My sister is getting married in May. We're all very excited - she's got a good fellow, and the family takes the following general view of the situation: If you love someone and you know you're going to stick with the relationship, why spend years in boyfriend-girlfriend limbo? (In the late 1970s, similar sentiments led my parents to marry at 23... and have four kids by 30.) But here, unfortunately, the sanity of the situation ends: They want A Big White Wedding.
Apparently, this is what all the kids these days are doing--the kids between about 20 and 25 years old, that is. (My sister and her fiancé are 24 and 25, respectively.) At the grand old age of 26, I am actually part of a different generation.
To be honest, the do my sister and her fiancé are having will actually fall at the modest end of the spectrum. They have invited fewer than 200 guests, and only about 125 will probably show up. The dress cost less than $1000 (albeit not much less), and my mother limited them to four attendants each. Of course, to me all this still sounds extravagant and traditionalist. And, of course, though I generally support the scheme and really only want my sister to be happy, I could not help ranting about it to my mother once or twice.
I was surprised to find that she felt the same way. (Including about wanting my sister to be happy.) When she got married in 1977, she explained, she felt somewhat disingenuous standing up there in her little white dress--she had already taken her groom for a test drive. So she finds it a little strange that today's young couples seem to have none of these Puritanical preoccupations, though they not only want but even expect a big, white wedding with all the trimmings.
This revelation (which was, in a disturbing way, sort of honorable and sweet) got me thinking. My mother associated traditional marriage ceremonies with virgin brides and went through with it largely for her family's sake. My sister has no qualms whatsoever about "sealing the deal" before marriage, nor does she feel that this stance is out of keeping with having a traditional wedding celebration. I share my sister's views inasmuch as I agree that marriage should be no prerequisite for a sex or cohabitation, but I also agree with my mother that the truly traditional wedding is inconsistent with the standard modern premarital relationship.
In the pre-industrial society I study, the marriage ceremony represented and accomplished the transfer of a young woman from her father's household (and his potestas) to that of her husband (and his, or his father's potestas--which word should give you some idea of the pre-industrial society I study, and given this society's law was an important precursor to our own American legal system, invoking its customs is not, I think, invalid). In the American wedding, many of the standard acts underline the ceremony's basic understanding of women as chattel: the father walking the bride down the aisle to "give her away", the whole "obey" thing in the vows, the tendency (resurgent, I'm afraid) for the woman to take her husband's name, etc. Somewhere along the way, the American wedding also became a kind of launch of a young woman into her adult life. Here I am thinking of bridal showers, wedding gifts, and the like, all of which are centered around outfitting a new home. (All of this is really pretty obvious!)
Most of us secular Americans should recognize without much trouble that these marriage customs are entirely outmoded in both symbolic and practical application. Legally speaking, women are no longer chattel. We leave our fathers' potestas when we turn 18, just like our brothers. Likewise, while we still do more than our fair share of the housework, most of us work outside the home--and, more tellingly, we were raised with aspirations to have both families and careers. We women even hold the majority among college and university students. In practical terms, too, marriage is no longer the launch point of our adult lives. Most of us have lived away from our parents before getting married, if not already outfitted our own apartments. In many cases, couples have cohabited before marriage and, in some cases, accumulated so much household stuff that they have to keep some of it in storage lockers (or their parents' garages). The virginity issue needs no comment.
I have a few friends who might contend that I am speaking for only a small community of liberal intellectuals living in "blue states" on the coasts. I would challenge them to watch an episode of The Bachelor and get back to me. (Actually this season's bachelor has already dispatched with most of the really nasty, calculating, marriage-obsessed ditzes--which is why I find it weirdly heartening to watch--but still.) The women who appear on that show have jobs, most of which require a college education or some kind of certification. They include teachers, non-profit business women, and even a medical student. There was one committed virgin, but the others made it pretty clear that she was the weird one. Also, I think she got sent home without a rose two weeks ago. While the women are excited to get married, the discourse of the show is more about finding the love of one's life than the glories of becoming a wife. (In fact, the only person this season to utter the word 'wife' was the bachelor.) I'm not sure how many of the bachelorettes expect to keep their full-time jobs after marriage and babies, but I doubt many of them see the course of their lives as a simple transfer from daddy to hubby either.
