Poor job performance? Get a wife!

Gary Player, famed and aged professional golfer, recently offered some advice to twenty-four-year-old Rory McIlroy, a golfer many believe has failed to reach his full potential.

“[T]he thing is for a man like Rory with talent galore he’s got to make sure he has a woman like I’ve got, who has been married [to me] for 56 years, that has only encouraged me to do well and made sacrifices. He’s got to be intelligent and find the right wife. If he finds the right wife, if he practices and if he’s dedicated, he could be the man.”

Of course he could.

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Gary Player: golfer, relationship guru, nude model.

On the one hand, Player isn’t wrong to suggest that successful people need a support system behind them. No man (or woman) is an island. But the idea that a woman who’s “only” job is to encourage her man and to make “sacrifices” on his behalf is the perfect solution to a lack of professional success is one that belongs in a different century. When my PTI friends Tony and Wilbon discussed this topic, they shared my disdain for Player’s views. They discredited Player’s ideas by pointing to famed bachelors Derek Jeter and Wilt Chamberlain as examples of stars who’ve done just fine without wives to guide them along. My thoughts went more to tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, McIlroy’s girlfriend of three years. It’s pretty clear to me that Player doesn’t believe Woz is the “right wife.” Why? Because she’s busy focusing on her own career and presumably making sacrifices intended to improve her own professional standing rather than McIlroy’s. As far as I know, however, no one’s suggested that finding a man, “the right husband,” dedicated solely to advancing Wozniacki’s professional success would be a surefire solution to her recent string of poor performances in Majors. When Chris Everett and John McEnroe and Brad Gilbert and others comment on Wozniacki’s fall from her previous number one ranking, they focus on her serve, her movement, her confidence, not her romantic status. The responsibility for her success is her own, not that of some fictional future caretaker willing to table any personal aspirations so that his mate might succeed. And my suspicion is that Player would be shocked if someone were to suggest a man take on such a role.

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Woz & McIlroy, a dual-career couple, common to the 21st century

Player’s ideas are not new – and they suggest the stale ideas of yesteryear still have some traction. Literature of the 1950s spoke directly to the idea that a woman was fundamental to a man’s success (and, of course, this idea held great power well before the 1950s as well). Mrs. Dale Carnegie, not even credited with a first name of her own, published numerous articles in ladies magazines of the era and in 1957 published a book-length set of prescriptions, How to Help Your Husband Get Ahead. From getting along with his secretary to keeping a clean house to giving him alone time to watching his weight, a wife’s primary endeavor was to make a man’s life as conducive to professional success and personal satisfaction as possible. Her greatest individual desire should be that he was able to fulfill his.

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By all accounts, having a wife of this kind would be awesome. And so I give you a perennial feminist favorite to argue why we should all have one. For those of you who’ve read this before, say hello to an old friend. For first-timers, you’re welcome.

“Why I Want a Wife,” Judy Syfers (1971)

(This piece appeared in the premier issue of Ms. Magazine.)

I belong to that classification of people known as wives. I am A Wife.

And, not altogether incidentally, I am a mother. Not too long ago a male friend of mine appeared on the scene fresh from a recent divorce. He had one child, who is, of course, with his ex-wife. He is looking for another wife. As I thought about him while I was ironing one evening, it suddenly occurred to me that I too, would like to have a wife. Why do I want a wife?

I would like to go back to school so that I can become economically independent, support myself, and if need be, support those dependent upon me. I want a wife who will work and send me to school. And while I am going to school I want a wife to take care of my children. I want a wife to keep track of the children’s doctor and dentist appointments. And to keep track of mine, too. I want a wife to make sure my children eat properly and are kept clean. I want a wife who will wash the children’s clothes and keep them mended. I want a wife who is a good nurturing attendant to my children, who arranges for their schooling, makes sure that they have an adequate social life with their peers, takes them to the park, the zoo, etc. I want a wife who takes care of the children when they are sick, a wife who arranges to be around when the children need special care, because, of course, I cannot miss classes at school. My wife must arrange to lose time at work and not lose the job. It may mean a small cut in my wife’s income from time to time, but I guess I can tolerate that. Needless to say, my wife will arrange and pay for the care of the children while my wife is working.

