Great review of As Long As We Both Shall Love from Vicki Howard in the June 2014 issue of the American Historical Review. Check it out! http://ahr.oxfordjournals.org/content/119/2.toc
Great review of As Long As We Both Shall Love from Vicki Howard in the June 2014 issue of the American Historical Review. Check it out! http://ahr.oxfordjournals.org/content/119/2.toc
Before even getting to the meat of this post, I must confess: I have an extremely troubled relationship with prescriptive (aka advice) literature. Friends who’ve heard me go on about this before: sorry to repeat (but you had to know that one day I’d try to write this out of my system). Others: here we go.
In my scholarship, I often go to town on advice lit from the past, analyzing, dissecting, critiquing, figuring out what, exactly, any given “expert” believed as hard fact for the “correct” behaviors of a person in any given role – usually, for my most recent purposes, husband or wife, man or woman on the prowl, bride-to-be or groom-to-be. I don’t believe that there is one way to be a spouse, one way to snag a partner, one way to host a wedding. Nor has there ever been. But an “expert,” looking to prey upon those who did and looking to move his/her product, insisted that his/her way was the best, the only way. Come on. No way. How could people have taken these texts seriously?
And yet, when a baby came to live with us, I couldn’t stop myself from reaching for advice lit designed for new parents. Not as any kind of cerebral, objective observer, but as a total desperado in need of answers. I dog-eared pages and used tabs to remind me of passages that included the best, most essential advice. I timed “awake time” so that I wouldn’t be a minute too soon or too late in moving baby into nap mode. I scoured the approved list of activities so that I wouldn’t accidentally overstimulate this child and prevent her from sleeping. There was a terrible morning where my husband and I, inspired by a baby advice book, mapped out a multi-week schedule – on a LEGAL PAD, no less – to transition her from 3-hour to 4-hour feedings. If you see a sleep theme here, you’re on the right track.
Some of the information in some of these books was sometimes very helpful. Some of it was crazy. And sometimes the tone of the author was terrible. One book, in particular, chastised parents for “accidental parenting” – cases in which they’d allowed difficult behaviors or patterns to develop in their infants. Back when baby was weeks old, I would sometimes weep thinking about my accidental parenting practices (HORMONES). Eventually, I wanted a face-to-face meeting with said author so I could explain just how fng deliberate I’d been. But even when I was reeling from giving birth, nursing, realizing the weight of what we’d just committed to, and feeling pregnancy hormones wash out and nursing hormones take their place, I *knew* the many problems with prescriptive literature. Even as I turned to it time after time. As noted above, I’ve made a practice of taking these kinds of texts down. But in the craziness of new baby, when my husband and I were grappling for answers, prescriptive literature seemed a better alternative to the anecdotal world of what you find when you google “6 weeks baby nap trouble.” I knew these books were so flawed and yet I COULDN’T STOP LOOKING TO THESE BOOKS FOR ANSWERS. It was a terrible vortex.
Have I learned anything from this? Sadly, no. Case in point: I recently checked out Academic Motherhood: How Faculty Manage Work and Family. With this text, I explicitly was looking for advice. On the one hand, we’ve established a pretty good balance in this house; on the other hand, seeing what others have done to this end seemed like a good idea. I realize this isn’t exactly intended as an advice text and is formatted as a study, but it still sort of is advice-related, providing evidence from people who’ve already traveled the path I’m on, reflecting and identifying what good or bad decisions they’d made, all of which, theoretically, could be of use to me. The premise: the authors, having heard all about the many challenges women face when it comes to managing an academic career – and specifically, one that advances to tenure status – and a family, wanted to present a more optimistic view, one that suggests that the academy is a good place to be a professional and a parent, to find the all-to-elusive “balance.” I agree with the impulse behind this study in many ways. The kind of flexibility an academic post affords is incredible, and for that, I am grateful. But from the get go, my relationship with this text was flawed.