In short, most American brides are hardly thinking of themselves as chattel when their fathers walk them down the aisle. Nor do they associate that big, white dress with virginity. Likewise, I'm pretty sure that my sister and her friends see their bridal showers as a convenient excuse to get a few extra presents, hardly a reaffirmation that a woman's place is in the home or that marriage is the defining moment of a woman's adult life. Nevertheless, they have chosen to perpetuate and, in some cases, reawaken or even invent a set of rituals with that very symbolism.
The wedding industry has certainly played a huge role in convincing my sister and her peers that The Big White Wedding is normal. Bridal boutiques, bridal chains, sites like theknot.com, and a frighteningly large number of wedding-themed TV shows have developed a rhetoric of wedding as Your Big, Fat Special Day. If this Big Day rhetoric is traditional, it has skipped a generation. It is as foreign to the sensibilities of our parents and their friends as it is to me. It even seems a little out of character for my sister. I suspect, however, that it has its roots in the bottom line. Commercially speaking, it's a brilliant way to update the symbolism of the wedding without losing money: Of course lavish parties and lots of presents are appropriate for Your Big, Fat Special Day.
For example: At my sister's wedding, the groomsmen will wear black three-button suits. As said groomsmen, who include my three brothers, are not undertakers, they did not already own black three-button suits. We tried to get the happy couple to agree to charcoal two-button suits (infinitely useful for job interviews, court appearances, and other suit-friendly occasions), but they really liked black and really wanted it for their wedding. Accordingly, Brooks Brothers has made a bundle. Now my sister is on a quest for solid blue ties that match the bridesmaid dress--another $150-$200. Said dress, thank god and my own good taste, is not ruffled, pink, or otherwise hideous (makes me look sort of like one of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel sybils!) and I'm sure I'll be able to wear it again at various friends' weddings. So I don't really mind. Still, the decision to have matching bridesmaids represents $188 x 4 to Ann Taylor. (Plus $78 x 4 to Zappos.com for the shoes, though to be honest the shoes were only a recommended purchase--and, full disclosure, I picked them out, so they are totally my style.)
Then there are the registries with the $30/ea plates and $20/ea wine glasses. "We looked at Fiestaware," my sister reports, "but decided to go a little higher-end." She isn't actually a greedy person; she and her peer group have rather been socialized to see their weddings as something of a Big White Opportunity to Get Stuff They Couldn't Otherwise Afford. In fact, my sister is not particularly caught up in this Special Day rhetoric, but I think she actually feels social pressure to have a such a wedding--it's "what's done" and she wants to do the right thing. Again, I point fingers at theknot.com. (Give me my sister back, you body-snatching, Bridezilla bitches!)
What really worries me, however, is not the greed and the expenditure but that so many young women don't see this inconsistencies of their position. Do they really want their weddings to be the Big Day of their lives? What about college graduation? Or getting your dream job? Finding lasting love is certainly worth some celebration, but not as an accomplishment or even as the point of arrival at adulthood. Folding domesticity and household establishment into the celebration furthers old, sexist notions about a woman's role and her proper sphere of activity, not to mention exclusive and judgmental ideas of what constitutes a household, a family, and even an adult. (And as for the bridal shower, which I can't believe I am going to have to attend, until I hear that young men, too, get showered in dishtowels and frying pans before their weddings, I cannot help but find the practice revolting.)
Traditions are not innocent. The resurgence of The Big Wedding has coincided somewhat with an increase in the number of young, hyper-educated women who nonetheless plan to stay home with their children, not to mention the rise of anti-feminist backlash and the religious right. The rights American women have won over the past hundred years are not yet so secure that we can buy into this neo-traditional Big White Wedding culture without eroding them.
For myself, I'm planning to abduct my groom Spartan-style. My Big Day will come when I get tenure. (You'll find my registry at the University Bookstore.)