The institution of marriage is in crisis. The new documentary calls on slutty icons like Esther Perel, Christopher Ryan, and Dan Savage to speak on the contemporary state of marriage, love, and sexuality. Lizzi Sandell weighs in on the film—as well as on the commitment of her own new marriage.
New documentary Monogamish follows director Tao Ruspoli’s journey-of-discovery after his divorce from his celebrity ex (she goes unnamed in the film but spoiler alert: it’s Olivia Wilde). After his self-defined “failure” at traditional monogamy—they made it 8 years of matrimony, which I think is a pretty good effort—he sets out to investigate what it all means. Monogamish examines the history of marriage as a social phenomenon via thinkers and theorists, including slutty icons like Esther Perel, Christopher Ryan and Dan Savage (who popularized the term “monogamish”), as well as through the lens of his own unconventional, aristocratic family. His film is part-personal tale, part-sociological study. “Is it natural to be monogamous,” he asks, “or are we at best, monogamish?”
Ruspoli’s own attempt at monogamy was a kind of reverse rebellion. His maternal grandfather left his grandmother, became a spaghetti Western star, and founded a ‘free love’ commune in Italy. His mother followed a similarly unconventional path, hooking up with an already-married prince (his dad) and travelling the world with him, his wife, and their brood. They eventually separated, and Ruspoli spent his life between California with his now-single mom, and his dad’s Italian castle (casual). Meanwhile, his grandfather had his third, fourth, and fifth children, each with different women…but ostensibly in, like, a fun 60s way, rather than Jerry Springer vibes.
So, in the context of this rich-and-sexy family tree, when Ruspoli decided to get married he was considered the crazy one for expecting one person to fulfil all his needs, forever. This is discussed throughout the documentary as an internal conflict: the stability of long-term monogamy versus our need for change, excitement, and titillation. Particularly among the more bohemian of those interviewed, variety is frequently regarded as being fundamental to sexual intrigue, therefore deeming good sex totally at odds with traditionally monogamous marriage. Esther Perel describes this as a paradox that’s never resolved, merely negotiated.
As is quoted in the film, 1.1 million Americans get divorced every year, which prompts Ruspoli to ask, “Were we naïve to get married?” All this could have been #triggering for me, as I am very newly married, but I am no stranger to divorce; my father is getting married for the fourth time next summer, my mum stopped after two. And perhaps there’s an element of naïvety in every marriage. Perhaps that’s one of the things that makes it romantic. Taking a chance on someone, against the odds, is kind of the point—it’s kind of like getting a tattoo of someone’s name (except you have to look at their actual face every day, instead of just their IRL handle). Although some disparage our Western conception of Disneyfied, monogamous love, and link it to high divorce rates, I think it’s a lot more romantic than previous generations’ idea of a socially acceptable drudgery—albeit a long-lasting one.
When my wife and I got married, no one paid for us with oxen. No one “gave us away.” Partly by virtue of us both being female, we evaded the kind of patriarchal transactional nightmare of yesteryear that Ruspoli and his interviewees explore. Many anecdotes, deriving from neolithic to feudal times, are included in which we bought and sold humans (by ‘we’ I mean you, bro) to stop us from dying in winter or to protect the precious flower of female virginity or whatever. I get it, it’s a problematic institution. Ruspoli’s Italian cousin, Claudia, liked it though; she’s pissed off because so-called “love marriages” mean she now has to let tourists visit the castle for an admission fee. She is glamorous, super cynical, and happily unmarried. “Every married woman in our family has cried,” she tells Ruspoli.
Many people think that it’s actually far more romantic, instead, to allow their partner to explore other options and, by (a not unproblematic) extension, other parts of themselves. I don’t buy the often-unchallenged assumption that consensual non-monogamy is somehow an ultra-enlightened utopian ideal, but it’s certainly a noble thing, and the film did get me thinking about the way we categorize relationships in general: we view states like married, monogamous, non-monogamous, separated, divorced, and single in absolute terms, as successes and failures. And I think it would be cool if more couples had a conversation about what what a relationship looks like to them, what non/monogamy means, rather than opting-in for the sake of convention.
Divorce shouldn’t be seen as a failure either. Maybe my dad was just lucky that he met 4 different people he felt like getting married to, and that they felt the same. Why do we see (multiple) divorces as silly or embarrassing? Why did Ruspoli feel like he somehow failed? Rather than philosophising about what is or isn’t “natural” for people—essentialism has always been a fool’s errand anyway—it would be nice if the range of possibilities was blown right open. Normalising everything from being permanently single to having 20 partners at once (or one after another like Elizabeth Taylor) should be our project, rather than vilifying or glorifying one way of living over another.
Overall, Ruspoli has created a sincere attempt at examining monogamy and his own marriage through a societal lense, with some unfortunately cheesy archival (think: generically attractive actors smiling on beaches) and a slightly scattered collection of talking heads, ranging from Dr. Christopher Ryan, who wrote Sex at Dawn, to Ruspoli’s kooky blue-rinsed neighbor. And, of course, the answer to questions like these is always the same: each to their goddamn own (or, as we say in the UK, “horses for courses.”) Meanwhile, I’ll enjoy a marriage that began not as a patriarchal pass-the-parcel, or as two grotesque princesses-for-a-day, but as two equals, hopeful and in love. Are “we” monogamish? Perhaps as a mean average. Our society’s sexual and romantic proclivities, thankfully, exist on a spectrum as broad as the Pantone palette.
Lizzi Sandell is a writer and editor who lives between London and New York.