My immediate beef: the authors’ descriptions of their own experiences. One author delivered a baby mid-semester. Her solution to work/life balance: skip ONE CLASS (for delivery) and then return to teaching, often with baby in tow. And if class time intersected with when she needed to nurse said baby, she’d do so. In class. RECORD SCRATCH. If one of the persons collecting and evaluating evidence considers *this* to be an example of balance, or even of reasonable professional expectations, I need go no further (even though I did [and in all fairness, the author admitted that she should have pushed for better accommodation]). I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: just because you *can* multitask doesn’t mean you should. So many things have to go so right for that kind of solution to even be an option, I sort of don’t know where to begin. Not to mention the fact that everyone in that scenario – mom, baby, students – deserves better. And if mom is too nervous to advocate her right to a better situation or, even worse, fails to imagine that a better one could exist (and this when she’d already been awarded tenure), then this book is a case in point about how the academy is often a very uncompromising place for working mothers hoping to advance. The other author, you ask? Her partner stayed home, full-time. Good for her. These starting points did little to assure me that I’d come to the right place. As I read on, too many stories were too much like this.
Maybe I’d begun with hopes too high. I know of too many instances where even a “good” setup isn’t great. I can’t fault a text for not being exactly what I wanted it to be. I will say, even with my reaction to these stories, I appreciate the fact that these people are recognizing the privileged position academics hold, contributing to a conversation very worth having, and coming up with recommendations for how to improve very important (and too often ignored) workplace issues. Additionally, there’s something valuable to draw from this text – and even from my disappointment in said text. Work-life “balance,” the “right” way of raising up a child, the “only” way to host a wedding – all of these are so wildly individualized, there’s no way that one text is ever going to do everything for everyone. But in this instance, in propelling me toward a visceral reaction to what others term “balance,” I came away with a better sense of my own vision of what that means. And I felt more confident about the choices my husband and I have made on our eleven-month journey with our tiny human. That said, our practices wouldn’t be perfect for everyone, just as the authors’ practices would not have been realistic for me or my family. So be it. Throughout the text, that was the common thread: individuals working out scenarios that worked best for them in their individual circumstances. Of course as I think about this, I think how nice it would be if there were a some kind of structural change, an attempt by our leadership and institutions to guarantee a smoother effort toward the blend of work and home through actual policy. Alas. You may say I’m a dreamer (or a socialist), but that would alleviate so much of the tension women – and men – feel in their efforts to do and be all that they wish to do and be. (As an aside: it was staggering to see how many women had to come up with “solutions” to their pregnancies on their own; very few institutions had policies in place.)
Am I offering solutions here? No way. After all, I’m no Kim Kardashian (http://jezebel.com/kim-kardashian-knows-all-about-being-a-working-mom-1601998628). I would never presume to speak for everyone, and I’m still looking for advice. As a person who wants answers to my questions and solutions to my problems and who has long looked to books for knowledge and direction, I’m not about to go cold turkey. Upon reconsideration, it’s possible that I have learned something during my last few months of advice seeking. As I move forward, I’ll aim to remember to be savvier in my reading: taking what fits, disregarding the rest, and looking beyond the written word to the experiences and counsel of friends who are willing to share. In so doing, maybe I’ll be able to empathize more with my historical subjects who looked to prescriptive texts for answers, and practice in my personal life will yield professional results.
Slate’s Gentleman Scholar recently engaged with the question: Should men ask their future in-laws for permission to marry their daughters? Is this charmingly old-fashioned or disgustingly sexist? (http://www.slate.com/articles/life/weddings/2014/06/asking_future_in_laws_for_permission_to_marry_their_daughter_a_tradition.html)
Until women ask men’s parents for permission or blessing, it *is* sexist. Until that time, the one-sided practice suggests that a woman is passing from possession of one family to another. It ignores the fact that women are just as capable of self-support and independent decision making as men. And as the age at first marriage continues to rise, it’s increasingly ridiculous to ask permission to enter into a consenting committed partnership with a full-grown adult (not to mention the fact that the idea of marriage as “partnership” is harder to swallow if one party is checking in with a third party, re: the relationship moving forward [additionally: the continued focus on the man as proposer and the woman as propose plays to the inequality of the relationship – especially since decision-making about moving forward remains a male prerogative]).
