Arranged marriages and dystopic fiction

So I haven’t forgotten about this what-should-I-blog-about poll, or that I said I would talk next about arranged marriages in fiction.

I was reading a dystopic YA romance recently, and found myself thinking about how unlike in romance (where sometimes arranged marriages turn into love, though not always), in dystopic fiction, the presence of arranged marriage is often used as a quick and easy sign that a society is dystopic–because of you’re being told who to marry, the world you live in has to be bad, right?

I’ve enjoyed many of the individual stories that have done this (The Giver comes quickly to mind). And I’m pretty glad not to live in a society without arranged marriages myself. But historically, not all societies with arranged marriages have been dystopic, and, more, not all arranged marriages have turned out badly. Much like in any society, there are people for whom some system of attranged marriages worked out pretty well, and others for whom they were a poor fit for it–and in each arranged-marriage society, the proportion of each probably differed a little, because not all arranged marriage societies were alike.

Even the amount of oppression women have suffered on account of arranged marriages–and the amount of agency they’ve had within them–has varied pretty widely. In some socieities arranged marriage is tied into some pretty deep repression; in others, while there are inequities, women have more freedom. (Saga women, for one. My great-grandparents’ generation of Jewish women. for another.)

I think I even remember reading somewhere, though I can’t remember where, a study showing that the rate of happiness, on average, wasn’t actually any higher in socieities with arranged marriages than those without them. (If anyone does know a source for this, do let me know.)

I guess what I’m thinking is, not that I think arranged marriage is a good idea (I suspect I’m one of those who would have been a very poor fit for it indeed), but that using it as a sort of shorthand for “this world is dystopic” seems a bit simplistic. Because arranged marriage doesn’t tell the whole story of any culture, and it doesn’t apply to only one kind of culture either.

For some cultures and subcultures, after all, marriage simply isn’t the most important relationship in a young woman or man’s life, and instead some other sort of network of familial or other relationships is where one looks for love and support.

And even in a true dystopia, arranged marriage wouldn’t have evolved if it wasn’t working for someone. That someone may not be the protagonist–people who fit neatly into a society aren’t always the best catalysts for stories. But somewhere, there are going to be happy or at least functional relationships. Maybe the protagonist’s parents aren’t without passion (or maybe they are, but their happiness is nonetheless real). The arranged marriages can’t be failing for everyone; or if they are, they can’t always have done so.

Years ago, I worked on a fantasy where the love interest, in the end, chooses his betrothed over the girl from another world (our world) that he’s fallen in love with. He doesn’t love his betrothed, but he does care about and respect her–and he cares about their shared kingdom and their world and the ways in which their marriage is important to it. He chooses practicality over romance–but there’s no indication he’s going to be unhappy as a result. (Nor will girl from our world. She’ll be sad for a while, but she’ll get over it, too, because her life is no more all about romance than his is.) I think about that story (currently in a drawer where I can keep thinking about it) sometimes, when I read about dystopic arranged marriages.

There are many ways arranged marriages can play out, and only some of those are dystopic, and even the dystopic ones are dystopic in a range of ways.

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