I want a wife who will take care of my physical needs. I want a wife who will keep my house clean. A wife who will pick up after my children, a wife who will pick up after me. I want a wife who will keep my clothes clean, ironed, mended, replaced when need be, and who  will see to it that my personal things are kept in their proper place so that I can find what I need the minute I need it. I want a wife who cooks the meals, a wife who is a good cook. I want a wife who will plan the menus, do the necessary grocery shopping, prepare the meals, serve them pleasantly, and then do the cleaning up while I do my studying. I want a wife who will care for me when I am sick and sympathize with my pain and loss of time from school. I want a wife to go along when our family takes a vacation so that someone can continue care for me and my when I need a rest and change of scene. I want a wife who will not bother me with rambling complaints about a wife’s duties. But I want a wife who will listen to me when I feel the need to explain a rather difficult point I have come across in my course of studies. And I want a wife who will type my papers for me when I have written them.

I want a wife who will take care of the details of my social life. When my wife and I are invited out by my friends, I want a wife who take care of the baby-sitting arrangements. When I meet people at school that I like and want to entertain, I want a wife who will have the house clean, will prepare a special meal, serve it to me and my friends, and not interrupt when I talk about things that interest me and my friends. I want a wife who will have arranged that the children are fed and ready for bed before my guests arrive so that the children do not bother us. I want a wife who takes care of the needs of my quests so that they feel comfortable, who makes sure that they have an ashtray, that they are passed the hors d’oeuvres, that they are offered a second helping of the food, that their wine glasses are replenished when necessary, that their coffee is served to them as they like it. And I want a wife who knows that sometimes I need a night out by myself.

I want a wife who is sensitive to my sexual needs, a wife who makes love passionately and eagerly when I feel like it, a wife who makes sure that I am satisfied. And, of course, I want a wife who will not demand sexual attention when I am not in the mood for it. I want a wife who assumes the complete responsibility for birth control, because I do not want more children. I want a wife who will remain sexually faithful to me so that I do not have to clutter up my intellectual life with jealousies. And I want a wife who understands that my sexual needs may entail more than strict adherence to monogamy. I must, after all, be able to relate to people as fully as possible.

If, by chance, I find another person more suitable as a wife than the wife I already have, I want the liberty to replace my present wife with another one. Naturally, I will expect a fresh, new life; my wife will take the children and be solely responsible for them so that I am left free.

When I am through with school and have a job, I want my wife to quit working and remain at home so that my wife can more fully and completely take care of a wife’s duties.

My God, who wouldn’t want a wife?

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Of weddings, cell phones, manners, and privacy

I just read this article, which reported on an emergent trend in which couples ask guests to put away their cell phones during wedding ceremonies: http://www.metro.us/newyork/lifestyle/2013/07/28/for-some-couples-tweeting-wedding-pics-is-an-idont/.

Where do I stand? I am WAY in favor of this from a manners point of view. Firstly, if you are texting or tweeting during someone’s wedding, stop immediately. I share a sentiment along these lines with my students: in my class, as at a wedding, you are in an environment where you don’t need to engage with a virtual world because you should be paying attention to what is going on IN THE REAL WORLD SURROUNDING YOU. And I know people have the ability to multi-task, and I multi-task all the time, blah, blah, blah. But just because you can do two things at once doesn’t always mean you should, and it doesn’t mean that one of the things you’re doing doesn’t suffer for the attention you’re directing elsewhere. And if one of your regularly undertaken secondary tasks is texting, then generally speaking, you are being rude. Furthermore, if you expect that you’ll find yourself bored at someone’s wedding and thus *need* your phone, I suggest you a) learn how to entertain yourself with thoughts; or b) make the grown-up decision not to attend this particular wedding.

