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Deranged Marriage

by Rinku Sen, ColorLines RaceWire Saturday, May. 03, 2003 at 7:08 AM

A commentary on cultural clash, arranged marriage and the show Married By America.

When I was a girl, the notion of arranged marriage symbolized the vast difference between India, land of birth, and America, land of independence. If we could adapt our image and actions to blend in with the pale landscape of suburban life, then we could escape the trap of family obligation and expectations. The idea that such assimilation counteracts true independence didn?t occur to a 10-year-old immigrant smarty-pants.

I channeled my adolescent racial anxiety into fighting with my parents about the backwardness of the arranged marriage and asserting (unsuccessfully) my right to date. Dating was American and modern; parental arrangement was archaic and oppressive. When you?re seven, you want to eat hotdogs for dinner to prove you?re American. When you?re 15, you want to go on a date. But instead of dating, my sister and I watched our cousins? passport-style photos make the rounds of families seeking daughters-in-law, feeling grateful that we were too young to be publicly assessed for color, weight, talent, and beauty.

Recently, the Fox network turned its greedy reality TV eye toward the enduring practice of arranged marriage through an eight-week series called Married by America, which ended in a predictable anticlimax. Naively, I thought this must be some new form of cultural flattery or appropriation, like Madonna?s bindi, or the image of Krishna on a T-shirt.

During Episode 1, I realized that appropriation would be an improvement. A quick comparison of the show to my own family?s arrangements revealed a torrent of insulting simplifications.

While the show reproduced one or two elements of the Indian-style arrangement, such as the family meeting the fiancé first, the Americanization of the process dumbed it down until all that was left was sex and pop psychology. The consumer audience replaced the family as the central decision-maker, and no one benefitted from the shift.

Produced by the same three men who brought us Joe Millionaire, Married by America banked on the nutty premise that exhausted, heartsick daters try anything, even letting their families and the viewing public choose their mates. The winners were meant to split 0,000 and a luxury car. If they stayed married, though it wasn't clear for how long, they would get a 0,000 house. The usual "reality" things happened. Aspiring brides, grooms, and actors auditioned. Experts screened them for psychoses, STDs, poverty, and existing spouses.

Five people were chosen as eligible brides and grooms, for whom the audience subsequently chose fiancés. Each eligible bachelor(ette)?s panel of three family members/friends questioned and eliminated potential fiancés, narrowing the field to two with help from the audience, while the eligibles sat in sound-proof booths. After hearing a plea from the bachelor(ette) to look under the surface for a kind heart, big boobs, and other such requirements, viewers called in their choices to 1-800-I-WANT. So, eligible contestants had spouses chosen by strangers who were busy clipping their toenails, yelling at their kids, doing their taxes, or fantasizing about how great it would be if this particular Playboy playmate were my wife.

The couples met and got engaged in the same 30 seconds. They drove off in SUV?s to North Copper Ranch, where they lived together for six weeks. They endured interviews with three experts, who eliminated one couple per week.

Every bachelor(ette) and potential fiancé was white. The only exception was Cortez, a Mexican American woman from San Jose who provided the show?s cultural credentials by claiming to know something from her grandparent's whose arranged marriage lasted 50 years. The audience bought this and fixed up Cortez with Matt, to whom she said two weeks later, "You shouldn?t have to make a relationship work. It either does or it doesn?t."

Finally, by Episode 7, we were down to two couples. Kevin and Jill looked the most likely. He was a former minor league baseball player; she was a hostess for the New York Islanders hockey team. But there were problems. She wouldn?t promise not to pose for Playboy again and he was unemployed.

Then there was couple number two. Billie Jeanne tended bar and Tony sold used cars. The audience thought he was gay, and she was a party girl whose favorite toast was "cheers to beers and queers." I echo that sentiment, but probably wouldn?t put it quite that way the first time I met my fiancé?s father. These two earned Episode 4 a parental advisory with their sex-in-the-bathroom scene.

If these are the ins and outs of arranged marriage, the viewer had to think, no wonder the 60 percent of the globe that still practices it can?t beat back the almighty American culture.

Fox reality TV executive Mike Darnell told Variety last year that, although arranged marriage is prevalent in most of the world, in America, "most people like to find love and relationships the traditional way (my emphasis)." To him, the individualistic dating mode is traditional, and an arrangement is innovative. By contrast, but with no less idiocy, the arch-conservative Christian group Focus on the Family quoted Ed Vitagliano of the American Family Foundation saying that the show trivializes the institution of marriage: "This is not like arranged marriages 400 years ago when marriage was still considered something worthwhile."

Actually, this was not even like arranged marriage yesterday.

Family Matters

From my own family, I was most fascinated with stories of long marriages in which the couple had little or no contact before the wedding. In 1965, my parents married six months after a two-hour meeting during which Ma didn?t even know that Baba was the guy. They were connected by eldest siblings in each family, who were connected by a neighborhood bank manager. They lived happily until my father died in 1993.

In 1972, my aunt Dolly met her husband on their wedding day, after my grandfather had seen the ad that my uncle?s father had placed in a neighborhood paper. Dolly?s 28-year-old son will soon marry a woman he met on an Indian marriage website.

