Is there an optimal, sure-fire way to find one’s absolutely perfect mate? The owners of dating websites imply that their combination of sophisticated algorithms and multiple choices provide a path to happily-ever-after. Tinder, Grindr, and their ilk aim lower (literally), promising not Mr. (or Ms.) Right but Mr. Right Now. If Star Trek’s “Amok Time” is to be believed, the Vulcans have pon farr, but even that’s not guaranteed to get Mr. Spock laid.
For those who want to go really old school, there’s Christian courtship, as explored in Amy Kohn’s documentary A Courtship. She follows Kelly Boggus, an attractive 33-year-old woman who has given over her search for a husband to God - with the earthly mechanics of the process handled by her adopted spiritual parents, Ron and Dawn Wright. Kelly has lived with the Wrights and their two daughters for seven years, and as part of the courtship process Ron is deputized to vet/pre-screen any and all potential suitors.
Ron and Dawn are true believers in courtship, indoctrinating their own children in its tenets and offering pro-courtship literature for sale via the Web. As with dating sites, it’s a numbers game: at one point Ron says that the more people who believe in courtship, the more prospective husbands there will be for his daughters.
The film follows one possible suitor for Kelly, a guy named Ross Leavitt, who manages to clear enough hurdles to actually meet and (sort of) court Kelly throughout the year or so that Kohn’s film documents. Through it all, Ron, Dawn, and multiple others (including Ross’ younger brother) are always, always in the picture. If there’s a time when Ross and Kelly meet privately, Kohn either wasn’t privy to it or doesn’t include it, though they do communicate via e-mail and text. These people may be super-strict, home-schooling Christians but they’re not Amish, so social media and modern technology play their roles.
It would be hypocritical of me to write a review of this film without saying that just about everything about its subject matter makes me angry. The unquestioning and supposedly Bible-sanctioned patriarchy and sexism. The smug belief that getting a husband is all that any woman wants, or should want, out of life. The obsession with sexual purity, with the ideal being that a woman should save not just her body but her first kiss for her future husband. (Kelly is slightly damaged goods because prior to embracing courtship, she gave away her first kiss - and no, that’s not a euphemism.) Worst of all, IMHO, is Kelly’s self-inflicted infantilization and passivity.
(Ah-hah! Another godless atheist mocking the Christian religion! Get Bill O’Reilly on the phone!)
Guilty as charged. But the conversations Kohn documents could be translated word for word into Arabic and spoken by men in robes and women wearing hijabs, and they wouldn’t seem out of place. Or imagine if the daughters in Fiddler on the Roof didn’t have the gumption to rebel against their father’s choice of a husband. You can change the language and the holy book, but patriarchy is patriarchy and women are property no matter how you dress it up.
It’s a measure of how effective (and non-judgmental) Kohn’s work is that her film pisses me off as much as it does. The film also manages to be rather touching, because Kelly is presented with a persuasive alternative to being this passive princess in the tower. The centerpiece of A Courtship has her visiting her biological mother and stepfather, both of whom present a credible case for Kelly’s taking a more active role in, you know, living her life. Kelly’s mom, who thinks she should be joining a Christian singles group, says “God can guide your steps, but you need to be stepping.” Kelly responds that she’s “actively waiting” for a husband.
It’s implied that Kelly’s parents’ divorce has scarred/scared her into courtship. It’s also clear from these and other scenes that, on some level at least, she does want to find love - and that she regrets that things don’t work out as hoped/planned with Ross.
In a post-screening Q&A at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival, Kohn revealed that Kelly is still living with the Wrights, and that there have been no more potential suitors in what’s now 10 years into courtship. Kohn also revealed that she herself used the Internet to meet her husband, who she married during the three years of post-production on the film. To each his/her own.
Personally, I don’t think anyone or anything can provide guarantees when it comes to the search for love and companionship. These folks think the God of their belief and understanding can. Without directly contradicting them, A Courtship seems to cast doubt on those beliefs. But remember, this review is coming to you from a godless gay guy. Where you come down on Christian courtship, and A Courtship, is likely to be determined by what you believe going in.