And, of course, the piece relies on the fact that we’re still dealing solely with male-female unions. What happens to the process of asking permission or blessing when there are two men or two women wedding? Something I love about the growing visibility and increasing legality of same-sex weddings is that they reveal so clearly just how gendered (and archaic) so much of American wedding culture is.
Still, the Gentleman Scholar, in weighing in on this issue, is not wrong in suggesting that if the idea of securing permission or blessing is important to you and yours, talk it out, and decide what’s best for you. Fine. And I’m not suggesting those who ask for a blessing or permission are sexists, full stop. But I hope couples deciding to continue on with this non-tradition think through just what, exactly, it represents.
Which brings me to potentially the more interesting point of the article: the idea that this part of wedding culture is “traditional.” As one man claimed about his decision to ask permission of his then-girlfriend’s father “I thought that there was something in the ritual….I embraced the tradition despite the fact that the institution of marriage has evolved.” As the article notes, however, the tradition hasn’t been a tradition, really, in years. The Slate piece references the 1948 edition of Vogue’s Book of Etiquette, which established that once a man and woman decided to wed, it was for the bride to inform her family of the decision. Many of the prescriptive texts I read for As Long As We Both Shall Love communicated the same point. Ideas of what is traditional, of what is a fundamental part of the wedding process, continue to shape decisions contemporary bride and grooms make as much as their own desires or actual traditions, established by previous generations within their families and handed down across generations. In writing about the use of blessing or permission, the Gentleman Scholar engages with the use of tradition: “We’re talking, in each case, about embracing traditional language to indicate respect for values more durable than the patriarchy from which that language emerged.” I don’t disagree with the idea that traditions evolve over time or that asking permission or blessing means something different now than it once did. But I can’t let go of the fact this alleged tradition still communicates the bride’s subordinate status. And I have to wonder what it means when, of all the possible traditions out there, this is among those that still has legs, especially when it seems simple enough to amend the tradition to this end: decide to get married; assume your parents see you both as competent adults; then – as a couple – tell each set of parents (or whomever) that you’ve decided to wed. Boom. Dilemma of sexism v. tradition/values solved.
At the end of every semester, I, like the students, am desperate to shake myself of the previous sixteen weeks. From the energized January beginning to the terrible no-man’s-land of mid-March to the final May mile of our collective marathon, the spring semester can drag. But even as I shout “SUMMER!” and wave my fists above my head in a gesture of celebration and release, I can’t ever let go entirely.
In this, the early portion of my summer, as I shift into a state of mind that is more focused on reading and research and writing, the teaching part of me won’t quit. How nice for me, then, that I’m lucky enough to teach what I also am lucky enough to read and research and write about.
This past semester, I oversaw a readings course on Modern US Women’s History. Over the course of our sixteen weeks, eight students and I read eight historical monographs. The structure of the course goes something like this: Each time we meet, one person prepares discussion questions, circulates them among his/her classmates, and then leads class discussion. Everyone writes about the book they’ve read. Everyone is expected to participate in discussion. I (try like hell – and regularly fail – to) keep my mouth shut for at least an hour of said discussion.
Ideally, the students learn content from the selected books, and even more ideally, they walk away with a sense of the historiography of the chosen topic (non-historians: historiography = historians’ way of describing themes, trends, discussions, debates among historians in the same/similar fields). Additionally, and maybe more importantly (definitely more importantly?), they learn to read books and write about books critically. They learn to compare texts and question how and why differences in interpretations of the past arise. They learn to analyze arguments and voice their analysis is a professional and measured way.
As always, I’d read the selected books in advance. I was prepared with the main ideas I wanted students to take away (the falsity of a singular “natural” version of womanhood versus the many varied embodiments of actual womanhood and an understanding that women’s history doesn’t follow a linear progressive narrative, FYI). But here’s what so wonderful about teaching and what’s really wonderful about teaching smart, engaged students: my themes and ideas were just the beginning. They identified and emphasized so many smart points that are fundamental to the study of women’s history, that I sense may be fundamental to my future teaching AND research, and that reflect significance beyond the world of history and relate directly to efforts towards contemporary sexual equality.
