The Princess Bride and Why "Mawwage" By Any Other Name is Not the Same


As I was driving around this morning (trying to plan a superhero birthday party), I caught part of Brian Leher’s radio show on NPR. The subject was the New York State Legislature’s last minute attempts to pass a law legalizing same-sex marriage before the end of its term.  Leher opened the lines to callers and specifically asked to hear from those who opposed same-sex marriage explaining that over the last week the lines have been opened to supporters as well as same-sex couples and this time he wanted to hear from the other side.  Most callers seemed to say roughly the same thing.  Some variation on:  “Listen, I don’t have a problem with homosexual couples and I think they should have all of the benefits that other couples have but I just don’t think it should be marriage.  Marriage to me is different. It just is between a man and a woman. Why not do a civil union law?” 

Now, we have to remember this is NPR, these callers do not reflect all opponents of marriage equality.  I’m pretty sure the people who oppose same-sex marriage for reasons based on hatred, xenophobia, and deeply entrenched homophobia lean more toward Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck.  The NPR listeners were more rational and seemed nice enough; they had nothing against giving gay couples the legal rights and benefits that they have, they just wanted to keep the word marriage to themselves.  And a part of me wanted to let them.  After all, if that’s all it would take for us as a country to move beyond this wedge issue and deal with what really ails us (unemployment, poverty, two ongoing wars, a failing education system), wouldn’t it be worth it? 

But then I flashed back to last Thursday afternoon when I watched The Princess Bride with my daughter for the first time. This is one of my all-time favorite movies and I’ve seen it many, many times (including a group showing on the lawn of the Seven Hills Inn the night before our wedding) but I’ve never quite had an experience like watching it with almost-five-year-old Charlie. Charlie had questions. Lots of questions.  I’d say about one every two minutes. “Mommy, who’s that?” “Is that the guy she’s going to marry?”  “But why doesn’t she want to marry the prince?”  “Why does he want to find the six fingered man?” “Oh, wait who’s Wesley, the one she really wants to marry?” “Is that the six fingered man?” “Is that her wedding dress?”  “But when is she going to get married?”   And when the scene came where Buttercup is forced to marry the Prince Humperdink (the one that starts with Peter Cook famously uttering “Mawwage”), Charlie said “Yay, they’re getting married now.” I had to remind her that we didn’t want them to get married because the Prince wasn’t a nice man.

The point is that out of 200 or so questions, a good 160 of them were about marriage.  You see, marriage is really important to Charlie. She brings it up a lot. First, she was going to marry me and her father because that way we could all live together forever (an idea she will surely soundly reject around 16). Then she explained that she’d like to marry her baby sister but wasn’t sure who would be her mother-in-law. When I reminded her of that while we were watching The Princess Bride, however, she said that now she thinks maybe she’ll marry Quinn (a pre-school classmate). When offered any toy at Toys-R-Us by her grandfather, she chose wedding Barbie. At least once a week she dresses up like a bride in dresses that go to the floor and head gear made out of towels and scarves that trail behind her.  A few weeks ago, she wore a friend’s dress-up veil to the mall and was mistaken for having just come from her first communion. 

I’m still trying to figure out where the obsession with marriage and weddings come from.  Some of it may be simple kid logic. Kids understand the world by grouping things into categories.  For a long time people were either little kids or mommies/daddies.  Eventually she realized that there were people who were adults but not parents. Someday, too, she will realize that not all couples are married but for now if two people live in the same house, have kids together, or even kiss each other, she assumes they're married.

Some of it probably comes from us. She was in my sister’s wedding in April. Last week, my parents came for dinner on their 46th wedding anniversary and she and Nana made everyone napkin veils to celebrate. She knows that her father and I are having our ninth anniversary tomorrow and likes to point out that Emma G.’s parents will always be married for one year more than us.  And, as some of you know, we had a royal wedding watching party a few months ago. 

But I think a lot of it is being absorbed from a society which clearly values marriage.  There’s a reason she thinks all grown-ups or parents are married; most of the ones she meets are. And almost all of the ones she sees depicted on TV or in movies are. Marriage is not just a topic in many of the movies she’s seen – it’s the ultimate goal.  The Disney marketing machine alone has ensured that in her mind a man and a woman (or I should say a boy and a girl, Sleeping Beauty is 16) meet, fall in love within moments, and marry as soon as they’ve slayed the dragon or killed the witch that is trying to keep them apart. 

As she grows, I am slowly but surely sharing with her my vision of marriage which varies slightly from Walt’s.  I’ve already told her that it’s okay for two girls to get married, that she’s not allowed to get married until she’s 28 or finished with graduate school, and that it’s important to really know someone before you marry them. Someday I will add that I think living together before marriage is essential, that instead of looking for a soulmate (I don’t believe in them) she should find a really good friend who can keep her entertained for 50 years, and that even once she finds him or her, it’s going to take some work.  What I don’t want to tell her is that she only gets to call it marriage if she chooses to marry a boy.

Our society can’t hold out marriage as this ideal and then withhold it from some--even if it is in name only.  We tried separate but equal and we all know it isn’t equal. 

So as rational as the NPR callers seemed and as tempting as it would be to sway them with word changes in an effort to keep the other opponents of same-sex marriage (the irrational and hateful ones) from having any chance of winning, it just isn’t enough. 


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