The meringue of a woman, floating down an aisle lined with flowers in her signature colors. The groom in his tuxedo, waiting for her with tears in his eyes. The photographer, capturing those special moments to be treasured forever. From the engagement ring to the honeymoon, every nut and bolt used to construct that magical day comes with a hefty price tag. The American bride is being swindled, all in the name of “tradition.” But most of what we consider tradition is actually just marketing or a misunderstanding. Two recent books try to break through the fog that surrounds these rites and bring a dose of reality to the whole idea of living happily ever after.
According to reality television programming, it’s the bride that has gotten out of control. Watch the Bridezilla as she spends the equivalent of a year’s worth of health insurance premiums on a cake, all while alienating her mother, friends, and groom in her pursuit of the purest expression of her narcissism. But what you don’t see on these television shows is the whispering of the magazines, the wedding planners, the dressmakers, the Web sites, with their constant campaign of, “This day is the gateway to your lifelong happiness, the fairy tale that you grew up believing in, finally come true. It has to be perfect, no matter what.” Rebecca Mead peels off layers of veneer on the wedding industry with One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding and shows the rot underneath.
Weddings are a recession-proof industry, and the price of the average wedding has nearly doubled in the past 20 years — up to $28,000 today. Newlyweds have always been an expected source of income by retailers — department stores like Marshall Fields were practically built around their needs. But marriages used to be about two people starting out in life. Now the average first marriage takes place in a couple’s mid- to late-20s, when both have probably already established a home life and a career path. Today, the money is spent more on appearances, from the monthly facials the bride is expected to indulge in from proposal to “I do,” to the party favors the guests are sent home with. Mead writes, “For the sixteen months of her engagement it is [the bride’s] privilege, her right — indeed, her obligation — to become preoccupied with herself, her appearance, her tastes, and her ability to showcase them to their best advantage. Being a bride, according to the bridal media’s prescription, amounts to a quest for self-perfection, or perfection of the outward self at least.”
People involved in the industry know exactly what they’re doing when they manipulate brides into a flurry of spending. Vows, the trade magazine for bridal retailers, tells salespeople, “Just when the bride thinks she’ll have to spend no more, it’s your job to remind her that her bridal image looks incomplete.” In reality, most of what we think of as traditional in wedding ceremonies is either the creation of Hollywood, or only goes back 50 years or so. Mead quickly debunks some of the more pervasive lies: The white poofy dresses? They only go back as far as Queen Victoria’s wedding day. The diamond engagement rings? A 1940s advertising campaign. The unity candle ritual that is showing up in more and more weddings these days? No one is quite sure where that came from, but it sure as hell is not Catholic. And the Apache wedding prayer that is now read at the weddings of white people everywhere is possibly Navajo, but it’s more likely that it came from a Jimmy Stewart Western and was mistaken by viewers as being something authentic.
How has it gotten to this point? If this were just a big birthday party, couples would not be willing to spend such a large part of their income on a long list of ridiculous expenses. (Two wedding dresses is now customary? Really?) There is something deeper — and more sinister — going on here, the idea that the effort and money and time you put into celebrating your love for another person will pay off after the wedding is over. Mead writes, “[T]he bride who has been convinced, in some barely articulated but nonetheless pervasive sense, that coordinating her ribbons and her envelopes will contribute to the future harmony of her marriage has been sold not just an expensive complement of stationery but a dangerous bill of goods.”
With all of the emphasis placed on the wedding day itself — rather than the marriage that it inaugurates — you’d think “Will you marry me?” could be translated into “Will you have a wedding with me, and then we’ll figure out the rest of it later?” Divorce rates, rampant adultery, and statistics about celibate marriages all reinforce this theory. And yet here we go, still walking down that $28,000 aisle. So when we’re down on bended knee, or orgasmically answering, “Yes! Yes!” what are we thinking about? The “You may now kiss the bride” or life 10 years from now, watching the person across the table slurp their coffee, even though they totally know how much that irritates you?
“Ever wonder why marriage is such a complicated business? Why people on the inside complain about it, people on the outside want in, and those who have tried and failed are willing to do it again and again?” These excellent questions line the jacket copy of Susan Squire’s I Don’t: A Contrarian History of Marriage. Squire does not answer them. “It’s impossible to distinguish between what can be fixed and what can only be accepted as par for the marital course without some awareness of what that course has been,” she writes in the introduction. But while One Perfect Day is successful enough in its debunking of the wedding industry that I’m sure it could convince reasonable people to elope, I Don’t never quite finds its reason for existing.
Squire lays out three historical purposes of Western marriage: reproduction, lust control, and love. Starting with our culture’s dominating creation myth, she opens her book with Genesis 3:16: “Your husband… shall rule over you.” Squire builds up her introduction, stating that the real story of Adam and Eve is not how you really remember it, but then her follow-through is a let down. There are two creation myths in Genesis. One implies that Adam and Eve were meant to be equals, but preachers have tended to overlook that one. The story that is told in Sunday School, however, has Eve as temptress, and Adam as innocent bystander. That story allows the idea of man as the head of the household, and forgiveness for the husband’s sexual trespasses. Polygamy is permissible for men because it increases the potential offspring, and women are to be controlled because they are not to be trusted. (So much so that lineage in the Jewish culture is traced through the mother, because God only knows who the real father is.) Really all Squire did was read Genesis. If she were a real contrarian, she would have included the stories that did not make it into the Bible and explain why. She would have covered the Gnostics, perhaps some non-canonical Jewish myths. Anyone who can draw a straight line can reach many of the same conclusions that Squire does.
And so we go, on through history. She discusses the homoeroticism of Athens and what it meant for the wives, but leaves out Sparta, a city where men and women were considered equals. After the Dark Ages — during which survival was so difficult that marriages were actually pretty egalitarian, with both women’s work and men’s work seen as being valuable, another fact Squire fails to mention — marriage becomes not about reproduction, but about controlling your libido. If you’re going to have sex, best to have it as part of a marriage, where it’s not a sin. But the true ideal is celibacy, and that includes within a marriage as well. Finally we reach Martin Luther and the establishment of marriage as an expression of love, and just as we reach our modern age, Squire abandons us. She leaves us to draw our own conclusions about how these influences affect modern marriage — if at all.
We can leave behind the idea of wife as slave and celibate marriages as expressions of spiritual purity, but she’s silent about modern pressures to marry and the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman. Even her use of Luther’s writings on marriage in her chapter on love seems misguided, as he is probably much less influential than the myth of Tristan and Isolde and its notion of the one true love for which any obstacle is worth overcoming. It’s the pervading idea in our society, and this current obsession with finding “the One” who will complete us can hijack our lives. Just read the Vows section of the New York Times, with its sad women claiming they felt broken because they had reached the age of 30 without being married.
We are at a point in society where each couple must define for itself what marriage is, what monogamy is, what “’til death do us part” is. Just as we no longer look to the church to define what our wedding ceremony will be, we are in the process of rejecting religion’s definition of marriage. No wonder we work ourselves into lathers over our wedding ceremonies. Writing your own vows and deciding which table linen best represents your inner spirit is a lot easier than laying out what a “wife” is these days.
Mead writes, “It is, in many ways, harder to invent yourself than to have your course mapped out for you,” and so we look to history and tradition — and sometimes wedding planners — to tell us what to do. Eventually, 90 percent of Americans will get hitched, despite the pessimistic outlook. With I Don’t, Squire could have shown us other ways of being in love and other ways of co-existing. Sadly, she didn’t. • 28 August 2008