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of view, it makes the wedding industry’s attempt to grasp at tired wedding absolutes look terribly old-fashioned and out of date (ahem, David’s Bridal).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

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.

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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.