With all that prefacing out of the way, I give you some of Spring 2014’s greatest hits:
Point 1. There is a major difference between appreciation and value. YES. Throughout the course of our readings, ranging from the political world of the late 19th century to media representations of the 21st century, we came back to this idea over and over again. As we read Megan Winchell’s Good Girls, Good Food, Good Fun: The Story of USO Hostesses during World War II, it became clear that the United States government, the USO, and the public at large appreciated the work women did in their voluntary service efforts to entertain American troops, but part of that appreciation stemmed from the fact that these women provided entertainment free of charge. Their service was celebrated as a cost-saving measure as much as it was an act of patriotic service. Similar appreciation revealed itself in discussions of women’s domestic duties. Housewives and mothers were celebrated as a cornerstone of the nation, but respect, admiration, and appreciation had to suffice as substitutes for financial compensation.
Point 2. Media and impossible-to-fulfill ideals just won’t quit. As we considered the influence of Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique, we noted how media played a fundamental role in shaping women’s views of what their lives should be (as Friedan emphasized). As we moved to consideration of the role of media in the 21st century, Susan Douglas’s Enlightened Feminism revealed how a new ideal, focused on sexual attractiveness, appropriate femininity, and a sense that feminism was no longer necessary, had become a model for young women and girls coming of age.
Point 3. Consumerism isn’t liberation. This point came through clearly in reading Kathy Peiss’s classic Cheap Amusements about women in turn-of-the 20th century New York, and, again, through Douglas’s Enlightened Sexism. Marketplace participation may have offered some measure of independence, but it also offered new sets of expectations that were difficult to fulfill, particularly for women who earned a fraction of what working men earned. As women endeavored to enjoy the new “cheap amusements,” while simultaneously paying room and board and dressing in the latest styles, they participated in an arrangement whereby men “treated” them to the dance hall or movies in exchange for sexual pleasures. Did this system provide a measure of autonomy? Sure. Did this system likewise contain an element of danger? Also yes. As for Douglas’s text, maybe one of the greatest moments of my teaching life occurred when a student picked up and extrapolated on Douglas’s critique of Oprah Winfrey for using her considerable power towards a consumerist end rather than toward an effort to establish and effect real political change.
Point 4. Focusing on the individual rather than the social structure in which the individual lives is A PROBLEM. Again: YES. When we place the onus on the individual woman to achieve the perfect career/life balance, or we suggest that she just face facts and realize that you get a career OR a personal life, sister, we’re using a rotten, rotten set of expectations and a deeply flawed logic. As Sara Evans’ notes, the shift toward individual fulfillment and the decline of collective activism – shaped not in small part by the Reagan administration’s systematic dismantling of feminist leadership and federal agencies – stalled the progress that was so widespread during the 1970s. I have given so much thought to the persisting structural inequality that continues to plague the United States, and the discussions with my students clarified something for me. As we concluded discussion of Evans’ Tidal Wave, which gives some consideration to Hilary Clinton, the conversation shifted to women in politics and the possibility of Clinton’s 2016 candidacy. A student asked, “Dr. Dunak, do you think a woman president will mean equality?” This question and my response crystallized for me how my views, re: American men and women, the world in which we live, and what would have to change for equality to be at all possible, have changed. “No,” I said. “A federally funded national maternity policy would be a more critical step toward sexual equality. Commitment to that kind of institutional change – across the population – would revolutionize families, the workplace, and, I think, the face of American politics.” Did I oversimplify things? Yes. Would this solve all our problems? No. Would it a start? Yes. And I think more of a start than a Madam POTUS. And maybe there are those who would tell me to keep my politics to myself, but a) they asked (sort of); b) consideration of the past, I maintain, should be a fundamental component of our efforts to create a better – and more equal – present and future; and c) this is a view that has emerged after careful investigation and analysis of widespread evidence, past and present.
