Cashing In on Gay Weddings’ Coming Out

A major byproduct of the DOMA decision is the potential boon it brings to the wedding industry. Those willing to embrace gay clientele immediately find themselves with an expanded (and sometimes very affluent) client base. The various businesses of the wedding industry – from florists to caterers to jewelers – stand to gain handsomely should they play to same-sex couples. Those who refuse are finding themselves condemned in articles and blog posts that are garnering national attention (see the Colorado baker willing to create a cake for a dog wedding but not a same-sex union ~ http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/05/masterpiece-cakeshop-gay-dog-experiment-_n_3392013.html).

Even greeting card companies are getting in on the action (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/24/happy-happy-gay-gay-cards_n_3785685.html). Emily Belden has created Happy Happy Gay Gay with the purpose of providing a variety of gay-themed wedding cards for those finding themselves with a number of celebrations to attend. While Belden will donate all profits to The Trevor Project, I wonder what the future of the broader gay wedding industry will hold. Wedding planners and bands and reception halls can offer wedding elements that look quite like “straight” weddings, or gay couples can request service with an aesthetic that veers toward the queer. But some elements of wedding consumer culture, like greeting cards – often featuring a lady bride and a man groom – will need a more dramatic makeover. The traditional photo of the bride as she readies herself for the wedding will need amending when a wedding is celebrated by two grooms. Such amendment will also need to take place when it comes to the language used in preparation for weddings. Queer couples, I am sure, will want the option of identifying as groom and groom or bride and bride when they fill out a gift registry or sign a contract to rent a hall. They may chafe at wedding websites and periodicals that speak far more to female celebrants than male. And so new versions of old industries may find a place in the world of weddings.

HAPPY-HAPPY-GAY-GAY-large570

There are many who will critique such developments as evidence of the celebration’s connection to the blatantly material, the embodiment of the crass consumerism for which the wedding has gotten such a bad rap. But if we look at the glass half full, the new industries shaped by queer wedding celebrations could upend tired, worn-out conceptions of gender roles and performance. The idea that male celebrants can and will engage in decision-making regarding plans such as favors and floral arrangements and décor could spill over into the world of straight weddings. Men and women may avoid being pigeonholed into assumed wedding roles and assigned wedding tasks – or may feel more empowered to challenge cultural expectations because they see others doing so, and without sacrificing their masculinity or femininity. And just as same-sex relationships of the 1960s and 1970s provided alternative models of romantic flexibility and improvisation, models ultimately adopted by many opposite-sex couples, so too might the emerging alternative gay culture of weddings lead to new trends that open up fresh interpretations of gender, romance, and partnership.

Making Marriage Cool

VH1’s website recently featured a post “15 Celebrity Couples So Cool They Don’t Have to Get Married” (http://www.vh1.com/celebrity/2013-08-15/15-unmarried-celebrity-couples/). The point of the article/photo gallery is that there are certain celebrity couples we continue to fixate on despite the fact that they string us along with their alleged engagements and supposed plans to marry. They’re so cool, we’ll follow their relationships even if they never follow through on their marriage plans. Aside from the fact that I take issue with the fact that by including both Jon Hamm and Jessica Simpson on this list, the post indicates that they are the same level of cool (they are not), I really, really hate the article’s title.

jessica_simpson_Mom_jeans_ JON-HAMM

Simpson & Hamm – may they never be listed on anything together ever again.

By suggesting that not getting married signifies cool, the post automatically suggests that getting married is square. People who think this way must suffer through miserable relationships. How terrible for them. Marriage, many continue to believe, is about the old ball and chain (especially for men), and is an institution for the conventional and conformist and to be entered into only when absolutely necessary. Upon entry, kiss both freedom and good times good-bye.

But at this stage in the game, when marriage is not a necessity (socially, culturally, financially [especially for women] – as it was up until at least the mid-20th century), people still get married, which suggests the marital relationship might not be that bad. As I discuss in my book, during the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, Americans witnessed the rise of the alternative or new wedding. New wedding celebrants rejected the cookie-cutter conformity of the standard wedding celebration. They got married outdoors, wore hip-inspired wedding costumes, wrote their own ceremonies and vows, and embraced the homespun over the store-bought. Their objective: use the weddings to indicate how their marriages would be different – from those of other married couples, and even more important, from the generation that had gone before them. Their parents, they believed, had entered into compulsory unions – for security, as an escape from their own families, because that’s what people did, but not necessarily for love and partnership. To hear retrospective tales from those who wed in the 1940s and 1950s, those who remained wed as well as those who contributed to the massive divorce rates of the 1970s, the alternative wedding celebrants were right. During the post-WWII period, in particular, when responsibility and maturity were highly sought after characteristics and a marriage signified both, marriage was highly desirable, maybe for romance but definitely for the sense of security – financial and cultural – that it provided. Sentiments, admittedly, that are not particularly “cool.”

