Sometimes We Watch TV and Scream

And it’s not even always because we’re watching The Walking Dead.

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Last night, my husband called me into the TV room and deliberately rewound so I could watch this:

http://www.ispot.tv/ad/7fld/davids-bridal-the-invisible-man

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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of view, it makes the wedding industry’s attempt to grasp at tired wedding absolutes look terribly old-fashioned and out of date (ahem, David’s Bridal).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.

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Marriage? Meh.

In the aftermath of DOMA’s overturning and state after state legalizing same sex unions, there have been a flurry of articles to suggest the wedding industry has struck gold with the impending rush of gay and lesbian weddings. Maybe. But the New York Times suggests the onslaught may not be what vendors within the wedding-industrial complex have hoped for (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/27/style/gay-couples-choosing-to-say-i-dont.html?pagewanted=1&src=recg). Many gay men and women will look at the opportunity to marry, be happy for the move toward marriage equality and extension of citizenship rights, and then go about their daily lives.

To some degree, I think the best part of this article is that it uncovers the assumption that those who share a single element of identity are one community. In fact, there is never really just one community but rather multiple communities to consider. When teaching women’s history, I have to remind my students over and over that we can’t say “women” and imagine it’s a catchall term. Differences in race, class, region, religion, political affiliation, and so on make the population impossible to lump as one uniform group. So, too, with gay men and women.

As the Times article notes “For some, marriage is an outdated institution, one that forces same-sex couples into the mainstream. For others, marriage imposes financial burdens and legal entanglements. Still others see marriage not as a fairy tale but as a potentially painful chapter that ends in divorce. And then there are those for whom marriage goes against their beliefs, religious or otherwise.” Exactly. Straight society’s elevation of the married relationship – with all its flaws – above all other relationships is just one area where homosexuals are glad to emphasize their difference from a problematic heterosexist value system.

It’s interesting to consider what influence homosexuals’ negotiation of newfound marriage rights will yield. Even as they existed outside the mainstream, gay relationship styles have been largely influential. In the 1960s and 1970s, as homosexual relationship became increasingly visible, many couples were happy with to live together outside the bonds of matrimony (and for many of the reasons outlined above). In fact, many historians (myself included) argue that gays’ rejection of marriage and celebration of the cohabitation alternative ultimately influenced the straight world, where cohabitation went from almost a non-existent occurrence in the early 1960s to one that was fairly common by the end of the 1970s. Likewise, an emphasis on egalitarianism within gay partnerships influenced a move toward greater equity in straight relationships.

I wonder if it’s possible that the younger generation – the one the Times describes as post-marriage – will wield a similar kind of power and influence. Those in their early twenties, disillusioned by a world in which expectations of marital success are fairly low and divorce is common, may celebrate the acquisition of the right to marry but likewise embrace the right to not marry. It’s possible that marriage equality will stand as a hallmark of sexual civil rights, but the reality of how people live their lives and organize their relationships will remain flexible. Here we may see a community of those committed to marriage alternatives, a community that may be influential but is likely to remain outside the mainstream. And it may well be a community linked not by sexual preference but by age and experience.

 

Maybe barbaric – but definitely not traditional

From Salon, October 8, 2013: “Engagement Rings are Barbaric” http://www.salon.com/2013/10/08/engagement_rings_are_barbaric_partner/

I appreciate the claims people make about the outdated customs associated with weddings – the giving away, the “obey” in vows, and in this case, the engagement ring. Clearly, the intention behind these symbols has changed over time. In that capacity, I say – as I’ve said before on this blog – let people do as they wish. Allow them to inject their chosen symbols with the meanings they see fit. I appreciate that many people would happily debate this point, claiming that embracing symbolic elements of the wedding perpetuates those elements’ original meanings, but my view is that the meaning attached to any symbol evolves over time. That’s a debate for another time.

Why I highlight the Salon article is because I actually think it is much better at highlighting how “traditional” parts of the wedding are not traditional at all. The wedding industry and related media marketed wedding customs as such and successfully expanded the wedding to be celebrated by an increasingly democratized post-World War II middle class. In my book, As Long As We Both Shall Love, I likewise note the conscious creation of wedding traditions. Prior to the Second World War – and even after – a diversity of wedding styles perpetuated the American scene. Only after the war did a standard style of celebration emerge, one many upwardly mobile citizens saw as a rite of passage in their quest for upward mobility. And the engagement ring was at the heart of that standardization, when the symbol of the ring was less a contract, I’d argue, and more an indication of a couple’s economic security.

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.

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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.