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Sidenote: if you are so bored at your OWN wedding that you must text, you have bigger problems than I’m either equipped or willing to advise you with.

If you were planning on taking pictures with your phone, that’s nice, I guess, but I’m still okay with bride & groom telling you to put your phone away. Are those pictures really going to be that good? And, really, what are you going to do with them? And does the couple not have someone else to do this for them? Full disclosure: I’m sort of a picture grinch. I operate on a less is more perspective in the world of immediate visual documentation, so I would never defend the point of view that one must have one’s phone because one must be able to take a picture. I digress.

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Will this guy’s pic be a must-have? Doubtful. (No offense, well-meaning attendee.)

I’m also in favor of this from the point of view of the bride and groom wanting to protect some measure of their privacy as well as some measure of their agency as the central figures celebrating the wedding. People have complicated relationships to social media, and individuals should respect the varying degrees to which others may engage with the virtual world. On the one hand, I suppose there are people who measure the success of their lives’ milestones by the numbers of pictures friends post of them and the number of comments or likes those pictures receive. As the “IDon’t” article suggests, some celebrants go so far as to create hashtags for guests to use so that their physical community can also get together virtually. That’s fine. But I respect the desire to enjoy the moment of the wedding in its actual moment as well as the effort to have guests do the same. From my point of view, the time taken to chronicle the great time you’re having can take away from the greater fun you could actually be having were you to focus on fun rather than documentation of said fun (that makes sense, yes?). There are those who are part of the social media world without being enmeshed in it. They may maintain profiles or presences without a desire to document every moment (or have every moment documented for them by [admittedly well-meaning] others). And it may be, for those social media dabblers rather than full-time residents, that the wedding community of their own creation, carefully selected from the competing and often contradictory worlds of family and coworkers and close friends (and the sub-worlds of childhood friends and college friends and adulthood friends and so on) is the community they want as primary witness to their wedding day. The neighbor from two apartment complexes ago or the yoga instructor from the last gym or the bartender from the college waitressing job – all people who’ve made their way to someone’s weird Facebook world – maybe don’t need to know about the wedding in real time. I know there are those who would say “Then don’t be FB friends with those people,” but I think a person preserves the right to see as separate the life s/he is actually living and the one s/he maintains online. Maybe there are those who would say I’m imagining a false dichotomy in seeing the two as separate, but I don’t think that has to be the case, and I think we maintain the right to understand those worlds as we wish.

La Liz & the Evolution of Mid-Century Celebrity

I had an idea of who Elizabeth Taylor was from the time I was pretty small, I think. When my mom said La Liz, I knew exactly who she was talking about. My dad would buy my grandmother the gift set of White Diamonds from the PX every Christmas. I remember thinking how odd it was that she and Michael Jackson should be good buds. I knew nothing of her as a movie star and only saw Cat on a Hot Tin Roof when I was maybe 18 or 19 (I only just watched Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Whoa.). Still, I am certain that I knew of her as a public figure marked by fame, extravagance, and luxury (reading about a run-of-the-mill morning that had her answering husband Richard Burton’s question of “What are you doing?” with “Playing with my jewels!” suggests my sense of her was on the right track). Also, at some point, I knew she was a woman many times married.

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As I’ve been thinking about women and celebrity in the 1960s – and about which women were the most famous celebrities, Liz has become a source of fascination. She was a MOVIE STAR (who loved being a MOVIE STAR) and potentially the most famous woman in the world (whose fame ultimately extended well beyond her movie star status). With her fame came power, a power she embraced and channeled toward her chosen ends. LT challenged the studio system at mid-century and ultimately, I’d argue, played a role in diminishing its authority by following her own desires rather than studio directives. A central element of her challenge was the assertion that she should have some measure of control over her private life. Joining with other stars of the 1950s and 1960s, among them Monty Clift and Marlon Brando, Liz rejected the ideas that a) she owed fans more than what she gave them on the screen; b) that her personal life had to live up to a moral standard determined by forces beyond her own purview. And her purview was that eight marriages to seven men – interspersed with a variety of non-marital relationships – was perfectly legit.

