Re-thinking Indian Arranged Marriage and Matchmaking on American Television
In the fall of 2009, I was anxiously awaiting the premiere of a new reality show based on the idea of arranged marriage. ((FOX is also developing a reality series on Arranged Marriage that emphasizes the “marrying a stranger” angle and so falls into a more stereotypical mode of talking about arranged marriage.)) According to the Hollywood Reporter, CBS ordered episodes for a series that “extends the Eastern tradition of an arranged marriage (where friends and family select the mate) into the West.” Although many of the blogs offered scathing reviews of a program that would defile the idea of marriage or promote such a hetero-normative agenda or an Islamic practice, others said they would watch it and some mentioned the U.S. already had a history of arranged marriage. ((There were a lot of postings on this topic from ew.com to the HuffingtonPost to private postings.)) The new reality show has the potential to open up an alternative way to think about marriage in the U.S. by utilizing the practices of “the East” to reconstitute cultural and national courtship practices. What I would like to explore in this column is how we currently define and think of the representation of arranged marriages in the context of Indian arranged marriages and matchmaking on American television.
The multiple expressions of the term “arranged marriage” and how it is parlayed in American popular culture allow for fascinating insights into how we view intersections between marriage, cultural assimilation, and national values. When arranged marriage appears on American television, it usually is represented as a practice that is antithetical to romantic love in the U.S. Comedies such as The Office and The Simpsons emphasize the foreign nature of a practice associated with Indians who are also Hindus. There are many variations in the expression of arranged marriage but most television narratives related to South Asians (I discuss this further in my longer project on South Asians in American Popular culture) tend to focus on three aspects, first, the match and marriage is set up by the family and is not an individual choice, second, there is no love in arranged matches, and thirdly, your partner is a stranger.
The lack of individual choice or an individual’s success in finding a marriage partner is often characterized as un-American given our national values of freedom and democracy. Common belief is that all marriages are “forced” because the individual has no choice about the marriage partner. In television shows such as The Simpsons, Apu, with the help of Homer, flees the idea of arranged marriage in the episode “The Two Mrs. Nahaseemapetilons.” He is unsure of his marriage until his new bride reassures him that if it does not work out he can be free because divorce is a possibility in America (the couple has been married on the series since 1997). Another representative form of arranged marriage focuses on the “silliness” of such an arrangement such as the notion that an engagement or a meeting is dependent on matching astrological charts (as seen in the series Miss Match). Thus arranged marriages are shown as something to escape or an irrational cultural practice that the individual can leave behind rather than recognition that arranged marriages are a viable and successful means of marriage. As Bonnie Dow asserts in her work on television culture, “Television implicitly supports a view of the world that discounts the ways in which cultural norms and values affect people’s lives. The medium’s individualistic view of the world implies that most problems can be solved by hard work, good will, and a supportive family.” ((Bonnie Dow, Prime-Time Feminism: Television, Media Culture and the Women’s Movement Since 1970 (University of Pennsylvania Press 1996) xxi.)) So the participation and adoption of alternative ideas of marriage such as employing practices associated with Indian arranged marriage, for example, is viewed as an individual choice rather than an indication that there might be a more complex system or problems within the system that influence U.S. ideals about the institution of marriage and divorce or the ideal of romantic love as a basis for a long-term relationship.
The proliferation of reality dating shows and dating clubs that include the family in the show and televise the different choices involved in selecting a partner present a convergence of Indian American and American cultural practices. Indeed, many television shows depend on the opinions of friends and family to drive the dating and marriage narrative. The depiction of Indian families who are concerned for their children and see marriage as an alliance of families can be compatible with parents who want the best for their children or friends who are supportive of each other.