This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the ideas generated by and within our discussions. I have so many favorite lines that came out of this class, but I leave you with the moment I knew the class had been a success: A student admitted that she’d come to class not liking a book, but, still, had given the discussion a chance. At discussion’s end, she stated that she had to rethink her position about the text entirely. YES. And if that’s not the point, I don’t know what is.
And so: Huzzah for summer! But Huzzah!, too, for classes that linger even after the semester’s close.
Focusing on the outcome of marriage equality in New Mexico, the Albuquerque Journal this past weekend published an article “Couples Reflect on Wedded Life” (http://www.abqjournal.com/390315). A host of stories about what marriage has meant to same-sex couples reveals the relief they felt at finally having legal recognition that validated their relationship should one partner require medical care; that legitimated their roles as parents and affirmed the status of their children; and allowed them to use language that explicitly recognized the spousal relationship status of “husband” or “wife.” What stood out to me most in this article, however, was the duration of the relationships only just recently recognized by New Mexico government. Couples have long endured inequity, and under this new recognition of their unions are able to celebrate partnerships already cemented. In this way, the marital status affirms a relationship that has long existed rather than suggesting the start of a new relationship style.
As I argue in the conclusion of my book, many couples today – particularly those of a certain class status and possessing a certain cultural capital – often use their marriages and their weddings as a means of demonstrating that they’ve achieved any number of goals: professional success, long-standing relationships with family and friends, and, of course, a stable, fulfilling (and often already long-lasting) romantic partnership. For straight couples, the decision to wait to marry is one often made strategically, based on time, money, items to-do. The marriage is a culmination of decisions made about a relationship, rather than a point of origin. For same-sex couples, their unions likewise have this element of build up, although, of course, their delay stems from the long-standing denial of full rights of citizenship.
I’m intrigued by this idea of marriage as a transitional moment (potentially) as opposed to a point of origin or a fresh start. And as I’ve been giving some thought to the ways in which the American family structure has changed and is changing, it’s interesting to think as marriage or the wedding as no longer the earth-shaking events of people’s private lives. As people live together or arrange for long engagements, the negotiation of what sharing the greatest intimacies of day-to-day life means is often done before a marriage happens. And if it turns out that sharing those intimacies doesn’t work, one can simply initiate a break up or conclude a cohabitation (and I know “simply” is a crazy word; but to break up rather than “divorce” is the simpler alternative). To some extent, it seems as though our relationships to other people in our lives, and here I’m thinking particularly about aging parents or newborn children, are the ones that will cause the most disruption and require willingness to start fresh. So I’m either providing an effort at contemporary cultural lifestyle analysis or suggesting the direction I think the family is about to take more broadly. In any case, the winds are pointing me in the direction of change.
But, of course, I can’t conclude without some consideration of those who endeavor to undo marriage equality gains. State recognition certainly communicates a level of validity. But the validity of these relationships had already been established through the way gay and lesbian couples have chosen to live their lives, even without sanction of the law. As women’s liberationists insisted as the Second Wave gained power: the personal is political. In these couples’ private lives, they have practiced a brand of political and cultural resistance to a mainstream that has failed to recognize their partnerships as equal to those shared by heterosexuals. But even if those opposed to marriage equality continue to protest and attempt to halt the extension of universal rights across the population, gay unions won’t go away. And these unions will continue to be as strong as those shared by couples of the opposite sex. As Albequerquean Betty Lord, newly wed to her partner of 34 years spoke to this point directly when she exclaimed “Edna and I have been together a hell of lot longer than most married people!”
Betty Lord & Edna Fonseca
Shout out to my partner in the Most Successful IU Mentor-Mentee Pairing in the History of IU Mentor-Mentee Pairing (title self-appointed), BLS. She’s put me on to many resources for history and teaching and thinking about professional life more broadly, but she’s also put me on to any number of books, articles, and writers that have nothing to do with our shared profession (although it’s not uncommon for us to find a way to make them relatable). In particular, and for the purpose of this post, I’m thinking of Ann Patchett.
