The Relevant World of Wedding Culture

For all the times that weddings are regarded as conventional and conformist, staid and predictable, I argue that these celebrations allow for engagement with current trends and contemporary social, cultural, and political issues. Even the world of wedding advice and etiquette reflects the wedding’s relevance. Two letters recently submitted to the New York Times Wedding Q & A highlight this point: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/02/fashion/weddings/questions-on-wedding-etiquette.html?_r=0. Rather than blindly following the path laid before them, sensitivity to questions about sexuality, personal preference, and economic partnership shape men and women’s relationships to weddings, their participants, and each other.

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The Perfect Storm of Celebrity and Celebration

Last week, I posted my thoughts on Michael Wilbon’s view of the wedding registry as the purview of the bride-to-be. I moved fairly quickly past the story that inspired his declaration: fans’ purchase of all of the items on Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III’s Bed, Bath, and Beyond wedding registry, and RGIII’s subsequent decision to keep the gifts. Some of the feedback I’ve received suggested the need for a more in-depth discussion of what, exactly, is going on with average people going to a millionaire sports celebrity’s registry and thinking it’s appropriate to send that person bath mats, cake pans, and flatware. Fair enough.

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Dan Steinberg of the Washington Post connects Redskins fans’ impulse to a very specific view of modern American sports culture: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/dc-sports-bog/wp/2013/05/24/rgiii-cake-pans-wedding-registries-and-fandom/. Steinberg, admitting that purchasing a gift for RGIII makes no logical sense, argues that this is the nature of the emotion fans invest in their sports heroes. RGIII, who has meant so much to fans of a struggling franchise, has inspired hope and passion, and the gifts both connect fans to the star and allow them to express their thanks. While I personally think fans’ willingness to purchase high-priced NFL tickets and gear (not to mention RGIII’s $21 million, 4-year contract and numerous lucrative endorsements) communicate “thanks” fairly effectively, Steinberg’s point about the desire to find connection with an admired figure is not wrong.

For me, there are larger points about celebrity and celebration to be made. First of all, in contemporary American culture, especially with the 24-hour news cycle, fast-paced world of internet updates, and pervasiveness of social media (as of this morning, RGIII has 918,897 Twitter followers), the public has near constant access to the actions and even the inner-thoughts of their favorite celebrities (sports-related or otherwise). And RGIII has played the fame game brilliantly. So even though it is unlikely that fans sending gifts might ever meet RGIII, they can feel as though they know him. And this sentiment crosses lines by which people achieve fame (fans “like” or know they’d be “best friends” with certain public figures – based on the images presented by those figures and often reinforced by media treatment).

Secondly, if we “know” figures like RGIII, to some degree, there is never a time when we better know what they’re going through than when they celebrate rituals or milestones that are common across the culture. Can many of us know the pressure of being a star quarterback in the NFL? No. Do many of us know what it’s like to plan a wedding? We do. Right or wrong, many people feel greater intimacy and often even the legitimacy of their unsolicited participation or advice when their contemporaries undergo the shared experiences of a broader national culture. While there is a wedding public couples choose when they select their wedding parties and narrow their guest lists, there is also the broader wedding public that looks in from the outside. This is true even of regular citizens who face well-meaning inquiries or become subjects of gossip for decisions made (regarding color scheme, money spent, etc., etc., etc.) and subsequently discussed. For RGIII and other celebrities, that broader wedding public is far, far broader and can produce any number of responses, from unsolicited and clearly welcome gift-giving to public censure, as evidenced by another view of RGIII published in the Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/in-tornados-wake-the-financial-burden-is-also-devastating/2013/05/23/30c09a28-c31d-11e2-8c3b-0b5e9247e8ca_story_1.html

Michael Wilbon, how could you? (I still love you.)

Full disclosure: I am a great fan of ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption (PTI). More generally speaking, I find much of ESPN’s programming in which sports journalists play a prominent role to be very compelling. The conversations and debates on shows such as PTI, Around the Horn, and The Sports Reporters often raise issues beyond the sports world and towards questions of media responsibility, journalistic ethics, and the nature of celebrity as it intersects with race, class, gender, and sexuality.

All that said, a story this past week came directly into my wheelhouse when PTI hosts Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser debated the ethics of Redskins phenom quarterback Robert Griffin III (RGIII) accepting gifts fans had sent him and his fiancé after The Washington Post linked their Bed, Bath, and Beyond registry online. Wilbon and Kornheiser went back and forth on the legitimacy of a major sports celebrity accepting expensive gifts from fans.

