If you’ve suffered through painful Tinder dates—or been on the receiving end of an unsolicited dick pic—then you know that dating can be a hellscape. Real romance is elusive, especially when partners are so easily replaceable and options are limitless. Finding ‘the one’ in this miasma can seem mission impossible.
Enter ‘courtship.’ Popularized by the Duggars of 19 Kids & Counting fame, this conservative Christian practice discards modern dating, opting instead for an old-fashioned, patriarchal matchmaking system. Potential suitors are vetted by mom and dad, and dates are chaste, closely-chaperoned interactions. The girl typically assumes a passive role, prepping herself to become a ‘helpmeet’ while praying for God to send a husband (by way of her father). The guy is the pursuer. Physical intimacy is verboten.
In the documentary A Courtship, director Amy Kohn turns her lens on Kelly, a thirty-three-year-old single woman whose parents think she should meet a husband through dating. Instead, she opts to move in with ‘spiritual parents’ Ron and Dawn Wright, who have offered to steer her toward a godly husband. Throughout the film, we witness one suitor in the process of ‘courting’ Kelly, all under the watchful eye of Ron and Dawn.
We spoke with director Amy Kohn about what it was like to enter a world where courtship is the norm, and what she thinks we can learn from it.
SDTC: How did you first get interested in this idea of Christian courtship?
I work as a reality TV producer and I was doing research for a reality TV show. I accidentally came across the topic. It fascinated me for several reasons. I had always wanted to make a documentary, and in television, you don’t normally get a chance to talk about religion, which I’d always really been interested in. I had no idea that this was something going on in the country, and I was surprised and shocked by it.
At the time I was single, and the idea of finding my own dates – and going through the process of meeting people – I hated it. So I thought, this is crazy that you would give someone the chance to choose your dates for you. It also had this weird wish-fulfillment component to it, not that I would ever give that responsibility to someone else. But there are a lot of women who joke around saying, “Hey, wouldn’t it be great if somebody could pick my dates for me?”
So I thought there was something very relatable about the desire to have someone else do the work for you, to protect yourself from vulnerability. I thought it was addressing these really important issues to most women in modern society, at the same time, it was looking at a religious issue, at religious freedom, it was giving me the chance to enter a world that is so different from my own. How often in today’s society do we meet people on the other side of issues, on the other side of debates? It was all those things that led me to it.
It was interesting that you chose Kelly as a subject. She wasn’t raised as a strict Christian, and she opted to go into courtship with the Wrights as her adopted ‘spiritual parents.’ Were they wary about talking to you?
When I first approached the Wrights, they were. But Ron Wright was really cool. I had written him through his website, BeforeTheKiss.com. He responded very quickly, I think kind of on a lark. He thought it was crazy that a TV/film producer was contacting him. He is a very open man, a kind man, but I think he was worried I was going to make fun of them, or I wasn’t going to respect their beliefs.
I did have to build their trust. It actually took five months of talking back and forth for them to agree to do the first shoot. I would say the first two shoots – they were hesitant. It did take several shoots for them to really see that I was someone that they could trust. They were not afraid to share what they thought and what they believe. I’ve always had a lot of respect for that, because I think a lot of times, there’s a lot of suspicion in the conservative Christian community about journalists and filmmakers.
You often see courtship represented as being this hokey, old-timey arrangement. What’s missing from the conversation about courtship within popular media?
A number of things. There’s a real lack of discussion in our culture about fears that parents have about their kids, and what can happen to them. We’ve seen it recently in issues of sexual violence. There are real reasons that you would be nervous that your children would be out in the dating world. Some people say, don’t have sex before marriage. This is much more extreme. But this is a strategy that they’re using to protect their children.
I think what’s never really discussed is can you ever really protect someone from a broken heart? Or can you ever protect someone from divorce, or not having the perfect relationship? This idea that by having your parents involved in the conversation – that you can somehow protect yourself, that you can somehow prevent heartbreak, or prevent a relationship from going wrong – I don’t think that’s reasonable. I think in some ways, it’s misguided. Relationships are unpredictable; people are unpredictable. You cannot protect them from that.
Did any aspects of courtship surprise you?
They really believe that if you’re with your family, you’re more yourself. And you get a truer version of what the person is through being with them and their family. For me, that’s been the opposite of my experience. I feel like we play roles in our family. You grow up in your family, and people have expectations of you and want you to be a certain way. So when I’m with my family, I fall into those roles and expectations, whereas when I’m out in the world, I’ve become an adult, I’ve experienced certain things, I’ve paved my own way, I know who I am. When I’m alone with someone, that’s when I’m really myself. I very much believe in the idea that, whatever experiences you have, they lead to the person you are going to become.
