The Princess Bride and Why “Mawwage” By Any Other Name is Not the Same

As I was driving around this morning (trying to plan a superhero birthday party), I caught part of Brian Leher’s radio show on NPR. The subject was the New York State Legislature’s last minute attempts to pass a law legalizing same-sex marriage before the end of its term.  Leher opened the lines to callers and specifically asked to hear from those who opposed same-sex marriage explaining that over the last week the lines have been opened to supporters as well as same-sex couples and this time he wanted to hear from the other side.  Most callers seemed to say roughly the same thing.  Some variation on:  “Listen, I don’t have a problem with homosexual couples and I think they should have all of the benefits that other couples have but I just don’t think it should be marriage.  Marriage to me is different. It just is between a man and a woman. Why not do a civil union law?” 

Now, we have to remember this is NPR, these callers do not reflect all opponents of marriage equality.  I’m pretty sure the people who oppose same-sex marriage for reasons based on hatred, xenophobia, and deeply entrenched homophobia lean more toward Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck.  The NPR listeners were more rational and seemed nice enough; they had nothing against giving gay couples the legal rights and benefits that they have, they just wanted to keep the word marriage to themselves.  And a part of me wanted to let them.  After all, if that’s all it would take for us as a country to move beyond this wedge issue and deal with what really ails us (unemployment, poverty, two ongoing wars, a failing education system), wouldn’t it be worth it? 

But then I flashed back to last Thursday afternoon when I watched The Princess Bride with my daughter for the first time. This is one of my all-time favorite movies and I’ve seen it many, many times (including a group showing on the lawn of the Seven Hills Inn the night before our wedding) but I’ve never quite had an experience like watching it with almost-five-year-old Charlie. Charlie had questions. Lots of questions.  I’d say about one every two minutes. “Mommy, who’s that?” “Is that the guy she’s going to marry?”  “But why doesn’t she want to marry the prince?”  “Why does he want to find the six fingered man?” “Oh, wait who’s Wesley, the one she really wants to marry?” “Is that the six fingered man?” “Is that her wedding dress?”  “But when is she going to get married?”   And when the scene came where Buttercup is forced to marry the Prince Humperdink (the one that starts with Peter Cook famously uttering “Mawwage”), Charlie said “Yay, they’re getting married now.” I had to remind her that we didn’t want them to get married because the Prince wasn’t a nice man.

The point is that out of 200 or so questions, a good 160 of them were about marriage.  You see, marriage is really important to Charlie. She brings it up a lot. First, she was going to marry me and her father because that way we could all live together forever (an idea she will surely soundly reject around 16). Then she explained that she’d like to marry her baby sister but wasn’t sure who would be her mother-in-law. When I reminded her of that while we were watching The Princess Bride, however, she said that now she thinks maybe she’ll marry Quinn (a pre-school classmate). When offered any toy at Toys-R-Us by her grandfather, she chose wedding Barbie. At least once a week she dresses up like a bride in dresses that go to the floor and head gear made out of towels and scarves that trail behind her.  A few weeks ago, she wore a friend’s dress-up veil to the mall and was mistaken for having just come from her first communion. 

I’m still trying to figure out where the obsession with marriage and weddings come from.  Some of it may be simple kid logic. Kids understand the world by grouping things into categories.  For a long time people were either little kids or mommies/daddies.  Eventually she realized that there were people who were adults but not parents. Someday, too, she will realize that not all couples are married but for now if two people live in the same house, have kids together, or even kiss each other, she assumes they’re married.

Some of it probably comes from us. She was in my sister’s wedding in April. Last week, my parents came for dinner on their 46th wedding anniversary and she and Nana made everyone napkin veils to celebrate. She knows that her father and I are having our ninth anniversary tomorrow and likes to point out that Emma G.’s parents will always be married for one year more than us.  And, as some of you know, we had a royal wedding watching party a few months ago. 

But I think a lot of it is being absorbed from a society which clearly values marriage.  There’s a reason she thinks all grown-ups or parents are married; most of the ones she meets are. And almost all of the ones she sees depicted on TV or in movies are. Marriage is not just a topic in many of the movies she’s seen – it’s the ultimate goal.  The Disney marketing machine alone has ensured that in her mind a man and a woman (or I should say a boy and a girl, Sleeping Beauty is 16) meet, fall in love within moments, and marry as soon as they’ve slayed the dragon or killed the witch that is trying to keep them apart. 

