and then feel better about their own lives.

    Great post, though. I completely agree that too many marriages or relationships are ending these days based on what people believe these marriages/relationships should be rather than what they want them to be. What's crazy is that this love/marriage=monogamy/fidelity thing is such a 1950's American invention; it hasn't even existed for that long. But people still think that it is the way things have always been.

    2:09 PM  
    Blogger EL said...

    You're probably right that the memory will be "GASP! She's kissing another man!" I tend to get all excited about what television is doing only to find out that it's because I thought about it too much.

    2:52 PM  
    Blogger zp said...

    i'm glad you're watching. i thought DH might be interesting in just this way, but i wasn't ready to watch and see myself . . . and the pairing with the Petersen case is just brilliant.

    one thing, el, what about class? mobility, freedom, leisure, weekends away and (brought to you by the NYT) the idea of separate homes . . . does sexual freedom, in these cases, map onto economic privilege. i forget the class scenario of the Petersen case . . . actually, i think he was quite well-to-do . . .

    or how are certain experiences of sexual freedom different from the risks some take for sexual liberation?

    10:02 AM  
    Blogger EL said...


    You make an excellent point. I did ignore the class connotations, though both the "housewives" and the Petersons were living quite lavish lifestyles.

    I guess to me what's more interesting is not that these people are able to go away for the weekend, or go out on the town apart from their spouses and have wild and crazy lives, but that they can be honest with their spouses and even act some of these transgressions out in front of their spouses, without the marriage being in trouble.

    In some of the housewives' cases, I think the most serious way that class plays into this issue is the husband's overall security. As the "provider", upon whom the women (and children) are financially reliant, I think these men feel less threatened by, for example, the 20-year-old Puerto Rican bus boy. As such, they can tolerate or even enjoy the idea of their wives getting a thrill from other men, knowing that their wives would have a hell of a time actually leaving them for someone else.

    The Peterson case is different gender-wise because he was actually broke and hadn't made a cent in years, whereas she was a rather powerful executive pulling in six figures. He was entirely reliant on her income for himself and for his children - he brought four kids into the relationship whereas Kathleen Peterson brought only one.

    Also, this sort of "weekend-with-the-girls" thing was very much about going wild and crazy together. In other words, there was a community support for these flirtations in a way there would likely not be (at least for heterosexual women) in a less wealthy crowd.

    12:02 PM  

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