Patchett’s most recent book, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, is a collection of her essays and articles previously published in magazines – with the exception of her introductory essay, which I could go on and on about, re: my love of her interchangeable use of the word “working” for “writing” and her unabashed celebration of a good work ethic. The article for which the collection is named tells the story of Patchett’s reluctance to marry Karl, her partner of eleven years, despite his on-going desire that the two should be wed. After a failed marriage as an early twenty-something, Patchett swore off the institution. When she met and began dating Karl, she insisted that they maintain separate homes, separate accounts, and semi-separate lives. It was only when Karl was diagnosed with a terminal heart condition that she relented. Ultimately, it turned out that he had been misdiagnosed and continued to live happily and healthily – and by then they were wed. And she was glad.
While listening to a Fresh Air interview with Patchett, I was struck by her discussion of the marriage, her resistance to entering into it, and what she ultimately concluded was the main thing she had been averse to: being a bride. In looking back, she asserted that she’d not been so nervous about the relationship or even the institution of marriage, not with this man or under the circumstances (all good) under which their relationship took place. She claimed she’d had no idea how nor any desire to navigate the expectations that come with having a wedding.
Way back when, in 1988, when she’d wed her first husband, their terrible wedding seemingly predestined their eventual split. After a proposal in which Patchett’s gut instinct was to say no before the question had even been popped (of his pulling out the ring, she writes “He might as well have pulled a knife.”), she and husband #1 lived together uneasily until she gave in. “Okay, we’ll do it,” she said, months after the initial attempted proposal. On the wedding day, she lost her shoes (never to be found); bees swarmed around the flowers in her hair; the cake melted in the heat; and the couple’s car broken down on the way out of town, eating up their honeymoon time and savings. The marriage lasted fourteen months.
That experience, along with the marriage itself (and a rich family history of failed marriages), put Patchett off marriage. And, it seems, off weddings. I imagine there’s a bit of hindsight to Patchett’s proclaimed aversion to the having and hosting of a wedding, and it may well be a hindsight that could only develop once a thing is said and done. Of her marriage to Karl, Patchett writes that his illness gave them a “get-out-of-jail-free card” when it came to a wedding. They purchased the marriage license, a Catholic priest friend dropped by their home to sign it, and they were married. That afternoon, Ann and Karl went out and bought a lawnmower. Having moved in, having gotten married, having avoided fanfare, Patchett wondered what she’d been waiting for.
AP & Karl
I’ve thought of this story from a number of different angles. On the one hand, I love Ann and Karl’s simplistic approach to legalizing a pairing that worked pretty well as it was. But there’s something I can’t shake. Again, I suspect, to some degree, that Patchett’s claim on not wanting to be a bride may be a realization that came when she felt a sense of relief at not having had to be a bride. But the fact that such a smart, funny, together women who seems to have a pretty good idea of who she is and what she stands for (unless I am misreading her entirely in her essays) could feel cowed by contemporary wedding culture says something about just how overwhelming and seemingly monolithic and unrelenting that culture is. As someone who studies the history of American weddings – and dabbles in evaluating the modern business and culture of the celebration – I see variations in the styles of celebration and have argued that the wedding offers possibilities for any number of expressions. But I can appreciate how it appears not to.
All that said, I’d suggest that everyone has access to a “get-out-of-jail-free card” when it comes to weddings – and it doesn’t have to be used in the pursuit of *not* having a wedding. It can be used to justify any number of additions to or subtractions from the standard form. A wedding can look as much like the cultural ideal as one chooses – or it can be a different animal entirely. And I think this possibility of variation is something that is becoming increasingly common and, maybe even more importantly, increasingly accepted. When writing about how marriage changed things, Patchett writes that marrying Karl freed up so much time. They no longer had to discuss why they weren’t married – with each other or anyone else. My sense is that – for them – their reasons for eventually marrying were solid and, in some ways, were reasons that they needed not share. The public declaration a wedding affords was not essential. That’s fine, and I’m sure there are plenty of other couples who feel the same way. But for others, how wonderful that there is the wedding to allow them the chance to tell the people they love most just why they’ve decided to wed and what they think their lives will be like. And how sad to think that an understanding of the wedding as rigid and constrictive might cause some people to forego that opportunity altogether.
