Actress Maria Bello has been touring the country explaining that “love is love” — and how Americans need to stop limiting themselves with “labels.”
Though it’s tiresome even to critique such a shallow, cliché message, we shouldn’t miss this opportunity to make a point about sexual libertinism and class privilege.
Bello is promoting a book, written as a follow-up to a 2013 New York Times column, in which she describes her rather tumultuous romantic history and suggests the best way of getting perspective on serial relationship failures is by breaking out of traditional categories. Instead of debating the nature of romantic love, marriage, commitment and so forth, Bello recommends that we refer to all the important people in our lives simply as “partners”: our parents; our children; good friends; lovers; former lovers with whom we have children. As she declares in the title of her new book, “whatever” is her approach.
“Whatever,” indeed. Should we perhaps be concerned about the confusion it might create if we simply stopped distinguishing between different types of human relationships? It’s exhausting even to imagine how many “defining the relationship” conversations we will all need to have in Bello’s “loving” universe.
Bello swears, however, that it’s working for her. There are people who manage to scrape by with Bello’s brand of laissez-faire love. Most of them are rich, famous and well-connected. In other words, they’re the sort of people who have ample resources and connections to fall back on when a tumultuous love life puts them in a bind.
But for the less advantaged, the consequences of a free-love ethic can be very harsh indeed. Bello is like a modern-day Marie Antoinette, advising the world to eat cake while the poor starve.
Consider the statistics: A shocking 45% of fatherless children live below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. By contrast, only 6% of households headed by married couples fall below the line.
Sorting out the causal factors can be complicated, but it’s fairly clear children are much better off when they enjoy the attention and care of two parents, not just one.
In her New York Times article, Bello relates a scene wherein she discloses to her son Jack that she is in a romantic relationship with a woman he knows only as her good friend. He assures her (“with wisdom beyond his years”) that “love is love, wherever you are.” (Bello celebrates at this point her son’s immersion in a progressive Los Angeles school.) She ends the article with a charming, odd-quadrouple description of the life she leads together with her son, her son’s father and her lesbian lover. We see them eating family dinners together and getting lost on the way to Jack’s soccer tournaments. What could go wrong? They all love each other.
It doesn’t take much imagination to notice the million ways this could go wrong. If Jack’s father finds another partner, how will she (or he?) fit into the family arrangement? Given Bello’s own history, how likely is it that her present romantic relationship will last? What obligations do ex-lovers have to her son once they’ve moved on to find new “partners” of their own?
Once again, though, Bello is a member of an elite class of people, for whom alternatives are often available. When her life falls apart, there are people willing to help pick up the pieces (even if some of them have to be paid).
Children born into poverty don’t have those same stabilizers. If their parents are not married, they are dramatically less likely to have healthy or productive lives.
When children are born to unmarried parents, they are unlikely to enjoy a stable relationship with their fathers in particular. That makes them dramatically more likely to suffer physical abuse. Boys are more likely to get in trouble with the law. Girls are more likely to get pregnant out of wedlock. All are less likely to finish high school, attend college or secure stable jobs.
And for many of these children, there is no odd-quadrouple “modern family” available to help out when they encounter predictable setbacks in their adolescence and early adulthood.
When celebrities like Bello try to peddle books on “free love,” we should demand they check their privilege. Maybe she can afford to have three or four broken relationships before she finds her one special person. Most Americans can’t. They pay for it, not just with heartbreak, but with poverty, limited options and broken dreams.
The heaviest price is paid by children, who never get the luxury of secure, stable homes with fathers and mothers who can demonstrate what responsible adult life should look like. (In this respect, I suppose Bello’s son is also somewhat disadvantaged.)
Sexual autonomy might seem appealing to a Hollywood elite. It’s clearly and demonstrably not good, however, for the poor and disadvantaged. We shouldn’t let figures like Bello get away with such appalling displays of class privilege.
Rachel Lu teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota.
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