As she grows, I am slowly but surely sharing with her my vision of marriage which varies slightly from Walt’s.  I’ve already told her that it’s okay for two girls to get married, that she’s not allowed to get married until she’s 28 or finished with graduate school, and that it’s important to really know someone before you marry them. Someday I will add that I think living together before marriage is essential, that instead of looking for a soulmate (I don’t believe in them) she should find a really good friend who can keep her entertained for 50 years, and that even once she finds him or her, it’s going to take some work.  What I don’t want to tell her is that she only gets to call it marriage if she chooses to marry a boy.

Our society can’t hold out marriage as this ideal and then withhold it from some–even if it is in name only.  We tried separate but equal and we all know it isn’t equal. 

So as rational as the NPR callers seemed and as tempting as it would be to sway them with word changes in an effort to keep the other opponents of same-sex marriage (the irrational and hateful ones) from having any chance of winning, it just isn’t enough. 

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  • anonymous99

    Could someone here please explain to me the new feminist fascination with marriage?  Thirty years ago feminists were deriding marriage as slavery.  Now, feminists are selling marriage to gay couples.  What happened?  IMO marriage is still an incredibly oppressive institution I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.  What is it about modern marriage that feminism finds so appealing?



  • prochoiceferret

    What is it about modern marriage that feminism finds so appealing?


    What makes you think (some) feminists don’t feel conflicted about partaking of modern marriage?

  • ack

    I think the simplest answer is that marriage used to be a sentence to being a housewife. There weren’t any choices in what women wanted to do with their lives, or even their days. They cleaned, they shopped for their husbands and/or children when they arrived (and they almost invariably had children unless they couldn’t). They spent time with the wives of their husbands’ friends; I worded that carefully, because women were defined in terms of their husbands.


    Marriage has, historically, been an institution about passing women and girls from their fathers to someone else because it was assumed they couldn’t take care of themselves. Even if they wanted to be independent, society set up tremendous barriers to doing so. Those relationships weren’t about love; they were about economics. (And they might still be for some people; you get a LOT of tax breaks when you get married!)


    Today, marriage can and does exist outside of those confines. If you google “feminist weddings” or “feminist marriage” you’ll find a plethora of articles and blog posts about how to remove the patriarchial nonsense from ceremonies and relationships. Marriages can be egalitarian, which is a concept that didn’t exist 40 years ago.


    On the question about “selling marriage to gay couples,” I think it’s important to remember that LGBTQ folks spurred conversations about same-sex marriage. And there was (and continues to be) a lot of contention within the community about it. Some think that wanting marriage equality is forcing same-sex relationships into a heterosexual mold. They argue that it reinforces the current power structure instead of seeking to change it. Others think that marriage is symbolic of commitment, and that denying it to same-sex couples is the equivalent of saying that they can’t be as healthy, as committed, as heterosexual relationships. They argue that heterosexual couples reap benefits that are not available to same-sex couples simply because of who they are.


    For me, the argument is about social justice; it’s about the government and religion. If the government is involved in marriage by giving tax breaks and rights that non-married people don’t have, then any consenting adult should be able to marry another consenting adult as it pertains to governmental benefits. Heterosexual people already get to have weddings outside the faith community by using a JP or finding an officiant who’s unaffiliated with a church.


    Furthermore, the government shouldn’t get to tell Unitarian Universalists that they can’t perform weddings for same-sex couples because the Catholics think it’s wrong. It flies in the face of that pesky idea that the government “shall not make any law respecting an establishment of religion.” Either each church gets to marry consenting adults according to their own beliefs, or none of them do.


    Now, none of this is to say that we have successfully removed marriage from sexist traditions. We haven’t. But we keep moving in the direction of marriage symbolizing an emotional committment between people without erasing the identity of the woman, or the less privileged of the two. I think that’s a good move.


    This is an EXTREMELY simplistic answer to some very complicated and valid questions. Marriage can certainly be a terrible experience for some, as any relationship can. And it is CERTAINLY harder to divorce someone than it is to pack up and move out. But, like most relationships, it also has the potential to be a rewarding experience. And until it’s severed from governmental status, we’re completely and utterly stuck with it. We’re also probably stuck with it anyway for another hundred years; tradition dies hard.

