Tuesday, June 7, 2011

can't buy me love? really? lemme tell you about a website...

Ok, I'm about to go off script and off the rails here. Usually my snarky comments are in reply to some news article or possibly book I've just read. But this time imma turn the camera on me and talk about the ways my assumptions about the world color my view.

I'm no fan of mail order brides or those international "matchmaking" services that connect Western men with women from Asia, Russia, Eastern Europe, or Latin America who are "eager to meet them." I also find the sex tourism that turns into "love" with a native girl less than nice as the way to start a relationship. To a lesser extent, I'm also deeply troubled by marriages emerging out of US soldiers stationed abroad who "fall in love" and decide to marry a local girl.

All 3 of these scenarios emerge, in my opinion, at the intersection of economic exploitation and exotic eroticism. The Other, bound up in notions of Eastern mysticism cum sexuality and feminine subservience, is made more readily available because of, well, brute necessity. Poverty drives many young women into relationships with Western men whom they perceive to offer them a way out of need. (The same factor also drives many young women wittingly or un- into sex work.) In a sense, they exchange their youth and beauty for financial stability. Often, it is older gentlemen who seek out mail order brides or turn a sex holiday into a committed relationship. For some, it may be a way to have a family or find someone to take care of them as they age. Military brides are probably less prone to the latter.

Remember that thesis I never finished? Well, one of the themes that emerged in a number of stories was this notion that Asian women were more feminine than their Western (American, white and sometimes black) counterparts. Many expressed a downright hostility to modern Western feminism (described as "bitchiness" and "uppity") and praised the fetishized object of the narrative for not being "corrupted" by Western ideas of the role of women. Such praises accompanied physical and socio-cultural descriptions emphasizing radical alterity.

However, how much of my repulsion against these types of relationships stems from their economic and racial exploitation and how much it comes from the simple fact that it challenges modern Western ideals of romantic love as the basis of a relationship and marriage? For much of the world's population, the idea of the individual choosing his or her mate based on emotion or an intimate bond is not the norm. It wasn't the norm for much of the history of the West, either. Cementing bonds between two families, healthy offspring, politics, business, and other factors caused parents (or a matchmaker) to pair off two individuals regardless of their preferences. Love would come after the marriage or, if it did not, it wasn't a failure because love wasn't the point of marriage, It was a kinship bond, a blood relation, a way to perpetuate the species and the genetic line.

Romantic love as a notion emerged during the Crusades, as men left behind pitched woo at the wives of men away fighting in the Levant.[1] But it didn't really take hold broadly until the end of the 19th century. Now it's firmly rooted in the narrative of our books and movies and tv sitcoms (ahem, How I Met Your Mother). We even implant the idea into our children at an early age through fairytales and Disney. But it's just that: an idea. It's historically constructed, contingent.

The problem is in disentangling opposition to economic and racial exploitation from the distaste for non-romantic marriages when critiquing mail order brides, sex tourism marriages, and military brides. The latter is simply a value judgment, a preference. Just because a marriage is very much rooted in economic exchange (youth and beauty, devotion for financial support) doesn't mean it's necessarily a bad marriage, contrary to our recent gossip magazine disdain for perceived "gold diggers" of the Anna Nicole Smith / Hef's girlfriends / Trump's revolving door of wives variety. If anything, the coincidence of romantic love and marriage is a recent fiction. Don Draper might even take credit for inventig it as a way to sell nylons and toaster ovens.

[1] Seriously? You expected there to an actual footnote here? Shame on you. This isn't academic writing.

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