Hollywood's Role in the Marriage Debate

By Mark RodgersThere has been much debate and passion about “the marriage issue,” but not enough over non-marriage. It’s time for Hollywood to own up to its responsibility and start to craft stories that encourage couples to stick it out rather than call it quits.

I read recently that the divorce rate for couples over sixty years old is at an all time high, as are rates of cohabitation and out of wedlock births.Marriage stability is essential to the health of children and society.  The Brookings Institute’s work by Sawhill and Haskins point out that marriage and stable families are an essential wrung on the ladder out of poverty.  Pat Fagan at The Marriage and Religion  Research Institute reports strong correlations between the health of marriage and economic growth.  Conversely, there are numerous studies that show a correlation between absentee fathers and negative outcomes in education achievement, drug abuse, poverty and criminal behavior.
It was interesting to read commentary in response to the Supreme Court decisions on gay marriage by commentators on the right and the left that acknowledge the role of media, notably entertainment, in shaping the cultural context more substantively than perhaps any other factor.
I have friends and colleagues on both sides of the issue, but my own views, shaped by my understanding as an orthodox Christian of the fundamental design of the universe, is a traditional one.    However, at this juncture when our country will live for the foreseeable future with a dual reality along red and blue state lines, we need to learn to disagree agreeably.
But one thing we can agree on is the importance of stable marriages and families for children to grow up and be nurtured in.  The high rates of out of wedlock births in low income minority communities, and the breakdown of marriage Charles Murray observed in Coming Apart in lower income white working communities, should be a concern to us all.
So back to “culture is upstream of politics.”
We will not reverse the divorce culture or reduce the out-of-wedlock birth rates through public policy, but through public will shaped by “exemplars” and “examples” in entertainment culture.
This is the lesson we all learned from the current “marriage debate.” Eric McCormack, the actor who played Will on Will and Grace, summarizes it this way: “There’s maybe a chunk of this country whose minds never change on the issue. But the ones whose minds do change won’t change because of a rally in West Hollywood or the Village. They’re going to change because of shows like ours that make it normal.”
However, with regards to marriage in general, entertainment tends to portray love that is romantic and self-serving rather than self-denying, which is what is needed for two to truly become one.   Hollywood says to us “it’s all about you.”  If you aren’t happy, then find a marriage that will make you happy.  But we know this is not true.  Divorce rates increase with each subsequent marriage.
Divorces among celebrities are not just normative; it is the longstanding marriage that is almost unheard of.   Stories reflect the lives of storytellers.  It’s no surprise, therefore, that there are few stories, fictional or real, out of Hollywood’s elite that encourage couples to stay the course in times of difficulty.
But there are some storytellers whose own marriages tell a positive story…  who also happen to be among the most influential players in town.  As a nation, we need to call on them to tell more stories of marital hope and perseverance.  Denzel and Pauletta Washington (married 1983), Ron and Cheryl Howard (married 1975), Tom and Rita Hanks (married 1988) and Spike and Tanya Lee (married 1993) are all couples who have shown commitment to each other and an inclination to affirm the importance of marriage in their creative content.
For example, in Ron Howard’s film, Parenthood, he uses the word picture of a roller coaster to describe marriage. Howard continues to highlight the importance of commitment within families in his television series also entitled Parenthood.
But the ideal for me is Billy and Janice Crystal (married 1975), whose work constantly comes back to the centrality of marriage.  Their When Harry Met Sally may present the best set of “exemplars” for marriage ever captured on film.
As I mentioned in last month’s essay, Hannah More, the 18th century British abolitionist and philanthropist who was a member of the original Clapham Group, wrote that social change “must begin with the Great, or it will never be effectual.  Their example is the foundation whence the [public] draws their habits, actions, and characters.”
For the health of our children and society, let’s hope that these “greats,” some of whom are also supporters of gay marriage, will stand up for marriage stability and tell stories that give hope and help to couples whose marriages feel loveless or on the verge of collapse.  As we discovered, the future is on their shoulders, not on Washington policy makers’.