In contemporary times, the attitude towards arranged marriage in Indian immigrant communities has been modified to keep up with the changing nature of the community but as a recent article states, “[t] he abiding principles behind an arranged marriage still remain strong—lust does not a lasting marriage make and family knows best.” ((“Arranged Marriage Get A Little Rearranging” by Lizette Alvarez. The New York Times.com. June 22, 2003. This article discusses arranged marriages in the immigrant community in Britain.)) But there is some flexibility on the idea of what an arrangement entails and so currently an arranged marriage can mean anything from a family facilitated first meeting or set up for compatibility to a match set up solely by the family. ((See “’No Life Without Wife’: Masculinity and Modern Arranged Meetings for Indian Americans” by Shilpa Davé in Catamaran: South Asian American Writing. (Volume 5: Fall 2006) 53-66.)) Popular depictions of arranged marriages in films about Indians produced by Indians or independent films by Indian Americans or British Indians often feature both individual and family approval of the match. ((There are many examples such as Monsoon Wedding, Bride and Prejudice and Dilwale DDJ (see Jigna Desai’s work in Beyond Bollywood: The Cultural Politics of the South Asian Diaspora, Routledge 2003).)) On American television in the 1990s and after 2000, however, reality shows (which have not featured Indian Americans) are the most prominent examples of matches and arranged meetings including The Bachelor (2002 debut), The Bachelorette (January 2003 debut), The Millionaire Matchmaker (2008) and perhaps the forthcoming series Arranged Marriage on CBS. These reality shows also have started to stress the opinions of family and friends in the dating process and make them part of the decision making process for the individuals.
Secondly, another common aspect of arranged marriage is that because marriage is not based on romantic love (although that may happen later) you are taking a blind leap of faith that will end in disaster. Two dramatic television programs that focused on issues related to marriage and matches were Cupid (1998-1999, 2009) and Miss Match (2003). ((In the 1970s and 1980s dramas such as The Love Boat (1977-1986) and Fantasy Island (1978-1984) were about singles finding love or couples re-uniting under the auspices of true love. In the 1990 and after 2000 there was a change in the dramas and situation comedies that started to feature young people out on their own who were finding it difficult to meet people. Facilitated matches became more of a prime time event as older single people found it more difficult to meet people outside of colleges. Also, Love, American Style and the game shows The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game were central to 1960s television programming. The revival in the 1990s signaled a new adult population and interest in dating. There were many reality shows including The Love Connection that tended to try and match people up by compatibility.)) While Cupid was more related to relationship counseling and single life, Miss Match attempted to meld family stories with personal stories of love, romance and marriage. Looking at these programs through the lens of arranged marriage brings into focus the distinction between the ideas of a match versus an arrangement. A match implies a certain degree of compatibility that is based on individual characteristics whereas an arrangement can be done without the consent or knowledge of the individuals. The idea of a match fits in with American notions of dating and dating services and also into the more formal arena of the matchmaker. The inherent values underlying the match still align with freedom of choice and individualism. The idea of arranged marriage is automatically set in opposition to a romantic love marriage. Love, however, is an elusive factor in both matches and arrangements. Kate (played by Alicia Silverstone) the matchmaker, in Miss Match tells her client Rashmi that “I can’t find you love in 10 days.” And yet, the show is titled, Miss Match, not Miss Love or even Miss Cupid. The emphasis is on the idea of a match and the show is a form of an arranged marriage although most would not use that term.
And finally, the third aspect associated with arranged marriage is that the person you are marrying is a virtual stranger (engaged when you were children or have only known the person for a short time period). In The Simpsons, we discover that Apu was engaged to an eight-year-old girl and has not seen her for over twenty years. The idea that the families might have known each other for years or the prospective bride and groom have matching astrological horoscopes (and there is no distinction between the two) is shown to tip the balance for a favorable or unfavorable verdict. This representation depicts arranged marriage as foreign and strange. However, in the episode “Diwali” of the series The Office, the boss Michael (Steve Carell) inquires about the cultural practices arranged marriage (such as sati) just as he plans to propose to his girlfriend. While his attempt to ask Kelly Kapoor’s parents if their marriage is one in which the woman would “throw herself on a fire” if the husband dies is slightly awkward, it does signal his hope for a life-lasting relationship such as a thirty-year marriage. ((Actress, series writer, and comic Mindy Kaling plays re-occurring character Kelly Kapoor. She wrote the episode “Diwali.” Her character is unique and disrupts and complicates stereotypes of Asian American women.)) Although he does not choose a marriage like the Kapoors he does recognize that their relationship is “cool” and one to appreciate.
The ideas and depictions of arranged marriage reflect generational and social changes of American ideals of romance and marriage and I would be happy to hear about and discuss more representations of arranged marriage, but ultimately I would argue that the idea of matching as seen in shows such as Miss Match and reality television portray an alternative representation of arranged marriage that map the convergence rather than the separation of Indian American and American cultural values and attitudes towards the idea of marriage.
Please feel free to comment.