There is also this idea that it’s possible to guard your heart and preserve your purity. They were very concerned with the idea that if you kiss someone for example, you’ll be thinking about those people when you kiss your husband. I can say flat-out again, that has not been my experience. I don’t think about the other people that I was with.
What surprised me – and what’s really interesting in the context of where we are in the current political situation (at least in the US) – is we’re coming up with two completely different viewpoints. And never shall the two merge. It’s not like people on my side of the story get to talk to people on the other side. So one thing that I found surprising is how difficult those bridges are to jump over. I like the Wrights a lot, we got to know each other well throughout this. I respect them and they respect me. But it’s very hard to come together on perspectives and to convince each other of the other side of the story.
I think in a lot of ways, that’s why that this country is very divided. You’re seeing across the globe: Conservatism is re-emerging with a great deal of force. I think a lot of the reason for that is that people are seeing the world so differently. Courtship was just one example of that, but I thought it was a very powerful example.
Were you troubled by Kelly’s decision to pursue courtship (for better or worse)?
I think she’s beautiful, smart, and has a lot to offer. I guess I just have concern that maybe it wasn’t going to work out for her. I was so excited when Ross [her suitor] came on to the scene. He was sweet, he was young, they had a great time together. There was so much that was really positive. So for me, the hard part was that it’s not like a suitor comes along every day. I was wondering, how is this going to end up for her? She personally says she’s happy with her life. But that was my concern for her.
The first thing that people take issue with about courtship is the passivity of it. Waiting for God to bring a partner. If you want your dad to screen your partners, it’s unusual, but it’s your prerogative. But the question of, is God going to bring you the one? If I had sat around and waited for someone to bring ‘the one,’ I don’t think that I’d be married today. I went out and looked for that person. Again, that’s my personal experience. And it was an interesting journey for me because I met my husband the weekend after we finished shooting.
Another thing that came up was that Kelly has God to give her solace and comfort. But all of us have some kind of god. A lot of women would say, I have my career, I’m doing that and I don’t need to look for a relationship. I think in that way, what’s troubling about modern life, not just courtship, is that we all have a tendency to put our focus on something else besides human connection. Why do we do this? What does one do that limits connections with other people?
Can courtship and feminism co-exist?
To me, feminism is that, as a woman, you get to choose what you’re going to do with your life. In Kelly’s case, she’s chosen this. She would not call herself a feminist.
Courtship falls into a model of patriarchy. I don’t think women are in need of protection. So I find that really troubling to think of women as people that need protection. Submission is difficult for me too. I understand the concept, but it’s not something I would accept in my own life. That said, if somebody is an adult, like Kelly, who has made the decision that that’s what she wants – it’s hard for me to say that she shouldn’t be able to do that.
What’s difficult is when you look at situations where people didn’t have the choice. If you grow up in a patriarchal society and you buy into that idea, I don’t think it’s 100 per cent your choice. You’re not aware you could make other choice. At the same time, I will say that we are all indoctrinated into some kind of a culture, some sort of a belief system. You could really make that criticism about any way that a child is raised. How can any of us know how much we were indoctrinated into a belief system, and how much that’s affected who we are?
Why is this idea of handing over authority – to your father and then your husband – alluring to some women?
Because it’s hard to be an adult. It’s hard to make decisions and see the consequences of your decisions. I think all of us face that every single day. As much as when you’re a kid and you want to be an adult, as soon as you get to be an adult you realize, oh my gosh, I have to pay my bills, I have to take responsibility for my own actions.
I relish making my own decisions. But there are times you just want to crawl in a hole when you have made a bad decision, and you want to take it back. If someone else is helping you make a decision – or making a decision for you – it’s a lot easier to feel okay with that decision, especially if it goes wrong.
Did you get a sense of how widespread courtship is in North America?
I was never able to get figures on that. But the sense that I got was that it was growing. The Wrights went to homeschooling conventions where that was discussed. It seemed that there was a resurgence in the popularity of this. I think it also makes sense as there’s a return to more conservative values as well, you can see how this would be more a more appealing thing. It points to the ebb and flow of the country’s duality.
Did making this film shift or reinforce your worldview?
I’ve always been very liberal, very feminist in my beliefs. But it did make me realize how divided we are as a country, and how easy it is to judge people in ways that are potentially unfair. Or judging their beliefs and not thinking about the fact that they’re also people with their own struggles and issues and loves and challenges.
In that way, I think making the film made me more tolerant. It’s made me think about religion in a different way, and people’s rights to practice their religion. I used to be much more glib in talking about views that were different from my own. The chance to have a conversation with people that are different than you, it just reminds you that they’re people, they just think differently than you do. It doesn’t mean that you can’t respect their viewpoint and strive to understand where they’re coming from.
Watch A Courtship on VOD.