1954IowaCouple Arlo+Jackie-Guthrie-wedding

1954 v. 1969

All that said, the efforts of alternative celebrants to express the differences in their unions pointed to the fact that marriage needn’t be the ball and chain, that couples could be happy, that marriage could be cool. And from the 1960s on, and well into this still young 21st century, many celebrants have adopted this point of view. Couples needn’t stay unmarried to have their relationships stay fresh and fun and relevant. But old habits die hard, I suppose. And for some, it’s easier to work in dichotomies such as “married: not cool” and “unmarried: cool” than to attempt to investigate or explain the varied nature of human relationships and experiences. But for me, the thing that is much less cool than marriage, is this t-shirt, which I saw sported by some yahoo in Cleveland this past July. Not cool, joker. Definitively NOT COOL.

gameover

Let’s have a moment of silence for the woman about to wed a man in this shirt.

Pinning Dreams and Perpetuating Stereotypes

I recently read an article about the seemingly widespread practice of creating wedding-related Pinterest boards before a wedding is planned, an engagement proposed, or a partner even identified (http://www.fsunews.com/article/20130801/FSVIEW0101/130731021/Girls-get-Pinterested-wedding-wishlists). I’ve seen some of this impulse toward “When I…” boards on the social media site. Sometimes the speculation is “When I have a baby,” or “buy a home,” and so naturally “get married” fits as the kind of category for which one might plan. But for some reason, the wedding seems a more problematic hypothetical, and I do think the process for planning without any sort of end date in mind (or end mate, for that matter [sorry]) contributes to that. When people critique American wedding culture, this is what they’re looking at. Too many women – and the suggestion is that this is primarily a female phenomenon – focus more on what they want their wedding to look like than on what they want their partner or their marriage to be like. What’s more, they don’t care what that partner might desire for his/her wedding day. The bride’s day will be the bride’s day.

pinterest-inspiration-wedding-board

As a whole, these “when I” boards give me pause, but I worried that I might be too knee-jerk in my critique. Trying to think about the process of “pinning” a dream wedding in a historical context, I wondered if this is in some way the 21st century equivalent of the hope chest. During the 19th century and well through post-World War II period, many young women collected goods for marriage in such chests. From girlhood, a woman stockpiled linens, towels, flatware, and various other domestic goods for her future home. Year-by-year, she added things to her collection. The expectation was that she would one day marry and thus would need to be prepared. For most women, that expectation was right on. Unless well-educated or raised in material privilege, the best means of support for a woman was to be found through a union with a man. And of course social and cultural expectations pointed directly to marriage, home, and family life as the culmination of success for American women.

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1947 Hope Chest Advertisement

Ultimately, though, I have to conclude that preparing for a home – and particularly in the historical context – was a different thing than preparing for a wedding. The circumstances under which young women filled their hope chests veered far more toward the practical than the aesthetic (and, in fact, the emerging domestic aesthetic that tended toward the trendy or the store-bought – a particularly popular look in the newly developing postwar suburbs – helped make the keeping of a hope chest an increasingly outdated process from the 1950s on). In a time when brides and grooms couldn’t depend on a string of showers or the presentation of elaborate wedding gifts – or cash, as many prefer now – to mark the start of their union, they had to take responsibility for material and financial support during the early years of marriage before they entered into that relationship. For men, that often meant securing steady employment and the start of a nest egg. For women, that meant preparation of the necessities required of a home (and often steady employment and nest egg contribution until at least the birth of the first child, if not beyond).

In my research, I’ve read about many women who dreamed about their weddings since childhood. And clearly this is a popular trope in contemporary wedding culture. In one personal essay I read, a woman admitted to keeping a wedding binder during her 1980s girlhood, in which she included advertisements and articles from bridal magazines, all in anticipation of the wedding she would one day celebrate. So the practices found on Pinterest aren’t brand new. They’re just more public. I suppose so it goes in this increasingly public age – but this, I think, is where my discomfort lies. One woman’s willingness to make public her private wedding dreams allows too easily for the perpetuation of the stereotype that this is what all women are doing (or want to be doing). Aside from the tried and true critiques we might make about overeager wedding pinners (they validate the power of what many critics call the “wedding-industrial complex”; they reveal the material undercurrent that marks so many elements of American life and culture; they contribute to the normalization and acceptance of narcissism; etc.), my biggest problem with the pinning going on here is how it further standardizes and entrenches the gendered division of unpaid labor in American life and romantic relationships for all women – even those without the time or inclination to imagine a fictive celebration. Planning a wedding (a real wedding, not a Pinterest dream wedding) takes time – which can manifest as time away from work, family, friends, fitness, hobbies, you name it. And it is work. It falls into that category of unpaid labor that is often celebrated for continuing rituals, maintaining tradition, fostering family ties, and by which women are often judged, but is work that is virtually never rewarded or respected in the way any kind of paid labor very clearly is (see “paid” descriptor). What’s more, when it’s a labor assumed to be universally enjoyed by women, women can find themselves alone in completing it or condemned for not being enthralled with it. If Pinners are willing to see their visions through and take on labor of this kind (and, I suppose, are “lucky” enough to find partners who stay out of their way), that’s fine. But the possibility that all women might be expected to do the same – and might be viewed as a single monolithic bloc – is more troubling.