All that said, it seems to me that it took an overextension of studio power and a fairly dramatic encroachment into Taylor’s private life to set her on the track to independence. The kind of celebrity she ultimately helped to create stemmed from a deep dissatisfaction with the nature of celebrity she first encountered during her early days of stardom. As LT took on the part of Kay Banks for the 1950 film Father of the Bride, she likewise began a fledgling romance with hotel heir, Nicky Hilton, a romance MGM encouraged her to cultivate. By February 1950, the two were engaged, and the eighteen-year-old Taylor spent the spring playing bride on the Metro lot while planning her “real life” wedding to Hilton off set. After being fitted for a dress onscreen as Kay Banks, LT flew to New York City where she selected her wedding trousseau. Her father, like Spencer Tracy’s Stanley Banks, played up his father of the bride role and found his responses to questions about the wedding quoted in fan magazines. The line between art and life blurred as LT, after filming a wedding scene, reported to gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, “I wish you’d seen the wedding. The ceremony was so wonderful, I cried just as brides do.”

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I don’t deny LT some element of agency in her relationship with Hilton, and pretty clearly, she enjoyed both the fanfare and the idea of what being married might really be like, but MGM’s orchestration of events speaks to the studio’s desire to link the young star’s private life to her film persona and to use that private life for publicity purposes. And as an eighteen-year-old raised in the studio system, one can imagine the influence MGM had over Liz. Father of the Bride, released in June, was preceded by the wedding, held on May 6. Very clearly, the studio had a direct hand in staging the Taylor-Hilton wedding. Liz, greeted by a cheering crowd, arrived at the Church of the Good Shepherd in a limousine that had been accompanied by an honor guard of off-duty police escorts. Accustomed to such crowds, LT took it all in stride, waving graciously to her many fans before entering the church. Studio florists were responsible for the arrangements; studio photographers snapped pictures; a studio contract singer performed. Even Liz’s bridesmaids were contract players with studio connections. Seated near Taylor’s own parents were Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett, the actors who’d just completed their turns as mother and father to Liz in Father of the Bride. Images from Liz and Nicky’s reception at the Bel-Air Country Club made for a perfect preview of the forthcoming film. As the two set sail for a European honeymoon a month later, Father of the Bride opened and became a great hit, earning $4 million and ultimately becoming the sixth biggest picture of the year.

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Art imitates life. Top, Kay Banks & Buckley Dunstan wed in 1950’s Father of the Bride.

Bottom, newlyweds Nicky Hilton and Liz Taylor cut their wedding cake a month before Father of the Bride’s opening.

But while the studio prospered, Liz suffered. Less than six months after the wedding, she’d left Nicky Hilton. Rumors of an affair with the married director of her next film shocked the public. In less than a year, LT went from adored child bride to Hollywood harlot. Beyond the fact that the glamour of the wedding had worn off, Hilton revealed himself to be a drinker, gambler, and womanizer, not to mention a man who, as Taylor put it “kind of got a kick out of beating the shit out of me.” When the two finally divorced in January of 1952, Liz used a demure courtroom appearance in an effort to win back some sympathy, but public opinion (news of Hilton’s abuse wasn’t dispensed publicly) had shifted. No longer a sweet ingénue, Liz was painted as spoiled, childish, and flighty by popular media.

But rather than looking to regain her position as Hollywood’s sweetheart, rather than choosing to do her penance and stay home and hide from the spotlight until the scandal dissipated, Liz Taylor decided to embrace adulthood as a woman who followed her own desires. Public opinion be damned. From her youth, she’d followed the directives of her mother (who, today, we’d definitely call a momager) and the studio, and in the aftermath of her marriage debacle – a crisis from which she’d extricated herself by force of her own will – she questioned the direction the influences of her youth had given her. Rather than trying to fit a predesigned role or assume a link between her screen persona and real life, Taylor seemingly made a conscious decision to let her work speak for her. And her timing was perfect. In August 1951, Paramount released A Place in the Sun, for which LT received tremendous praise and for which she’d had to do virtually no promotional glad-handing. Her beauty made her a charming screen presence, but her talent would win her respect and a certain modicum of freedom to do as she liked. Her work on screen could feed her stardom – and as Liz came to believe that, she came likewise to believe that her personal life could be her own.

