A Slippery Slope: Wedding Tradition v. Sexism

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.

Second (or Third) Time’s the Charm?

In recent radio interviews I’ve done, a number of callers have mentioned how their second weddings were far better than their first. They felt more ownership over the celebrations and found them to be more meaningful. This, I suppose, could be a result of the advanced age of the celebrants the second time around, or it could be that second-timers have learned from their mistakes. Or, ideally, it could be a result of marrying a more suitable partner. In any case, the world of second (or more) weddings is a topic that keeps coming up.

I thought this summer might be the long-awaited Brangelina wedding, or that Jen Aniston and Justin Theroux might tie the knot (it would be the first marriage only for Theroux). But those couples seem to be hedging their bets – and keeping quiet on when the celebrations might take place. Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, very recently engaged, may beat them all to the altar. I’m thrilled with their engagement for the wedding talk it undoubtedly will generate – and very curious to see how they proceed. On the one hand, there’s a suggestion that the two are moving toward a modicum of privacy in their private lives as they’ve done well to limit baby North’s public exposure. But then, there’s Kim’s postpartum selfie. And a stadium proposal. So the possibility exists that we could have another Kardashian wedding extravaganza on our hands.



My sense is that in the past, a second wedding, particularly one conducted after a divorce, necessitated an almost subdued celebration style. But I think the sentiment that suggests a couple go low key if one or the other has already been married is increasingly becoming something of a relic. Similarly, whereas when a bride was of an advanced age, say over 35 (advanced, obviously, only in the scare-women-into-marriage-as-quickly-as-possible wedding world of mid-century [when, really, 25 was considered “advanced]), the expectation was that she forgo the pomp and circumstance, trading in childish bridal dreams for a sensible suit and simple ceremony. That notion has gone the way of the dinosaur. Expectations of wedding celebrations, like American culture as a whole, have changed. Whereas public sentiment about what a person should do once held much greater sway, the private desires of what a person wants to do now reign supreme.

In any case, I think the public is inclined to give second-timers a pass, particularly when they move toward simpler, more heartfelt celebrations. There is likely to be less judgment of a couple when the second shot at love seems authentic. I wonder what that will mean for Kimye. Kanye generally leans toward theatrical while Kim’s wedding to Kris Humphries (her second marriage) was nothing less than a spectacle, with its corporate sponsorship, subsequent E! broadcasts, and multi-paged coverage in national print media. I doubt that either will push for a quiet celebration of closest family and friends, off the beaten path, outside the public eye. But if their natures and their trades lead them toward spectacle, is their union any less legitimate than those who scale back on the second take? Is it fair to doubt the authenticity of their romance? And if the second (or third) time is the charm, and the love feels truer and more real, what should stop a couple from celebrating in a style of their choosing? I realize Kim is the woman who cried love once already – and very publicly (and after a first failed marriage) – so those who have their doubts about the depth of the reality star’s affections have their reasons. But I’m curious to see which will prevail: amendments to wedding culture that allow for some flexibility and forgiveness or the tendency toward an increasingly mean-spirited overarching critique of American weddings and their celebrants (unnecessary, excessive spending, privileging the wedding over the marriage, etc., etc., etc.).

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.


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.


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.

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.

1950sbrideandcoffeepot                                     1949_topleasejunebride

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.


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.


To “Send” or to Stamp?

Last week Slate produced a “Wedding Issue” (http://www.slate.com/topics/w/weddings.html).  A number of articles considered “traditional” or typical wedding practices and then reconsidered them as they applied to contemporary circumstances and relationships. One article suggested the practice of gift-giving to be a relic of the past, better suited for an era when brides and grooms actually began cohabitation following the wedding rather than well before. Another article (a reprint from several months ago) advocated on behalf of elopement as a way of guaranteeing the wedding focused on the bride and the groom rather than the many possible incidentals that tend to take attention away from the union being celebrated.

I love this stuff. Clearly. I wrote a book about it. But seriously, people taking stock of what is expected of them and then giving thought to what actually might work best for their real lives is something I’ve identified in wedding practices of the past seventy-plus years. It’s precisely why I find weddings to be both relevant and fascinating cultural indicators.

“Click here to RSVP” (http://www.slate.com/articles/life/weddings/2013/06/online_wedding_invitations_why_you_should_use_digital_invites_like_paperless.html) weighs the pros and cons of digital invitations. I think this article is great for its sense of balance, and its ultimate conclusion that when it’s your wedding, it’s YOUR WEDDING. Do whatever you want. If the bride and groom have different views, take a look at the guest list, decide who is best suited for a print invite and who will feel fine receiving one via email, and go from there. The world of weddings is basically never all or nothing any more. If you’re worried about being “inelegant,” realize that the consumer marketplace – especially that associated with weddings – is likely to have something somewhere that will be exactly what you want. And if exactly what you want doesn’t yet exist, someone will create it for you. Side note: my two cents, if you have someone on your guests list under age 70 who’s going to judge you for sending them an email invitation, maybe reconsider your guest list.

This article spoke directly to a conversation I recently had regarding wedding invitations. Forewarning: I realize I’m entering into the danger zone of anecdotal evidence. So be it. I’m also about to reveal personal feelings about spending choices associated with a wedding. FYI. Within the last month, I’ve seen a wedding invitation that cost upwards of $2.00+ to mail. TO MAIL (it looked a little bit like the wedding shower invitation from Bridesmaids, out of which A BUTTERFLY emerged). I’ve been told about wedding invitations that cost $5.00 to address (note to self: get into the calligraphy biz ASAP). Again, $5.00. TO ADDRESS. If we’re talking about two or three hundred invitations being sent, we’re already talking about thousands of dollars. And these costs don’t include the cost of the invitations themselves, which can get very pricey. It’s budget allocation I can’t understand. When I receive a wedding invitation, I fill out the RSVP card, make note of the date and time of the wedding, and then throw away the envelope and invitation. I know I’m not alone. But what else am I to do with this precious cargo?


I suppose I can appreciate “stationary nerds” ala the “RSVP” author’s wife and their desire to have beautiful invitations. From my perspective, however, if you love stationary or cardstock so much, you should invest in stationary or cardstock FOR YOU. But then I wonder: is the invitation FOR the person being wed as much as it is for the guests? If a couple loves the look of an invitation so much, is this an example of the couple fulfilling a personal desire (or in the case of “RSVP,” making the kind of compromise that speaks to the nature of their relationship)? For some couples, is the invitation essential to communicating something about themselves that they’d like to share with those they care about? If we take weddings and their celebrants seriously, do we need to take equally seriously each element of the decision-making process and each decision made? Even when they are unimportant to us?

On Dogs as a “Thing”

A recent post from Jezebel calls attention to a newly identified wedding trend (http://jezebel.com/dogs-at-weddings-possibly-eliminate-need-for-annoying-h-511067799): dogs at weddings. Beyond dogs just attending weddings, however, they’re playing central roles in the ceremonies, the receptions, and the documentation of the celebration. As I’ve studied weddings and seen fashions fade in and out, I think I’ve become somewhat desensitized to the evolution of trends and interpretations of traditions. Generally speaking, I’ve adopted a live & let live view. It’s your wedding. You love your dog. Go for it. But the comments to the Jezebel post – wow. The post’s only been up a few hours, and people have *views*.



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.