Tell me if this tale sounds familiar: A handsome football star sets his cap for one of the world’s leading female pop stars when she’s at the peak of her global fame. He tells people that he fancies her, he manages to meet her, and soon she’s appearing at his games while he roves near and far to visit her while she’s on tour. Their combined brand — singing and sports, beauty and the baller — makes them a cultural sensation, a media obsession, a romance made in tabloid heaven.
Before this was the Taylor Swift-Travis Kelce story, it was the story of David Beckham and Victoria Adams, in the era when she was better known as Posh Spice, and her girl band, the Spice Girls, were becoming (as they remain, somewhat shockingly) the best-selling female group in history.
I thought of myself as sports-savvy and pop-culturally-aware at the time of their romance, and I have some dim “Posh and Becks” associations somewhere in the drawers of memory. But I was just starting college, I was more focused on American football than soccer, and I wasn’t really a Spice Girls guy. So it’s been educational to watch the Netflix docuseries “Beckham,” in which the now late-40s former athlete looks back on his career and his courtship of Posh, who of course became and still remains his wife.
For instance, I barely recalled Beckham’s turn as a scapegoat for England’s World Cup loss to Argentina in 1998, and certainly I had no knowledge of how the Posh-Becks relationship interacted with the disastrous match. The defeat set off a brutal frenzy, complete with death threats and hangings in effigy, after a Beckham red card arguably cost his country the match. But the personal backstory was that they were recently engaged and Posh had called him just before the match from New York to tell him that they were having a baby — news that arguably revved him up just enough that he unwisely kicked an Argentine player who had knocked him to the ground.
Nor, more generally, did I remember much of anything about the intensity of their courtship, the rapid rush from their first meeting in the spring of 1997 to an engagement the following January, followed by the birth of their son, Brooklyn, in the spring of 1999 and their purple-clad wedding that summer. Or how young they were at the time — they met as early-20-somethings, basically kids! Or, by the standards of celebrity romances, how un-stage-managed the courtship was, how palpably obsessed with her he was, certainly to the detriment of his relationship with his coaches.
Which makes it all the more striking that the relationship has lasted through their various reinventions — her transition from pop star to fashionista, his peregrinations from Manchester United to Real Madrid to America’s Major League Soccer, the evolution of their joint brand, the births of their four kids, their transformation into country-house-owning pillars of the establishment. With, yes, the cushioning of extreme wealth — but in spite of all the forces that unravel other A-list couples, the media maelstroms and the unique temptations of celebrity.
The romance of Taylor and Travis, at a time of political polarization and growing ideological alienation between the sexes, has inspired a lot of entertaining, kidding-not-kidding takes about how a Swift-Kelce marriage or a Swift-Kelce baby might revolutionize our culture. One noted reactionary social critic anticipates “the greatest spike in weddings in American history,” as “mimetic desire will grip the hearts and minds of millions of millennial women,” followed by a baby boom “triggered by a tsunami of heterosexual romantic happy endings.” Others go further, with one social media observer envisioning a Taylor-Travis “housing boom, a tremendous lifestyle shift for millions of newly minted families. a new golden era” for America.
And why not, I say? Why struggle in the weeds of public policy and wrangle over cultural scripts and gender norms when you can just achieve a pro-matrimony vibe shift by delivering the world’s most famous avatar of disappointed female heterosexuality to romantic bliss with a rugged Super Bowl champion?
But watching “Beckham” made me wonder if a more ideal celebrity model for champions of romance and fecundity has actually been with us all along. Because as much as it would be delightful, for them and for us, if the burgeoning Swift-Kelce courtship went the distance, giving us a celebrity wedding and perhaps a royal baby, having two incredibly successful superstars pairing off in their mid-30s wouldn’t overthrow the current system of romance and dating that seems to be failing so many people. Instead, it would effectively validate it, because pairing off and procreating only after a long period of casual dating and a lot of professional achievement is what smart young Americans are told that responsible people do.
Whereas the strongest critique of this kind of sexual and romantic culture is that for lots of young people, waiting to commit until you’re secure and settled and filled with self-knowledge can be a way to miss opportunities for romantic happiness, to basically train yourself into singlehood, to make the transition to marriage and parenting seem like something that can happen only in a certain “just right” moment, which then might never come at all.
When this model works out, it works out well — as hopefully it will work out for Kelce and Swift and their many potential imitators. But it also creates a lot of paths to failure: long quasi-marital relationships that eventually curdle, upper-middle-class couples trying to squeeze their desired fertility into an extremely narrow window, working-class couples having kids together but postponing marriage because that seems like something you do only when you’re somehow financially set.
The alternative model is the one that Becks and Posh embodied. First, get together relatively young: Don’t marry as teenagers, but don’t be afraid to find the love of your life at 23 or 24. Second, unite the flush of initial romance and sexual attraction with engagement, marriage and kids rather than treating them as distinct life stages that might fall years apart from one another. Third, make your marriage a foundation for your professional advancement and self-finding, not a capstone to be dropped on top, so that both your work life and your personal maturation are bound together with the work and maturation of your spouse.
And the fact that the Beckhams weren’t “trads” following a conservative moral script — they had their first child just before the wedding rather than soon after — actually makes them an especially interesting case study, showing that you don’t always need religious rules to make life choices that treat sex and fertility and lifelong commitment as a package deal.
To be clear, I think a culture is more likely to unite those things when piety is more socially important, when religious commitments influence romantic scripts and pull people toward monogamy and wedlock even when they’re having sex before they’re married. Ideas matter, rules matter, and (as we see today) the differences between men and women can make it surprisingly hard for the sexes to successfully unite when norms of chastity and courtship are stripped away.
But if pairing off and having kids as a foundation for adult life rather than a later add-on is not an automatic thing for men and women, neither is it somehow unnatural, something that requires going against the flow of hormones or romantic inclinations or desires. And part of the appeal of looking back and watching Becks and Posh do it successfully is that when the chemistry is right, it should feel like the most natural thing in the world.
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This Week in Anti-Decadence
— Tom Ough, “Watt Lies Beneath,” Works in Progress (Nov. 15)