Of Marriage, Babies, and Authenticity in Celebrity Culture

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, celebrity weddings dominated the world of celebrity gossip. They served as banner events where fans gained a behind-the-scenes look at their favorites’ romantic predilections and personal styles. While weddings of well-known figures are still big news, I’d argue that these events – particularly the nature of their excess – are no longer celebrated in the same way, a byproduct of the economic crash of 2008, a shifting wedding culture, and some measure of fatigue with the rampant materialism that so often marks wedding celebrations. As I’ve been thinking about the public’s expectation of authenticity from their favorite stars – a sense of realness with which they hope to identify or connect – I suspect the inevitable let down of so many celebs’ faltering unions had led to a hesitation to believe too deeply in the potential permanency of stars’ romantic pairings.

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  Brad & Jen, the olden days, 2000. The couple split in 2005. Both are expected to remarry this summer.

More than weddings, it seems now that a new focal point of celebrity gossip is pregnancy (and its aftermath). I noticed this shift well before the avalanche of coverage related to the Royal Baby and Kimye’s expected offspring. US Weekly, the/my holy grail of gossip magazines, regularly has pages devoted to bump watches, stars’ first days at home with their newborns, maternity style, and even celebrity kid versions of the ever-ridiculous “Stars – They’re just like us!”

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A new level of foolishness: Celeb kids – Who wore it best?

I’ve wondered what this shift says about public expectations of celebrity life and what the public believes it can really know about the lives of famed figures (a driving force among celebrity gossipites). To some extent, it seems as though we accept as “more real” the fruits of romantic pairings than we do the pairings themselves. Procreation and parenthood reveal the “real.” But is this a legitimate development?

With rapper Kanye West’s December 2012 announcement that he and reality star Kim Kardashian were expecting a child, Kim’s pregnancy became a staple of gossip rags for much of 2013. Kardashian, well-known for her willingness to share publicly the most private elements of her life, was pegged as fair game for the kind of pregnancy tracking that regularly takes place in American culture. In the eyes of many, a life and a career devoted to attracting public attention justified the scope and style of the coverage she received. By the nature of her own choices, she’d made herself fair game for whatever public reactions arose over the course of her pregnancy. To some degree, the choices made in regard to her wedding and marriage to basketball star Kris Humphries legitimated Kardashian as a flawed, fake figure rather than a person guided by real feelings or authentic emotion – and the unreality of the reality star meant that she could be regarded as a legitimate site of condemnation and critique.

When Kardashian wed Humphries in August 2011, few believed the marriage would stick. But even those who doubted the potential longevity of the pairing didn’t anticipate that it would only take 72 days for “irreconcilable differences” to lead Kardashian to file for divorce. Having publicized the wedding broadly and having profited from this publicity, many criticized Kardashian for what they saw as a) willful misleading of her fans and b) a gross disregard for the sanctity of marriage. The prolonged, contentious, embarrassing nature of the divorce, finalized only in April 2013, was exactly what many observers believed Kardashian deserved. Subsequent romances – and subsequent actions more broadly – would be hard to take seriously from someone who seemed content to pretend a life for publicity purposes and cultivate a circus-like atmosphere with her comings and goings.

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72 days before Kim Kardashian filed for divorce.

