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.

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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.).

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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.

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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.

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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