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RGIII tweeted his thanks to fans and posed before a mountain of empty boxes to show his appreciation. When criticized, he expressed shock that “Because you are rich you are not allowed to receive gifts…?” I’m not so much interested in the should he/shouldn’t he debate over whether RGIII should return the gifts or donate them to charity (although, like Kornheiser, I’m surprised he and his fiancé chose to register at Bed, Bath, and Beyond – but that’s beside the point).RGIII_boxes

What grabbed my attention more was Wilbon’s commentary about how this wasn’t really RGIII’s registry. Wedding registries, he asserted, are the domain of the bride-to-be. “Oh, Wilbon,” I thought. “You’re so much better than that.” Is the view of pre-wedding planning (and the unpaid labor it entails) as primarily women’s preserve one that is widespread across the population? Yes. Is this view an accurate one? I say no. More, I would argue, it’s one of the tired stereotypes about the world of weddings that we come back to time and again because it’s a) easy; b) often supported by some anecdotal evidence; and c) doesn’t do anything to challenge notions of appropriate expressions of masculinity and femininity. However, a quick look to the past provides evidence to suggest that registries are not only for brides-to-be. During the 1950s, when the notion of marriage evolved to suggest that the marital partnership should be the primary relationship in American adults’ lives, many brides and grooms were feted with “mixed” showers at which guests (male and female) provided any number of gifts, either gender-neutral or explicitly masculine (bar accessories, lawn tools, grilling paraphernalia) pre-selected by the bride and the groom. During the late 1960s, as Bride’s magazine planned to expand its circulation to reach more prospective brides, the marketing team assigned to pitch ad space to prospective buyers highlighted how the registry – now often computerized – was regularly selected by both brides and their grooms. And from the 1970s on, much of the world of wedding planning – and its associated literature – has spoken directly to the expectation of egalitarianism in marital pairings, egalitarianism often established well before the wedding and frequently demonstrated in the labor leading up to the celebration.

While it may be easier to imagine an easy dichotomy between masculine and feminine (and groom and bride), the reality is that the egalitarianism that increasingly has marked American marriages and overall relationships between men and women has meant that there is greater fluidity in gender roles and categories. As such, it is far more acceptable and far more likely that men will, in fact, express tremendous interest in the goods requested of their wedding guests, especially as men have found greater welcome in the world of home life and decor. And even for those uncomfortable with challenges to “traditional” ideas of what a man should be and do, registries have continued to allow for the stereotypically masculine offerings requested of those attending mid-century mixed-showers.

PTI often features a segment called “Report Card” in which Wilbon and Kornheiser assign a letter grade to a recent event or action suggested by “Professor” Tony Reali. If I’m scoring Wilbon on his registry comment, I go “D.” He submitted a response, and I guess I’m an easy grader. Besides, I like to leave some room for improvement.

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The World of Wedding Proposals…

Several weeks ago, Salon published an article that questioned why men still seem to bear the brunt of responsibility for initiating the proposal process (http://www.salon.com/2013/05/12/why_are_men_still_proposing/singleton/). I’ve been thinking about the article ever since. Stephanie Coontz, go-to historian for all things marriage-related, suggests that this “tradition,” with all that it symbolizes, is a “game we play,” as well as a time when men show their commitment by making themselves somewhat vulnerable as they expose and express their emotions to their partners.

I wonder about the nature of proposals and whether this tradition (whose propensity for grandness I would link to the post-WWII era) will remain. I’m uncomfortable with the idea that marital relationships, for as much as we speak about egalitarianism, should begin at the initiation of a single party. As author Tracy Clark-Flory notes in her reference to a 2010 study, women often play a role in “encouraging” their partners to move toward the proposal, but it seems as though they’re willing to defer to men on the when, the where, and the how. In the name of romance? I guess. But the study also notes that men were more confident of their partners’ desires to wed than were the women, and this suggests to me an uneven distribution of power rather than romance.

Beyond the power men wield in romantic relationships, I can’t help but think of the power of popular culture. Grand gestures, elaborate plans, and long-orchestrated surprises seem to be the stuff of fictional fantasy, which then translates to women’s very real expectations. Is it the moment itself that is so important? Or is it the desire for “the story”: how he was almost foiled, how she had no idea, how an over-eager family member almost ruined the surprise? Is there anticipation of one-day nostalgia? Without the story to look back on, will the memory be as good? In my forthcoming book, As Long as We Both Shall Love, I argue that American wedding traditions have retained their power because they lend themselves to evolution and personal interpretation. And while Clark-Flory’s article begins with the tale of her non-traditional proposal, there seems to be a great deal of “how it should be” guiding many couples in their approach to the proposal. Even as I believe couples can be fully committed well before the marital relationship begins (and that marriage  itself isn’t a necessity), there seems to be evidence that couples are more comfortable tweaking and taking risks with tradition when they have a kind of emotional insurance that both parties are fully devoted to the direction their unions are taking.

Some previous thoughts…

I’ve been writing about weddings since about 2005, when I first noticed a lack of historical scholarship on the topic. As weddings emerged as my primary research focus, I’ve found – not surprisingly – much in contemporary wedding culture to consider. As a contributor to the Popular Romance Project, I shared some views on the growing trend of bridal boudoir photography. You can read my commentary here: http://popularromanceproject.org/talking-about-romance/2060/.