But with her pregnancy, I think, there’s been an interesting turn in which KK’s authenticity has been somewhat restored. Even as Kardashian faced constant coverage and regular criticism throughout her pregnancy – for excessive weight gain and failed fashion choices and in unfair comparisons to likewise pregnant Kate Middleton – the nature of the coverage had a different tone than did coverage related to her wedding to Humphries. Certainly, discussions of Kardashian veered toward the mean-spirited, but she also found herself with defenders, ranging from Gwyneth Paltrow to Gloria Steinem. As she struggled with her weight and admitted to finding pregnancy to be more challenging than she’d anticipated, Kardashian regained some measure of her humanity. Pregnancy and its difficulties, “natural” as they were, she could not fake. As a process she had far less leverage to spin or control, pregnancy allowed for a revelation of a “real” Kim, a figure made far more vulnerable by physical challenges of pregnancy. Challenges with which many members of the public could identify. And verify as “real.”

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Noted fashion faux pas that received condemnation – but which led to subsequent support for Kim.

How do I feel about the roles of romance and pregnancy in the loss and subsequent restoration of authenticity? I don’t know. On the one hand, “real” Kim still experienced pregnancy in a world of great privilege and protection. If her feet were swollen (and we have the evidence to tell us that her feet were SWOLLEN – see below), it was in part due to her ridiculous choices in footwear rather than a byproduct of a job that had her on her feet all day. She experienced her difficulties in a very, very  comfortable world. Further, I don’t love the idea of pregnancy as automatic legitimator. Pregnancy might make one uncomfortable but it doesn’t necessarily make one a better or truer version of one’s self. The Kardashians as a clan still had the power to spin the nature and coverage of the pregnancy and its aftermath, to reveal what they desired when they desired. And I think that for all the years of reality TV we now have under our belts, we should come to grips with the fact that image creation is part of this biz. Pregnant Kim was still reality star Kim. By agreeing to star in a reality television series, reality stars are basically telling us that they’re going to present us with a version of themselves, not necessarily their “true” selves. If there is a version that we especially like – that is particularly lucrative for them – then the likelihood is that we’ll see that version fairly regularly for as long as its profitable. The flawed nature of the stars may not be the problem. It may in fact be the flawed expectations of the audience.

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Poor decision making in action, exhibits A & B.

What I’m more curious about is what motherhood will mean for Kardashian. Already, the magazines and gossip websites are talking about KK’s devotion to her child and her desire to do everything for her baby herself. Meanwhile, rumors from LA suggest that Kim has a nanny to do everything for little baby North West. Who knows what will be revealed and when. If she has a nanny, so what? But if KK claims one thing, and the public learns another story, one that fails to fit with an idealized version of motherhood…yikes. If judgment rained down on Kardashian in regard to her wedding, marriage, and pregnancy, my sense is that she doesn’t know from judgment should people deem her mothering style to be less than what they believe it should be or less than what she’s claimed.

Brides Behaving Badly

In recent weeks, Jezebel.com has featured a number of posts on bad wedding behavior:

  1. “The Most Amazing Wedding Text Message Fight of Our Time,” June 20, 2013, http://jezebel.com/the-most-amazing-wedding-text-message-fight-of-our-time-514528769
  2. “Worst Bride Ever Throws Facebook Fit Over $100 Wedding Gift” July 3, 2013, http://jezebel.com/worst-bride-ever-throws-facebook-fit-over-100-cash-wed-660712215

Whether the experiences and exchanges recounted in these posts are true or not is sort of beside the point. Clearly, the posts struck a nerve among readers, given the thousands of comments received and the tens of thousands of Facebook shares. Enough people know people (who know people) who’ve gone over the edge as a result of the wedding and its alleged pressure that readers easily can imagine that someone somewhere acted in such an entitled, outrageous, and generally shitty manner. There’s a lot going on in these posts, and I have some ideas about them in regard to both their content and their cultural relevance.

First, the content. In “Wedding Text Message Fight,” a wedding celebrant first asks a guest to provide a receipt for the gift given (a gift basket of various foodstuffs) and then takes it upon herself to share a bit of wedding wisdom: “I’m not sure if it’s the first wedding you have been to, but for your next wedding… People give envelopes. I lost out on $200 covering you and your dates plate… And got fluffy whip and sour patch kids in return Just a heads up for the future :).” In a follow up message, said bride schooled her thoughtless and clearly ill-informed guest by dropping this bit of knowledge: “Weddings are to make money for your future.” As for “Worst Bride Ever,” readers learn about another bride who saw fit to follow up with a guest in regard to a gift received: “I just want to know is there any reason or dissatisfaction of Mike’s and I wedding that both you and Phil gave 50$ each? In terms of the amount we got from you both was very unexpected as a result we were very much short on paying off the reception because just for the cocktail + reception alone the plate per person is 200$ (as per a normal wedding range with open bar is about).”