  • anonymous99

    I don’t think that at all.  I didn’t mean to insinuate that ALL feminists support modern marriage.  I know some who don’t.  I have noticed though that some feminists are on board with the push for gay marriage.  While I think I can agree with them on the concept of equality here, I can’t agree with dragging gay couples into legal marriage (although I know some, but not all, are asking for that).  There are other, more beneficial and less oppressive ways, to create equality for couples that I would think would be more aligned with feminism.

  • anonymous99

    Thanks for the thoughtful answer.


    I guess I would argue that marriage is still about $ (economics).  Nobody tells you this when you get married.  You just discover it upon contemplating divorce.  Marriage is certainly not like it was hundreds of years ago but it is still extremely oppressive.  When you strip away all the fairy tale aspects of marriage you discover that it’s nothing more than a money transfer scheme.  The point of the last century’s worth of marriage “reforms” has been to protect housewives.  That is, to make sure breadwinners couldn’t get out of the obligation to financially take care of their wives.  That is, “ball-and-chain” marriage (A recent book called wives without husbands is very telling on this point.)  I must tell you that all of these reforms to protect housewives has simply switched the oppression from the housewife to the breadwinner.


    As for the tax breaks please allow me to ask you to consider that these tax breaks are inducements to marry, not benefits of marriage.  Think about it.  I’ve never heard of any gay marriage activist pining for community property and alimony.  What they really want are tax fairness, inheritance rules, hospital visitation, better health insurance access, etc.  These are currently all inducements to marry, and, if we wanted to, we could make these marriage neutral.  The only true benefits of marriage are community property and alimony (spousal support).  


    I’m all for social justice, but instead of supporting “gay marriage”, I’m not sure why feminists simply don’t support equality of relationships outside of marriage.  Why can’t we just give marriage back to the churches and other religious institutions and get the government out of it.  Wouldn’t that make more sense for “feminists”?


    When you come right down to it, marriage has nothing to do with symbolism, God, love, etc.  It’s about inviting the government into your relationship to enforce financial obligations.


    And until it’s severed from governmental status, we’re completely and utterly stuck with it. “


    Well, yes.

  • colleen

    While I think I can agree with them on the concept of equality here, I can’t agree with dragging gay couples into legal marriage (although I know some, but not all, are asking for that).

    I don’t believe that feminists or anyone else is attempting to “drag” gay and lesbian couples into marriage. Indeed I’m pretty certain that if you went to, say, and stated such a thing they would swiftly disabuse you of that notion.


  • julie-watkins

    I got married in 1976; we’ve had a few shakey times but currently we’re solid. We don’t have kids (when my IUD failed 30 years ago we decided on abortion then I got my tubes tied). Being married has helped us, and I’m in favor of same-sex marriage. I consider it a “public good” thing: when horrible stuff happens (death, accident, fires, etc.) and when families are in a vulnerable state I’m glad there are some rules so predetors have a harder time taking advantage.

    For myself, having my relationship recognized by the state meant that when my husband’s father & grandfather died, there wasn’t any question about funeral leave. When my husband had a stroke, I didn’t have trouble getting time off. Granted, I had a good supervisor that would have anyway, but there was never a question. Now, since he doesn’t get a paycheck, I have him on my insurance, which would be very dicey if he had to get individual insurance, and he might not have been able to maintain his health. (Real universal healthcare would be better, of course, but until then, marriage is an advantage).

    There’s also a “public good’ in marriage: people who are not married tend to use up more state resources: people who stay in hospitals or nursing homes because there’s no one at home to take care of them. Someone who is married may be less inclined to do stupid stuff that might negatively impact their spouse than an unmarried person. (For instance, there was one year I got so angry at the federal government that the only thing that kept me from not filing 1040 was I would be getting my husband in trouble as well as me.)

  • anonymous99

    I can tell you FOR SURE that some in the gay community are feeling dragged into marriage.  I’ve talked to them.  Now that it’s out there as a possibility partners are being pressured to “tie the knot” (or is it “noose”).  The same dynamics that play out for hetero couples are playing out with gay couples.


    Thanks for the blog cite.  I’ll definitely have to participate.

  • colleen

    I can tell you FOR SURE that some in the gay community are feeling dragged into marriage.

    By feminists?


    Thanks for the blog cite.  I’ll definitely have to participate.

    Now I feel guilty.

    Look, because there is a vote coming up in NY on marriage equality there are a lot of current threads addressing the issue. Please read them and then search the archives before doing what you call “participating”. These are good people and serious people fighting for their basic civil rights. Please don’t try to derail the conversations as is your wont here.