And it’s not even always because we’re watching The Walking Dead.
Last night, my husband called me into the TV room and deliberately rewound so I could watch this:
Why must he taunt me?
I get that there is this cultural thing going on in contemporary America that privileges wedding dresses above all other wedding accoutrement (I guess some people would argue that the ring is NUMBER ONE, but my money is still on the dress). I get that there is this on-going view of the wedding as “the bride’s day.” I see these trends. I accept that they exist. I hate them. And so: I use this blog to express my frustration with this advertisement (titled, “The Invisible Man” – gag) and its willful perpetuation of ideas I despise.
First: Grooms need not be “mere cog(s) in the wheel of…carefully choreographed wedding extravaganza(s).” The groom is future partner to the person he’s about to wed. As such, he should (and many grooms do) share responsibility in the careful choreographing of said extravaganza. Or he should feel free to say,“Hey, I’m not into the idea of our wedding as a ‘carefully choreographed’ anything, extravaganza or otherwise.”And if he’s about to marry the right person, that person will say “I get it. What kind of celebration can we plan that will make us both happy?”
Second: Sometimes grooms marry grooms. And then – uh-oh. There’s no bride for the wedding to be all about. And there’s no dress to take up the absent bride’s attention. SIDENOTE: Trust me: I get that same-sex partners can embrace non-normative gender titles and appearance – but for the sake of argument, let’s say no bride, no dress. What then? The wedding doesn’t matter? Chyrs Ingraham critiqued the wedding-industrial complex years ago, and paid particular attention to the heterosexist element of American wedding culture. To some degree, with the growing legalization of same-sex unions, the heterosexism of traditional wedding expectations is more apparent than ever. And from my point of view, it makes the wedding industry’s attempt to grasp at tired wedding absolutes look terribly old-fashioned and out of date (ahem, David’s Bridal).
Third: Brides are not an absolute lump category. Just like we in the history biz can’t say “American women” and feel fine that we’ve covered our bases talking about what ALL WOMEN thought, how they acted, or what they valued, we can’t say “brides” and feel like we’ve got a catch-all terms on our hands. Newsflash wedding industry: women/brides have different goals and intentions as they prepare for their weddings and their marriages. Because weddings have been my point of research – and to some degree, my professional bread and butter – I’ve tried not to digress to the personal in these posts. But here and now I share this: I bought a wedding dress from J. Crew that a) was among the cheapest they had available; b) I could get at 30% (I think) off because I would’ve spent above $100; c) they would ship to my house and I would never have to go into a wedding gown store; d) I thought would be fine. What I wanted: something much more vintage-y that fell just below the knees, had tea-length sleeves, and was not white. Is that what I got? No way. Why? Because I didn’t value getting the dress I had in my mind’s eye enough to spend the time and resources looking for it. What I did value: checking “get wedding dress” off my list. I report the following: Wedding dress ~ Good enough; Wedding day ~ Awesome; Marriage ~ Still going strong. For me, for others, it definitively was *not* “all about the dress.”
I get that David’s Bridal, which essentially is the Costco of bridal boutiques (it feels wrong to use “boutique” here, but I will), probably isn’t particularly interested in rocking the boat, re: mainstream views of contemporary American weddings. But I do think the company could tap into something more exciting and more relevant in the world of wedding culture. When brides and grooms of the 1960s and 1970s decided they would “do their own thing,” that they would personalize their celebrations to reflect who they were and what they thought, the Grand Dame of the wedding dress industry Priscilla Kidder – who had made her name and fortune with 1950s-era brides – started using language about how weddings and gowns could be unique and reflect the individual. And she sold more dresses. The traditional market was still there – but the new market responded to her savvy tactics. My sense is that the many businesses that comprise the contemporary wedding industry would do well to take stock of evolutions in wedding populations and styles of celebration and shape their messages to fit the modern age. My guess is that even the “traditional” celebrants would see the appeal.