Before we even get started, please disregard the absolutely abhorrent grammar and overall subpar effort at written expression in the quoted material. If ever my first impulse was to go after someone for a paltry wedding gift, my pre-first impulse – even before the going after – would be to proofread the message I planned to send. Because who wants to look both stupid and like an asshole? But that’s just me.

As for the assertions made by the brides, I can confirm, as a human, that they are massively rude and, as a historian, that they are absolutely without historical merit. Over the course of my research on American weddings, I read many, many, MANY guides on wedding etiquette. To prevent people from thinking as these brides do, contemporary guides often make the specific point that weddings are NOT to be viewed as a time to make money – either to pay for the wedding or for the future more generally. If a couple must receive a certain financial remuneration in order to pay for their reception, most guides suggest immediately scaling back. Some guides go so far as to suggest a couple forgo hosting a celebration at all. The choice to have an elaborate or extravagant wedding reception is the choice of the couple being wed, not the guests. As such, guests cannot be expected to pay for their plates. As for the idea of the wedding as a means of making money for the future, this is also a misplaced notion. When the majority of brides and grooms regularly wed as teenagers and early twenty-somethings (aka the late 1940s and 1950s), yes, there was a focus on preparing the couple for their future – but with dishtowels and flatware and small appliances (to be clear: gifts, not envelopes). But now, as the average age of wedding celebrants creeps ever higher, the fact is that most couples begin their marriages with at least some measure of financial and material preparation. The couple being wed, not the guests to their wedding, are responsible for their future planning. And, of course, a couple theoretically should think of their wedding as the moment when they are joining into a lifetime of commitment before a beloved community of family and friends, rather than a time to pad their wallets. If you’re inclined to get romantic about these things.

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Early postwar brides expected gifts to help them fill their new homes.

Now, the context. The tales from Jezebel fit perfectly within a kind of sub-genre of contemporary American wedding evaluation: critique, fostered by the critic’s sense of superiority at his/her own inherent rationality. This critique regularly focuses on the blatantly consumerist element of the wedding. That’s obviously at play here. Additionally, and just as often – and often in conjunction with critique of consumerism – is a focus on the bride behaving badly. She is easily recognized, and we know her by name: Bridezilla. And a Bridezilla is the star of each post. I HATE this term, and so here I focus my energy.

Let us imagine there is cultural expectation, originating and perpetuated during childhood (during babyhood if we want to bring up the fact that there exists an item that is onesie – for an INFANT – that reads “Future Bride”), that a wedding and a white dress are essential to adult happiness. Let us imagine there is an entire industry dedicated to selling women (and men) everything they need to make sure said wedding is “perfect” – either for them individually or on a scale determined by said industry. Let us imagine the wedding can cost thousands – and more likely, tens of thousands of dollars – and that the prevailing cultural assumption is that it should be the best day of one’s life, a day on which one can and should have whatever one desires. Might one feel pressure to guarantee this wedding live up to expectations – both personal and cultural? Might one wish to exert some control over decisions regarding this day that has been so built up over the course of one’s lifetime? Short answer to both questions: yes.

