Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Junk Mail (and the Failures of Modern Marriage)

Something awful happens when you get married. Or, more precisely, something awful happens when you get married and decide to register for gifts. Suddenly, you are on the mail order grid. I'm not sure the W├╝sthof knives are worth the quadrupling of our mail intake.

It's hard to pinpoint which company is selling our name. Occasionally I get a clue: I bought a baby book for a pregnant friend from and within 24 hours I'm getting emails from Fisher Price about Rainforest Giraffe Ring Stackers. F*@&ing Amazon.

Most of the time, though, I can only hazard a guess. Was it you Williams-Sonoma? Or you, Restoration Hardware, with all of your overpriced crap? (PS: never register there).

My mom has a clever system. When she signs up for new accounts—magazine subscriptions, online services, listervs, etc—she misspells her name by a letter. Or she uses her middle name with one account, her maiden name on another. No two are alike. This way, when the unwanted catalogues and junk email inevitably come, she knows who sold her out. Calling up customer service and telling them what they can do with their b.s. marketing ploys makes for a nice outlet after a bad day.

Yesterday, amidst the hundreds of credit card offers and furniture and clothing catalogues, I got a copy of The Nest magazine. What?

The Nest, it turns out, is a subsidiary of the The Knot, that online wedding planning site that obsessively parses every aspect of the classic American wedding. And offers grounbreaking polls like, What's Your Biggest Wedding Fear?! (Note to The Knot: Mine is getting put on your mailing list. Fear realized.)

How did I get on The Knot radar in the first place? Not sure, but I'm blaming you Target.

The Nest, I am told, is for this next stage of my life. It is "the must have magazine for modern marrieds."

Screen Grab: it's "cheaper than therapy!"

So what does this 140-page publication have to say about modern marriage? Apparently, it's a lot like a marriage from the 50's, with a notable exception. Rather than pictures of housewives, you've got pictures of the mythical SuperWomen, the virgin/whore, professional/housewife who knows that when hosting a wine tasting, a malbec is best paired with piave. And if YOU didn't know that, naive newlywed, well thank the heavens you have this magazine to fill you in. Buckle up ladies, it's time to get neurotic.

Let's start with the cover. The Fall 2008 issue features a smiling, real-life couple. "She's a fundraising dynomo! He's a chief White House correspondent!" [for Fox news, btw, suggesting this rag's intended audience]. The picture shows the husband smiling up at his wife, cup of coffee in hand and the morning paper splayed out on the dining table. The "fundraising dynamo" is standing over the table in a classic ready-to-serve-you stance. Look closely and you'll notice that even their coffee mugs run the gender line: his a sturdy, white ceramic. Hers a whimsical mug with a girl in a dress and the word "Shopping..." legible in what is likely a nod to her womanly desire to spend hours at the mall.

Inside, you get advice on everything from money and decor, to sex and cooking. The stereotypes persist in all categories. There are those pesky in-laws and the need to keep up appearances."In-Law Proof Your Home" advises that you hide the liquor and the sex toys, and swap out pictures of friends for family photos. They offer this important Hint:

"You can slide your family photo behind your crazy vaca one in the frame. Should you get a surprise visit, you can quickly swap out the incriminating shots!"

Riiiight. Cause that doesn't look odd. "Excuse me while I take apart my picture frame..."

Other tips: stock the fridge, lest your in-laws think you're not taking care of your husband, and fill vases with flowers so "your house will look polished."

That said, be sure you don't actually eat too much out of that fridge. You wouldn't want to tip the scales away from your wonderful wedding weight. In the article "Prime Time" you get tips on how to prepare the perfect steak. Strip for him! Filet for her!

There's decorating advice for men and women: For her, a lovely, prissy bedroom with floral print walls. For him, a Man Room with a Lazyboy, a BeerTender, a foosball table, and a flatscreen.

And there's the need to accumulate and show off all that stuff. The article about "Housewarming Party How-To" says that a housewarming party is a "coming-out shindig for your new life together in your shared pad and a way to make people feel welcome in it. Okay, and maybe to gloat (just a little) over your new space with all that cool wedding swag on display." The authors go on to explain that "Housewarming gifts are optional (don't look so depressed)."

And then there's vacation, where apparently the squeamish newlywed is too afraid to try the local fare. While in Prague, they suggest you go to a restaurant and "try the pork knee (don't be scared!)"

I could go on. But I'm only a quarter of the way through the table of contents.

I was born in 1973. My parents lived in faculty housing on the campus of an all-girl's liberal arts college where my father taught history. It was the height of the ERA movement and my first book was a copy of Any Woman Can: Love and Sexual Fulfillment for the single, widowed, divorced...and Married gifted to my mother by a couple of female students. The inscription reads, in part,: "For baby Elizabeth when she is old enough to read..."

This was also the era of the Enjoli ad and the beginning of the idea that a woman could bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, put the kids to bed, and fuck her husband silly all while looking smashing. The tagline: "The new 8 hour perfume for the 24 hour woman."

Something happened on the way to this female liberation. Women got screwed. Today, I would argue that we identify more with that woman in the Enjoli ad than the pioneers of women's rights, with the exception that now we're frying up organic, fair-traded, free range turkey bacon. The Nest perpetuates the worst possible vision of the modern American woman and the modern American marriage: Impossible standards, impossibly childish ideas of partnership, the notion that women you can do it all in the boardroom, the bedroom, and the baby's room, and that we are still responsible for coddling our husbands. It's an amazing set of contradictions. Let's not forget that we live in the era of the first female presidential candidate, but we also live in a time when her pantsuits are billed as breaking news.

A screen grab from Google yesterday.

Whew. That was a rant. See what all this junk mail is doing to me?