  • crowepps

    There are also ‘survivor’s benefits’ which provide that when a spouse dies, instead of the remaining money in their Social Security or private pension or annuity disappearing, their surviving spouse is entitled to it.  In addition, there is the right to automatically inherit, the presumption that ownership of goods in the shared living space now belongs to the other spouse, the right to be listed in the obituary as a person grieving, and the right to arrange the funeral and choose the burial method.


    On another front, when one spouse is injured and a lawsuit results, being their spouse confers a right to be a party in a suit and receive damages oneself for ‘loss of companionship’ or ‘loss of consortium’, something to which ‘boyfriends’ or ‘girlfriends’ are not entitled.


    Spouses as step-parents have standing to be considered for custody of a deceased spouse’s child.  They have the right to make medical decisions and to have medical records shared with them and to visit in the hospital or nursing home and to insist that a hospital or nursing home with which they are unsatisfied release a patient and allow them to be transferred to another hospital.  In some nursing homes, spouses are entitled to share a room.


    There are also many, many ‘deals’ available in insurance and other private business deals like fitness clubs or golf clubs where a person becoming a member is allowed to add their ‘spouse’ for free or at half the regular rate, so that a married couple pays half or 3/4 of what two unmarried people are charged for exactly the same service.

  • ack

     I’m not sure why feminists simply don’t support equality of relationships outside of marriage.  Why can’t we just give marriage back to the churches and other religious institutions and get the government out of it.  Wouldn’t that make more sense for “feminists”?

    For heterosexual couples, that’s already true. I can go down to the courthouse and get married to a man any time I want. People marrying members of the opposite sex don’t HAVE to involve religious institutions. The problem is that we deny that right to same-sex couples. The problem is that the word “marriage” still carries a lot of weight, regardless of whether it happens in a religious ceremony. We could make government marriage and church marriage totally different and people will still want to call both relationships marriage. And then we’d fight about that, because the religious people think that marriage somehow belongs to them.


    When you come right down to it, marriage has nothing to do with symbolism, God, love, etc.  It’s about inviting the government into your relationship to enforce financial obligations


    I don’t think that’s true. There is still symbolism associated with marriage, and I think that symbolism is another part of what drives same sex couples who want to get married to fight for it. It’s still held by the dominant culture as the ultimate level of commitment to another person. And deconstructing that is going to take a really long time. So in the meantime, feminists work to have egalitarian marriages, because some of us are still invested in the tradition and some of us want the perks, or both. And some of us do, indeed, reject the institution and live happy lives, either with committed partners or not.

  • jayn

    Don’t forget immigration benefits.  Getting married was the only way my husband and I could live together.

  • halli620

    The best suggestion I’ve heard that would be fairest to everyone would be for governments to only offer “civil union” or similarly-named licenses to all couples, heterosexual included, not dealing with the word “marriage,” and leaving “marriage” to our religious institutions. Then all couples would need to have a civil union (or whatever it would be called) for the official rights of (e.g.) “united couples,” and those affiliated with a religious institution who wish for a religious marriage can have that institution perform a marriage ceremony.


    Regarding your daughter, I’m sure it’s because of the wedding she was in. My cousin’s daughter is in her “princess phase” (though I think that rather than obsessing over Disney princesses, mine was much sweeter, with a long nightgown and jelly shoes that made me feel like a princess), and at my sister’s wedding 3 weeks ago, she was so excited to be with the “princess,” my sister. It sounds like being in a wedding first just made your daughter replace the princess phase with a wedding phase, rather than that it’s so based on “society” or anything like that.

  • crowepps

    Your suggestion was standard procedure in communist countries for decades.  Communist governments, when they weren’t trying to actively stamp out religion, were certainly mistrustful, and had no intention of letting a government function of monitoring contracts between people to religious authorities.  In many former communist countries today, it is still routine to go down to the equivalent of City Hall, fill out the paperwork, and then those who wish to do so go have the Church wedding separately.  If you get married only in Church, the government doesn’t consider you married.


    On the ‘princess’ phase — I say go for it!  Give them dress-up and princess stuff at the preschool age until it’s running out of their ears.  It’s been my experience they become saturated, get it out of their system, and then move on to other interests when they get into school, reviving the princess persona only for Halloween and proms, as it should be.  It helps if the parents are able to separate the clothes from the sexism.  There isn’t anything inherently sexist or patriarchal about long skirts, pink or sparkly crowns.