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Future Bride

And yet, we’re inclined to berate and condemn those who buy into this cultural expectation too fully. Now, clearly, the women highlighted in these Jezebel posts behaved terribly. Their attitudes and expectations and shared sense of entitlement are inexcusable. And, of course, individuals must be responsible for their actions. But I offer this warning. When we roll our eyes at their behavior and pat ourselves on the backs for knowing we’d never be so awful, when we dismiss them as crazy, we legitimate a vocabulary for dealing with “difficult” women that accepts descriptors like crazy and we okay the addition of “zilla” to denote the monstrous nature of a woman who dares to have a voice (which ultimately means even a reasonable and measured voice, unlike our Jezebel protagonists). We let off the hook the culture that created, maintains, and, one might argue, encourages an environment in which unrealistic, unharnessed, selfish wedding expectations take seed and grow, an environment where women, told their entire lives that the wedding is their one special day, can imagine that codes of conduct and kindness fail to apply to them. And that is truly monstrous.

 

The Best of Everything

When I’m working on a project, in addition to reading historians’ evaluations of people, events, and topics, I like to get myself into the mood of a time period by reading contemporary novels, watching films of the era, listening to popular music of the moment, and things of that nature. I find it gives me a more nuanced understanding of the time, and it also allows me to keep working even as my concentration levels rise and fall. To that end, as I’ve been giving some thought to American women’s experiences of the 1950s and early 1960s, thinking especially about what life was like for women who intended to marry before they married, I picked up Rona Jaffe’s 1958 bestseller The Best of Everything.

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In many ways, The Best of Everything is like a fictional account of Sex and the Single Girl before Sex and the Single Girl (published in 1962), which makes sense since many of the stories within stem from Jaffe’s own experiences working in an urban office environment. In the book, a host of characters serve as “career girls” at fictional Fabian Publishing where they navigate expectations and challenges of the workplace (wolves who see them as easy prey; senior women who identify them as threats) while also facing the challenges of maintaining active New York City social lives on their paltry salaries. In reviews and retrospectives of the novel, I’ve found some discussion about how the book suggests that the women see their jobs as secondary to their desires to meet men and, ultimately, to marry. I found the text far more complicated than that.

While certainly, there are plenty of women in the office pool who are career girls only so long as they need to be, there are others, most notably Caroline Bender, who find work at Fabian to be something of a revelation. As she began to read and review manuscripts, she thought “It was good to be able to care so much about work….For her the thrill was in the competition and in the achievement.” When we see her matrimonially focused coworkers through her eyes, the picture is not especially complimentary. Mary Agnes is a case in point. She works at Fabian as a means to an end, bringing her lunch every day rather than going out so she can save money for the wedding of her dreams. Even in the high speed, and from Caroline’s perspective, extremely exciting world of metropolitan publishing, Mary Agnes doesn’t feel tempted to wish for something more. Caroline indulges Mary Agnes, complimenting her wedding plans and smiling at details shared in the workplace. More critical (and more reflective of Caroline’s real views) are the thoughts of her roommate Gregg, an actress who’d temporarily worked at Fabian when desperate for income. Her evaluation of women like Mary Agnes: “‘The Happy Ones’ [she] called them, not knowing exactly why they were happy and not wanting to join them, but sometimes going so far as to say that it was a shame she couldn’t end up in such a bovine and contented way. She also called them ‘The Grapefruits,’ because she said if you were to slice one of them in half she would be revealed to be all partitioned off into nice little predictable segments, every one of them the same.”

Well. Those are some views (BOVINE!?). Really, such perspectives – even in 1958 – should come as no surprise to anyone at all familiar with the many varied experiences of American women of the era. Furthermore, these assessments directly reflect the propensity to dissect and critique the nature of conformity in 1950s American life more broadly. Still, such views tend to catch me off guard, and I know I’m not alone. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in the media, advertising, and larger culture of the age, which suggest dreams of weddings and marriage and family life were universally shared across the population (a population universally imagined also, it must be noted, as white and middle class). But thoughtful and, clearly, even critical views existed. More importantly, they made their way into a culture that regularly ignored alternative perspectives or dissent, proving, yet again, that the 1950s are not merely the boring, staid prelude to the 1960s so many people imagine them to be. Further, such views reveal that ideas of women as historically devoted to romantic relationships – and at any cost, personal or professional – and preoccupied with dreams of weddings and marriages and babies ignore the diversity of goals and desires experienced and expressed by women over time.

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