In 1991, my cousin Mahua?s future mother-in-law discovered her singing at a neighborhood function in Calcutta. After the usual couple of months of inquiries and a few more sightings, Mahua married her husband, who lived in the States, without having met him. Now they live happily in Houston with their nine-year-old. In all three cases, there was plenty of correspondence and discussion between the families, it just didn?t involve the bride and groom much. Extensive inquiry within the extended family and social networks is meant to surface any problems.

But only about half of my generation of the family married this way. I have cousins who found their own partners. I have another who made a "love match" and waited seven years for her father to agree to let her marry a non-Bengali. Some of us have made more "scandalous" choices including sex outside of marriages, and the families have adjusted.

Arrangements are worked out in the context of tight family units, in which parents involve themselves in pre and post marriage agreements. The factors shaping a match include financial and social status, education, looks, family history, geography, chastity, religion, and ethnicity. If we?re honest, we will admit that these are the same factors that influence western romance.

The idea behind arrangement is to take care of a bunch of things couples have to negotiate on the front end, so that after the marriage they can concentrate on getting along, producing children, and contributing to the larger family. The success or failure of the marriage is considered not just the couples? responsibility, but also that of their families and communities.

Because the camera?s main purpose is to titillate the audience, the Fox show warped the family?s role into an unrecognizable mess. The distortion appeared clearly in Jill?s father?s confusion about the whole thing. When Kevin asked him for his daughter?s hand in Episode 5, he gave his blessing in spite of his reservations. "She might really like him, and he might really like her," he said. "Who am I to stand in the way?? He was no one. The TV audience had usurped his power and responsibility to decide anything.

Caste Call

Marriage in general is designed to keep people in their social class, the proper spot in a religious hierarchy or caste identity. Couples are designed by family in most of Asia, the Middle East and parts of Africa, but such arrangements were once endemic to every culture in the world, including upper-class western societies. If you can stomach the idea of marriage at all, then arranged marriages provide both protections and dangers. Like most traditions, it works well for many and horrifically for others.

Most of the time, the individuals being matched up can turn down an offer from another family. In Islam and Hinduism, for example, the marriage is considered a sham unless both individuals consent freely.

My family history includes many pretty stories, but we can?t escape the murderous and abusive side of the practice. The Asian, African, and European press regularly reports honor killings, in which men murder sisters and daughters who have developed unacceptable attachments; dowry murders and bride burnings in which women are killed for their husband?s financial benefit; and forced marriages of young girls. In the vast opening between law and practice, parents will make a young woman marry someone they?ve chosen. In too many instances, resisting endangers her life. Patriarchy and male ownership of women clearly play a role. Forced marriage reports, for example, are hardly ever made about men.

From my modest survey, what stands out is the sheer complexity of the system. The tradition reveals the best and worst implications of family unity. The family includes microcosms of all other social relations. There?s the parent/child, certainly, but also elements of teacher/student, owner/property, abuser/victim, producer/consumer, and boss/worker. Any arranged marriage might involve all of these identities. The practice also changes constantly. It looks different, if only by a degree, with each generation.

America?s inability to grasp this complexity matters. In a time of unprecedented global migration and wars on terrorism, marriage takes on racialized political meaning. The arranged marriage, and other attitudes about sex and relationships, contribute to the American impression of Africans, Asians, Arabs as exotic, unassimilable, and primitive.

In Europe, we can see how politicians rationalize civil rights violations by citing the need to liberate non-westerners from their regressive traditions. In 2001, U.K. Home Secretary David Blunkett presented a paper to the House of Commons noting that marriage-related immigration to Britain doubled between 1990 and 2000. With 38,000 immigrations by marriage, Britain has made a huge point of investigating 200 forced marriages for immigration purposes, and is changing its marriage-related immigration rules supposedly to deal with the forced marriage problem.

Blunkett?s additional statement that Asians should limit their arrangements to those already living in Britain reveals more of his agenda. Racists like Keighley Member of Parliament Ann Cryor then jumped in with comments like: "It has to be long-term but what we are suggesting to the Asian community is that they would be better off. They would have happier marriages if they were to look in the U.K. for their arranged marriage." Britain is considering adding English language tests before allowing such immigrants into the country, and the Yorkshire Post revealed in 2001 that local politicians had ordered secret studies of forced marriage in Bradford?s Mirapuri community and among Bangladeshis in London.

Shows like Married by America will never convince viewers that an arranged marriage might work. They reinforce the notion that love comes from individualized sexual attraction and romance that?s thoroughly tested and developed before the wedding. In the end, neither of the last two couples completed their "I do?s." Kevin and Jill, and Tony and Billie Jeanne just couldn?t suspend their certainty that they should be in love before, rather than after the wedding.

By mocking a practice that has such deep cultural significance, the show dismissed the ideas that your family can help you make an excellent, long-lasting match, or that you might grow to love your choice in time.

When I told my aunt Dolly about Married by America, I thought she?d object to all the pre-marital sexual activity. But she?s a tolerant, contemporary woman, able to concede that modern couples might hit the sheets before the wedding, in the event they actually meet first. It was the role of non-family members, the expert panels and the audience, that she found really crazy. "Who are these experts?" she wanted to know. "It?s absurd that a parent would ever let strangers pick their kid?s husband or wife. Better to let the kid pick his own."

Rinku Sen is the publisher of ColorLines magazine and the author of Stir It Up: Lessons in Community Organizing and Advocacy. Her family has told her that she has to find her own mate.

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