It was Friday of midterms week, and I was staring at my computer screen. You might expect that, studious Princetonian that I am, I would be reviewing the last answer on my philosophy exam, or perhaps putting the finishing touches on my politics report. Instead, I was smack in the middle of Netflix’s latest reality show: Marriage or Mortgage.
The premise of Marriage or Mortgage is simple. Each episode, wedding planner Sarah Miller and real estate agent Nichole Holmes compete for the business of an engaged couple; the couple must decide whether to spend their savings on their dream wedding or their dream home. Along the way, Sarah and Nichole ply the couple with fairytale carriages and sweeping yards, discounted dresses and free appliances. The show is entertaining and, if you’re a fan of home tours, a bit addictive.
But as I kept watching, I began to feel troubled. Not just because my reality TV binge was keeping me from my midterms, although it was. And not just because the show’s mid-2020 weddings had massive superspreader potential, although they did. Or even just because it was ridiculous that anyone would pick a donut wall over a $20,000 home discount. What bothered me about the show was the way that it presented the choice—marriage or mortgage—as the couples’ only choice.
Imagine, if you will, that you’re writing a paper about what makes a relationship last. One prominent scholar (let’s call her Miller) says that weddings build strong emotional connections, so a couple seeking a stable relationship should go all in on their wedding. But another scholar (let’s call her Holmes) disagrees. Holmes posits that homeownership is an investment in the couple’s financial future, so a couple looking for stability should go all in on buying a house. As the writer, how might you intervene in this conversation? In other words, what’s your scholarly motive?
It’s true that you might choose to take sides. Perhaps you agree with Miller that a wedding sets an emotional foundation for a relationship, and your contribution is to defend her argument against Holmes’s attack. Or perhaps you’re with Holmes, and your intervention is to correct an oversight in her argument. Importantly, though, these scholarly moves are not the only ones you can make. You aren’t limited to supporting Miller to the exclusion of Holmes, or vice versa. What Marriage or Mortgage misses is that, sometimes, a nuanced solution is a better one. As an essay writer, you might agree with Miller that weddings are an emotional investment and with Holmes that buying a house is a financial investment; the key to finding your scholarly motive is just finding the right balance of each.
This kind of balance is not easy in a country where real estate prices are soaring and wedding costs (despite COVID-19) are, too. But I think that a Marriage or Mortgage that acknowledged these difficulties and nevertheless sought compromise would feel more true to our post-pandemic life. Instead of spending $30,000 on their dream wedding and then getting stuck in their parents’ homes, couples could replace the multi-hundred-guest jubilee with a more pared down affair. Or instead of buying a house at the very top of their price range and then waiting years for a wedding, couples could forgo a giant backyard and pay for a small reception. The details aren’t as important as the fact that such a balance can exist. By understanding Marriage or Mortgage as we might a scholarly conversation, we can see possibilities beyond the ones the show presents. Put simply, couples can have their wedding cake and eat it at their own kitchen table.
— Natalia Zorrilla, ’23