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OPINION: Independent women and marriage

I remember the exact moment when I first saw images of Solange Knowles' wedding to Alan Ferguson. Sitting on my couch, with a cup of coffee in hand and a column deadline fast approaching, the images exploded onto my Twitter timeline. My first thought was 'I need to share this with everyone, immediately', quickly followed by 'I'm not going to make this column deadline'.

The wedding was an event and pop culture moment. For many people the world over - and particularly women of colour, seeing ourselves reflected in the flawless guests dressed in white, Solange's unique jumpsuit and cape and glorious afro, it was a singular reimagining of what tradition could look like.

However, against the backdrop of recent conversations about marriage equality, I have begun to wonder about how we frame marriage in our society. How it looms large over every discussion about love, careers and personhood, is held up as the ultimate end goal and success, in both relationship and personal terms.

It represents a social, political, heteropatriarchal and state institution that we are encouraged, urged subtly and overtly coerced into buying into from birth. Imagining other kinds of unions, or alternate formulations and expressions of love, is possible, yet exists on the margins. Personal choice, in opting into or out of marriage, occurs in an environment where it presents itself as a 'natural' progression of life, much like having children or planning for your retirement.

What is often left unspoken in the wake of achieving legal equalities is how we live the every day, and the effects of certain 'end goals', like marriage. We make sense of our goals, aspirations, personhood and desires in conversation with the demands of society - and it is often difficult to determine where social conditioning ends and personal choice begins. Personal choice is not immune from the pressures of the world that we live in - be they overt or covert. It never occurs in a vacuum.

Recently, Chimamanda Adichie's words keep circling round my thoughts: "Because I am female, I am expected to aspire to marriage. I am expected to make my life choices always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important." Within this, the language of being on the shelf or having a 'sell-by date' commodifies women and treats partnership as a one-way transaction, centralising the importance of 'being chosen'.

The truth is, while inescapably weighted on women, we are raising all parts of society to centralise aspiring to marriage in our ideas about what love and partnership should look like. Within this environment, love and marriage are often unquestionably equated.

There are standard tropes and caricatures that we have become familiar with in the narrative about love and marriage. One example of this is the constant reference to 'independent woman' when discussing careers and singledom. Framed in solely economic terms, it produces an image of women outside of the marriage paradigm that reduces their personal choice and position to one where she has 'chosen' her career and financial security over love, support and care.

As Zama Ndlovu recently commented on social media: "This 'independent woman' narrative reduces women's needs to money. Like how you've got money? You can pay your Truworths account? Now you don't need love and support and hugs and someone to believe in you and someone to talk to and laugh with and be yourself with and all of those other reasons that make relationships special." It casts women as paper thin, two-dimensional images of humanity, hemmed in by their own career and economic aspirations.

We are a society that makes sense of things through placing them in opposition. We often prefer neat boxes to complexity, and flat ideas to thinking through expansive differences. Married women are often pitted against 'independent women' as if the two can never co-exist and are sharply opposed, and even when they do intersect, women are constantly haunted by the endless pursuit of the 'myth of having it all' and achieving '50/50 balance'. The choices are often problematically presented as either career or family.

Both womenhood and its connection to relationships are defined in extremely narrow terms and 'a galaxy of erosive stereotypes', to appropriate Fanon's words. Marriage, in and of itself, is viewed as success, with all other achievements paling in comparison. Not getting married is often framed in terms of lack, deficit, or failure, rather than choice, circumstantial or simply living differently.

'Independent women' are cast as feminists who don't need love or have space for partnership, as if these are mutually exclusive. The independent woman, in the way it appears in the dominant imagination, is a mythical creation that is founded on a one-dimensional and problematic idea: female independence cancels out the need for love, mutual support and care, as Ndlovu pointed out.

The 'independent women' idea is an instantly recognisable image in all forms of media and the everyday. It replicates and reproduces itself in advertising, daily speech and interactions, music videos and television screens.

She is Peggy Olson in Mad Men, eternally positioned between her skyrocketing career aspirations and love life. She is Olivia Pope in The Fixer, forever choosing between 'Vermont with Fitz' or 'Standing in the sun' with Jake, living off a diet of popcorn and wine under the weight of her demanding job and imploding personal life. She is Jessica Pearson in Suits, constantly grappling with having her 'name on the door', and the effect of power on her relationship. It is not to say that other images do not exist, or even that these examples do not have complexity, but rather to point to the dominant image of women defined in relation to their relationships, under the auspices of 'independence'.

It's rare that we see complex women like the kind Shonda Rhimes created with Annalise Keating in How to Get Away with Murder. Those who marriage couldn't save. Those who it destroyed. Women who obliterate the powerful, strong women trope, which is crippling in the way that it demands, particularly black, women to withstand anything and everything. The independent women narrative often goes hand-in-hand with the hypermasculine, strong women trope, championing an image of: 'women who dare not give in to our vulnerability, even as we're breaking, emotionally and physically'.

These images or ideas have weight because they are recognisable. But they are recognisable because they have been constantly replicated in human and cinematic form. But the trouble is that they are exceptionally powerful in determining what 'independence' looks like, which disallows complexity and other ways of being. We rarely see images of men grappling with their power, singledom, and balancing the personal, their careers and family so pervasively - which has its own adverse effects on ideas of masculinity.

We often follow predetermined paths without questioning how they came to be, and their impact on how we create and imagine ourselves. Ultimately, we should be able to make ourselves and shape our lives around the kinds of unions and partnerships that we desire, but need to acknowledge that that desire is framed against the demands of the world we live in. We are never outside those politics.

While I remain imagining and dreaming of my own Solange-style union, complete with an afro, cape and guests in all-white, it is no longer tied to the idea of marriage, or even set in stone, but is fundamentally critically engaging with the question of creating and celebrating partnership, union and love - and trying to unpack what it means to make these 'choices' against the backdrop of the world we live in.

Danielle Bowler holds a master's degree from Rhodes University and is a Mandela Rhodes scholar. She is currently an assistant researcher at Mistra and a member of Feminist Stokvel. She likes to think critically about the world around her, which often includes making complex political arguments about pop culture and Beyonce. Follow her on Twitter: @daniellebowler