In the days following the ratification of Proposition 8, inundated with “sanctity of marriage” rhetoric from the Christian right, I’ve been thinking a lot about the institution of marriage. But as Christmas approaches, in this season of rampant consumerism and good cheer, I’ve been thinking about something related to, but strangely detached from, marriages–weddings. And not just weddings, but the wedding industry, the wedding EMPIRE . I’m not anti-marriage and I’m not anti-wedding–I hope to get married some day and I don’t think I’ll probably want to just go down to city hall for a license either. But as an intelligent, independent woman, I can’t claim there aren’t a lot of things about not only the institution of marriage but the cultural canonization of weddings, be it in movies, magazines, reality TV or pervading the public discourse, that are troubling to me, or which I feel ambivalent about.
At the basic level, weddings are steeped in anti-feminist symbolism, from the virginal veil-and-all-white look to the exchange of “goods” that is represented by being given away by one’s father to one’s husband, handed off from one man to another. It’s hard, on this level, to reconcile the part of me that finds myself enamored on some level by these traditional trappings, the pomp and circumstance, the romance of it all, and the part of me that doesn’t want to partake in upholding such antiquated values which are in fundamental opposition to my sense of self and of the world around me. I think that’s a hard line for many intelligent, modern, empowered women to walk, in arenas extending far beyond the matrimonial as well. It doesn’t mean we don’t believe in embodying feminism in our lives, it simply means that life is not black and white and also that it can be very hard not to be sucked up in believing we want the things that we are told every day of our lives, from the time we are children, we must want, should want.
This is perhaps what I resent most about wedding culture, what I feel most uncomfortable about–having desires jammed down my throat, expectations foisted upon me. Not every girl dreams of her wedding day starting at age six. I sure didn’t and frankly I hope there aren’t too many six year olds who are dreaming about their weddings. There seems to be a little conflation between “bride” and “fairy princess” going on. It’s perfectly legitimate for a woman to want to feel beautiful, to want to have a special, even “magical” day to celebrate her love with the people she cares about. But to look at the media of matrimony, one would think that the wedding day is more important than the marriage itself. So often, I’ve heard the wedding day referred to as the “most important” or “best” day in a woman’s life. I hope not. Not only that, but the archetypes of womanhood represented by wedding culture are so often silly, frivolous, materialistic, vain, small minded, and frankly pathetic. The bar has been set so ridiculously high that people go into massive debt funding elaborate weddings and buying designer dresses. Women torture themselves to lose weight, to become, literally and not just figuratively that long-imagined fairy princess. Exhibit A: some plastic surgeons actually have Bridal Plastic Surgery packages. These impulses are not some innate part of the female genetic makeup, something I think is too often forgotten. They’re trained and reinforced through a lifetime of cultural cues, overt and covert.
Shows like Bridezillas and Bulging Brides reiterate and reinforce these kinds of stereotypes and expectations . Bridezillas is based around the concept of how ridiculously silly and downright insane women get, pushed over the edge by their compulsive attempts to engineer a “perfect” wedding, with much cat fighting, hyperventilation, crying, and expletives involved. Bulging Brides has the absolutely sickening premise of having brides-to-be buy dresses several sizes too small for them and then work out and diet constantly in the desperate attempt to squeeze into the smaller dress by their wedding day. There are so many other shows based around weddings and brides (with names like “Engaged and Underage,” “Til Death,” “Wedding SOS”), I won’t even try to list them all. Check out Sarah Haskins‘ as usual hilarious take on this phenomenon. Talking about the large number of wedding-focused shows on the WE television network, she says “They put the ‘WE’ in ‘wedding’ and the ‘end’ in ‘feminism.'”
In terms of other forms of media, it’s crazy to me that a whole genre of wedding-themed magazines continues to appear to prosper even as magazines are going under everywhere you look and even such institutions as Rolling Stone are downsizing. And then, of course, there is Hollywood, which gives us crazy/neurotic bride movies and cute/sweet bride movies and movies where weddings are big and fat and Greek and hillarious. I’m not saying any of this is new. If anyone should be aware of the long and illustrious tradition of idealizing weddings, it’s a Jane Austen fan like me. An Austen story wasn’t over until there was a LEAST one marriage, if you were lucky two (although, back then could you really blame them for rushing to the altar? You could barely even kiss on the lips before marriage, and hand-kissing will only get you so far. Come to think of it, for a lot of people things haven’t changed much in that regard, I guess. No wonder evangelicals marry younger. But I digress). But I guess my thinking is, back then women couldn’t show their ankles and spent most of their time playing the piano-forte and doing needlepoint. They didn’t go to college, couldn’t play sports (besides croquette) and had a habit of fainting as a result of their restrictive corsets. In two and a half centuries, a lot has changed for the better for women. But some things haven’t. We’re still conditioned to be just as wedding-crazed as ever (and we still love a game of croquette once in a while–but there’s nothing wrong with that!).
I’m not saying women shouldn’t have the right to be excited about their wedding day, to put work into making it what they want it to be. But a modicum of perspective would be nice. Maybe I’m totally off base here, but this reminds me of something Naomi Wolf wrote about in The Beauty Myth. She wrote about the way that dieting in a patriarchal society serves the function of keeping women’s minds frivolously absorbed and thus significantly lessening the threat of them exerting their power, intelligence, and influence in the public arena in ways that might actually challenge the male-dominated status quo. This isn’t meant as an all-inclusive explanation for anything. I don’t think anyone would argue that things like dieting or being a shopaholic or becoming a bridezilla are the reasons patriarchal values persist, but I do believe they represent part of the bigger picture. All of us get wrapped up in capitalist-driven, self-absorbed triviality sometimes. But, increasingly our society, but I think women in particular, as in these examples, are being encouraged to embrace these impulses by those who stand to gain from them.