Watching the four-part BBC limited series Marriage in Autumn 2022, as a feminist especially interested in affective registers of femininity in mass culture – and indebted to the lexicon of feelings bequeathed to us all by Lauren Berlant – I was incredulous. Here was a dense and somewhat suffocating representation of one British, lower-middle-class family’s everyday, which seemed to be about conditions of life under patriarchy. The woman in the middle-aged married couple at the centre of the program, Emma (played by Nicola Walker), is shown navigating the sexual jealousy of her husband Ian (Sean Bean), the sadism of her womanizing boss, and the cruel manipulations of her elderly father. Her daughter, a singer-songwriter in her early twenties, takes up with a controlling, emotionally abusive man. Every man in the series, in fact, is portrayed as living out their heritage of masculine domination, in ways that exemplify a familiar range of forms of abuse directed against women. It should be a feminist primer, it seemed to me.
And yet. The program is framed by the BBC as “Funny, moving, revealing – the bittersweet reality of a long-term relationship.”1 In an interview with the show’s writer and director, Stefan Golaszewski, he says, “Marriage is a show about a couple and how they get through things together. I guess I’m trying to write about what it is actually like to be a person instead of what it is like on television or in fiction…We don’t experience life as big thunderstorms, it’s more like constant drizzle, and that’s what the show explores.”2
Indeed. And it is in many ways a masterful depiction of the ambience of daily life, there is no doubt about that. What remains unacknowledged in the framing of the program, though, is that this “constant drizzle” is lived, by many women, as a drizzle of gendered abuse. Patriarchy as precipitation. There is a long history of feminist thinking about this kind of saturating experience of gendered inequality, of course. What does it mean that this is completely unconscious? That, in fact, as Golaszewski says, the show was inspired by “seeing the world of beautiful things, where people fall in love and then do their best to be together”?3
This framing of the work by its creator stunned me. How could he not see that he had made a primer on patriarchy, and in fact framed ambient abuse as everyday beauty? But in a sense I’m getting ahead of myself here… Before reading Golaszewski’s take on the show, I was just a viewer, watching Nicola Walker’s Emma experience this abuse. She did it quietly, evincing very little frustration, save for when her husband was jealous about her going away on a work trip with her boss. As opposed to the “female complaint” that is so characteristic of women’s media and feminized intimate publics – in which, as Berlant showed, women voice discontent about gendered injustice, but it is never scaled up into a political critique –, we are presented with a prolonged non-complaint. Notably, after several years of representations of women’s rage (popular books by Rebecca Traister, Soraya Chemaly, and Brittney Cooper;4 TV shows like I May Destroy You and Dead to Me), Marriage is a recuperation of women’s acquiescence to violence. That it does this work while awash in what, in other creative hands, might be markers of a feminist analysis, is a grotesque kind of triumph.
This curious state of affairs is all too familiar, on one level – it emblematizes a postfeminist enfolding of feminist critique into culture, a cooptation that depoliticizes it. But it brings up something else, too, something about recognition. What does it mean that structural inequality is misrecognized as evidence of a beautiful world rather than a broken one? The persistent derivation of romantic fantasy from the pain of gender and the silencing that this requires, seems to me to present us with an apt metaphor for where we are in 2023, in the Global North: After years of under-examined trauma – austerity, pandemic, war – our reservoirs of empathy are so drained and our need for levity so acute that the violence represented in Marriage does not even register as such. Presented as an amusing slice of a hyper-local reality, the program in fact stands as yet another piece of evidence that it is women – and minoritized people more generally – who suffer most from the erosion of our capacities for care under neoliberalism.