Is a ‘Comedy of Remarriage’ Always Feminist? – Rebecca Jonas

 

 

 

 

 

Cavell’s assertion that choosing to marry for love in his ‘comedy of remarriage’ is progressive carries some weight.[1] However, I think the trope of women being responsible for achieving marriage, taken from Old Comedy, can be harmful. There is an expectation for the women in Cavell’s genre to choose marriage to men that are often limited and two-dimensional. The remarriage often comes not from change in behaviour, but from failed rendezvous with other potential partners, implying that the sanctity of marriage is safer and more desirable for women and that questioning it is foolish.

In response to this, my mind went immediately to the Australian Reality TV show ‘Married at First Sight’, in which couples are married after meeting for the first time at the altar, paired up by relationship experts.[2] It differs somewhat to Cavell’s genre. Marriage is not overtly a problem that is ‘ratifi[ed]’ through separation.[3] However, the show undoubtedly frames itself as a comedy, employs conflict and resolution of break-ups and remarriage and contains the trope that women are responsible for concluding such conflict.

Season six contestant Heidi Latcham is expected to routinely suppress her own emotional needs in order to remain in a relationship with her husband Mike Gunner. They go through miniature comedies of remarriage almost every episode. Mike disrespects Heidi resulting in conflict, they break-up and then reunite. This is not due to the couple gaining perspective and choosing love, however. When Heidi has brought up Mike’s disrespect to councillors, they have told that she will be single forever if she does not quiet down. I think this is a dangerous contemporary echo of the comedy of remarriage made to adapt to episodic media. The narrative suspense of Heidi and Mike’s separations and reunions are clearly seen by ‘Married’ as a formula for good television. They do not want Mike to reform, as this could lead to a lack of conflict for future episodes. Heidi, therefore, is continuously mistreated and told not to leave. Overall, I believe the responsibility placed on women in comedy to achieve marriage for narrative’s sake, perpetuated by Cavell’s genre, does not always have feminist implications.

Bibliography

Cavell, Stanley. Pursuits of happiness: the Hollywood comedy of remarriage. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981.

Filmography

Married at First Sight Australia. Season Six. Produced by Tara McWilliams and John Walsh. Aired January 4th, 2021, on E4.

[1] Stanley Cavell, Pursuits of happiness: the Hollywood comedy of remarriage (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981), 1.

[2] Married at First Sight Australia, season six, prod. Tara McWilliams and John Walsh, aired January 4th, 2021, on E4.

[3] Cavell, Remarriage, 31.

3 comments

  1. I was thinking a similar thing when reading through Cavell. As you note, there is the assumption that the woman is returning to the marriage after some growth from all parties, but that is not the case. Instead, it is just returning to the status quo. This problematic nature is further emphasised by the films Cavell sites, all being directed by men, and just a few with women having writing credits.

  2. I also found that Cavell’s argument was not as radically feminist nor revolutionary as he presented it. It seems that, though the comedy of remarriage is a depart from the tropes of Old and New Comedy (which seem to carry more outright sexist connotations to me), it’s not exactly liberating for women. It seems to echo the regressive feminism of the 70s where women were sexually free so long as it suited for and benefitted the man. When it was not advantageous for the man that a woman was sexually liberated, then she would be labeled a slut until she was shamed into a life that appeased society; similarly to how you assess that Heidi was essentially threated if she didn’t give into a marriage.

  3. This is such a good example to use, and a real testament to the ways in which marriage and the continuation and success of (heterosexual) marriage is still (unfairly) placed on the shoulders of the woman. Cavell’s argument is only progressive in terms of what had preceded it– in other words, a more explicit and canonically accepted and lauded subjugation and sublimation of the female in comedy. As Britton has rightly pointed out, the comedy of re-marriage (and in the same vein but metamorphosed into something so bizarre its almost parodical, Married at First Sight) serves to capitulate female ‘liberation’ within the confines of what suits and causes least inconvenience to the patriarchy. It’s not the comedy of divorce and finding your self-worth in singlehood, is it? I think an interesting extension of this example would be to examine the ways narratives about attraction and what makes a successful relationship within MAFS are related to narratives from Old, New and Re-Marriage comedies, and what implication they have in a society that defines itself in part by ‘hook-up’ culture.

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