Missive from sinner’s row

By Amanda Marcotte
Friday, April 24, 2009 22:39 EDT
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Kate Harding and Jessica Valenti both have pieces up defending themselves for marrying, and about the difficulties of crafting a feminist wedding, which are apparently the same exact problems trying to craft an individualistic wedding, which is a mandate that comes down on people just as hard as the one to conform, which creates the industry of everyone copying everyone else’s cute unique touches.* I enjoy going to weddings, but have to say that as a guest to many, I think that what really impresses people is if you have good food, a good bar, and if you can get people to dance for hours at your wedding, that matters more than almost anything. But I digress—both Kate and Jessica talk at length about how merely deciding to get married means patriarchal creep into your lives. Jessica found herself taking on most of the planning, and Kate found that even eloping didn’t mean she got to escape the horrible wedding beast.

While Valenti and I and our respective menfolk have made a lot of similar gestures toward having less screamingly anti-feminist wedding celebrations, at the very least — e.g., skipping any paternal delivery of bride to groom, keeping our names, encouraging guests who ask about gifts to donate to a charity working toward marriage equality — I know I’ve already capitulated to tradition a whole lot more than I expected to. I was planning to wear a blue dress for the reception, but then, all of a sudden, nearly white sounded kinda good. I started out with a “Screw etiquette — it’s not like our friends and fam would buy any pretense to elegance from us anyway” attitude, only to lose it when I realized I’d had envelopes printed up with both abbreviations and spelled-out words in the return address.

That’s the problem with trying to craft a feminism of personal solutions, where you police and guilt everyone about capitulation to patriarchal norms instead of tackle the underlying social structures that suck people into the vortex. Still, personal solutions do have some appeal, because modeling different behaviors can influence society, piece by piece. Which is why I’m a fan of just opting out, though that brings its own problems, not the least of which is that most people don’t really understand the opter-outer, and explaining yourself can often come across as judgmental and rude, even if you don’t want it to. One of my first cousins got married recently, and he was the first of that particular generation (we all grew up within a bike ride from each other) to have a real wedding, and to make the whole situation odd, he’s the youngest of us who is really a working adult (the other three are in high school or college). I’m the oldest, which means that I’m both the first person in my family to graduate college and to make it to 30 without getting married, but I suspect in the next few years I’ll be joined by others in the 30-and-unmarried club. By and large, my family doesn’t seem to give a shit about this, but having an actual wedding drew out some minor pressure in the form of questions, and in one case, being made to go stand with would-be bouquet catchers against my stated wishes. (I grabbed another cousin’s long-time girlfriend on the way and was like, “If I have to do this, so do you.” Her reply: “But I’m not single!” Well, neither am I. So we started sinner’s row in the back—the few, the proud, with their arms by their side behind teenage girls crawling over each other for the bouquet.)

After this, I told Marc that I sort of sympathized with family members who would like there to be more weddings to go to, because they’re fun and our once-geographically-close family needs reasons to come together, and certain members who can be counted on to have crowded dance floors, in the unlikely event of a wedding, were especially ripe pickings. He suggested that we could have an un-wedding, and I sort of thought about it for a second and then was like, maybe in a few years, but I’m not entirely sure I’d enjoy explaining why an un-wedding to my family. As it is, few people will happily accept, when they ask why you aren’t married, that you’re not the marrying type. Even an un-wedding makes me break out a little in hives, because while I’d like to believe I could make that fun and not at all fall into the pressure to say that this changes or legitimizes anything, it would be hard not to fall in that trap.

I’ve got many feminist reasons for not marrying, the sorts of things Kate and Jessica are referring to, but the main thing that makes me uncomfortable about marriage is the way it functions to put the stamp of social approval on love. Obviously, many people crave this. Jessica:

But never underestimate the power of being in love. Andrew is fabulous and I want to be married to him – due in no small part to the fact that he also identifies himself as a feminist and that an equal partnership is just as important to him as it is to me.

Which is great, and I certainly understand that worldview, especially if starting your own family is important to you. For me, sexual love’s very appeal is that it creates a space of resistance to the enormous pressures to conform and comply. It’s possible for married couples to see their own relationships that way, of course, but it takes one more step. Living in sin without moving towards marriage helps me keep my life in this place of resistance where I’m most comfortable. To illustrate instead of just jab near what I’m saying, my personal wariness dates back to when I was in high school and a friend who was a few years older was getting married had her bridal shower. As she was opening her color-coded gifts, her older sister “joked” about how no one throws you a party to celebrate you if you’re a single woman who struck out on her own and resisted the social pressure to define yourself as Mrs. Something Or Other. She was right.

There’s a reason that wedding planning falls on women’s shoulders, and it’s not just that women are always stuck with that kind of organizing and socializing work, though that’s part of it. It’s also because we still get that it’s the bride’s big day, the most important party in her life. And the achievement celebrated is getting a man to commit to you publicly, which our culture pretends is hard to do even though marriage is loaded up with privileges and benefits for men specifically that lead them to live longer lives and even make more money at work, because they’ve got someone at home taking on so much of the daily work to get through life for them. When people talk about a feminist wedding, they mean one that celebrates your love more than the bride’s accomplishment in finding a man. When they say that it’s hard to have a feminist wedding, I suspect part of the problem is that you can’t really get others around you to consent to seeing this as egalitarian as much as Bride’s Big Day. The pressure is so extreme that I sometimes choke when I mention having a relationship with a man at all, not because I’m not blissfully happy with my situation, but because I know that relationship will define me more in the eyes of many than my talents, opinions, or accomplishments.

This is part of the reason that same-sex marriage is such a major league threat to conservatives. Same-sex weddings don’t have the person with power and the person whose status was elevated by being chosen. So you’re stuck with celebrating their love, and that’s going to have an influence on how straight weddings are understood.

I’m certainly not dissing people who want to get married. Having your love celebrated and legitimized is a powerful thing. Unfortunately, it’s also the thing that makes me uneasy about weddings, because the piece of paper means more than the relationship itself. Abusive marriages, marriages where the couple chose each other out of desperation but don’t really like each other, marriages caused by unintended pregnancy that will fall apart when they realize that isn’t enough to build a relationship on, trophy wife arrangements—all these are considered more legitimate by virtue of that piece of paper than the relationships of non-married couples, even those who have long-standing, strong, and passionate relationships that everyone else would envy. That bugs me. And the solution of simply getting married and getting a piece of it yourself doesn’t do it for me. And it’s not just because some people can’t. Even when gay marriage is legal and uncontested in all 50 states, it will still feel wrong, to pressure people to get the paper to get the esteem. For those of us who feel that it’s an encroachment on our carefully staked out individual identities, for those of us who are burned by a lot of exposure to divorce, for those of us who know that making official will introduce weirdness into our lives we don’t want, for those who have unorthodox support systems including platonic relationships that count more than sexual ones—the whole system is really unfair.

Again, I want it to be 110% clear that I’m not saying anyone who marries is wrong or a bad person. My critique is of the system, and the way that it creates a hierarchy of relationships built on paper and custom instead of the quality of relationships.

*For instance, the first time I heard about a “unique” father/daughter dance that involves hilariously breaking from a slow dance to a fast one, I laughed and thought that was actually pretty unique, but a quick perusal of YouTube shows that whoever thought of it first has seen the practice sweep the nation. It’s adorable, of course, but falls short of the individuality mark.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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