Wednesday, August 1, 2007

If I can't have that kind of a wedding, I don't wanna get married at all

You might expect that, in the little time I am not devoting to preparing for my own wedding, I would prefer to think about something (anything!) other than weddings. You would be right, for the most part, but I nevertheless set aside some time this weekend to read Rebecca Mead's recent book on the subject, One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding.

Mead's approach combines investigative journalism with social criticism; as she turns her attention to the various branches of the wedding industry, from photography to decorating to dressmaking, she unpacks the wedding culture's affection for the "traditionalesque" -- that is, elements like the white gown and the engagement ring that we think of as "traditional," even though they turn out not to be rooted in centuries of practice or deep symbolism and usually became popular after some manufacturer's successful 20th-century advertising campaign -- and examines the industry's redefinition of "memory" (as something one can purchase and micromanage). She analyzes the ways that contemporary women's "tremendous social freedom" leaves us " the pressures and persuasions" of the wedding industry, and suggests that the "invented trauma" of wedding-planning is a replacement for the genuine traumas that used to accompany weddings (when they marked a more abrupt change in one's status and lifestyle). All of this is insightful and thought-provoking, and presented with good humor and a keen eye for telling details. A paragraph setting the scene at a conference for videographers had me laughing out loud, as did a sampling of advertising copy from a 1950s Pocono resort's honeymoon brochure. I particularly admired Mead's ability to pick out the most nakedly self-serving or openly contemptuous quotations from industry literature. Take, for example, the ad for Dyeables shoes she found in the industry magazine Vows: "She spent five years finding 'him.' He spent five months choosing the ring. She doesn't need to know it only took you [the bridalwear vendor] five minutes to order her shoes." (Guess what, Dyeables? It only took me five minutes to order my own shoes from Zappos! and they're not Dyeables! So there!)

Even if you're already convinced that the "traditional" American wedding is out of control, One Perfect Day has lots to offer. A harrowing journey through the too-complicated typical wedding-gown-selection process (which I am thrilled to have avoided) leads into a fascinating expose of the wedding-gown distribution industry in this country and the manufacturing industry in China. And Mead goes further than any other general-audience wedding literature I have come across in addressing weddings as religious rituals. She devotes one chapter, "God and the Details," to examining how the wedding industry influences religious ceremony -- the reasons generally nonreligious people turn to religion when getting married, the compromises religious authorities find themselves making to accomodate these couples, and (most compellingly) what both sides might be losing in the process. It's refreshing to find Mead acknowledging that, from a religious perspective, having a "church wedding" is not just a matter of choosing a picturesque location, and questioning whether the urge to "personalize" one's wedding celebration is compatible with the desire to celebrate within the context of religion. As you probably know, I'm marrying in the Catholic tradition, and for Catholics, marriage is a sacrament -- like baptism or confirmation or holy orders, it is an induction into a new state of life within the Church. That's not a notion that the secular wedding industry is prepared to grapple with (since there isn't much money to be made by going down that road), and so thinking of my wedding in those terms leaves me standing outside the audience of prospective brides that most chirpy wedding-related content is addressed to (not that I'm complaining). Because of this, I particularly appreciate all the work Mead put into researching this chapter -- questioning and debunking the mistaken notion that the "Unity Candle" is a "Catholic" ritual, for example, and investigating the bogus origins of the "Apache" wedding blessing. There is a lot of "traditionalesque" rickrack adorning most "church weddings," and the irony I have discovered, in planning my own celebration, is that the easiest way to have a "unique" wedding is to adhere to what the liturgical rite calls for.

I only wish Mead had spent some time addressing the disconcerting fact that "wedding" and "bridal" are interchangeable terms, as far as the industry is concerned. I kept waiting for her to question the old-fashioned yet frustratingly persistent notion that the American wedding is the bride's day, as opposed to the couple's day. She starts off by talking about "the alleged phenomenon of the Bridezilla" and goes on to question our tendency to blame the bride when a wedding loses focus -- but she doesn't wrestle with the notion that it is the bride who does the planning and obsesses over the details. (Her point is "Maybe we should be blaming the industry," not "Why is there no Groomzilla?") And though she examines the implications of a modern woman desiring, "on her wedding day, to affect the styles and manners of prefeminist femininity," she takes for granted that the wedding is the woman's to plan, basically on her own, regardless of how feminist she might be. Isn't perpetuating the idea of "the bride's day" part of how the industry goes about "selling" weddings, and if so, isn't it worth examining in more detail how and why that is? Mead has a chapter called "The Business of Brides," but that could just as easily be the subtitle of the book; there is no corresponding "The Business of Grooms" chapter, even to ask why grooms receive so little attention as customers and consumers. I mean, yes, one could write an entire feminist tract asking questions like, Why shouldn't we be focusing just as much on what the groom is wearing? Why shouldn't he have to have his makeup and nails done, too? Why should the woman wear a dress? Why marriage at all? And following that path too far would have turned this into a different and much less enjoyable book. But I don't think it's unreasonable to question the notion that, for example, the dishes and towels and wastebaskets on a couple's registry at Bed, Bath & Beyond are somehow "bridal" gifts instead of just "wedding" gifts. Particularly in the absence of any discussion of the bridal shower tradition (true to her title, Mead focuses on the wedding day itself and not on any of the other celebrations that lead up to it). Discussing registries, Mead quotes some poll results suggesting that grooms usually join their brides in picking out gifts and observes that "The involvement of men in the registry a testament to the marketing efforts of companies that have sought to position the creation of a wedding registry as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to score highly coveted consumer items, for men and women alike" -- but she goes on calling it a "bridal registry" after that, apparently just for variety's sake.

Attending one wedding after another during the course of her research, Mead manages to withhold her disdain when describing the sorts of couples (or, let's be honest, women) who might go for a Walt Disney World wedding package, or a destination wedding in Aruba, or a quickie wedding in Vegas; the brides aren't the enemy here, and when she raises an ironic eyebrow, it's usually directed at the wedding salespeople and their sales pitches. But her epilogue, which describes her own wedding with more than a touch of smug self-satisfaction, left me with a bad taste in my mouth. I wouldn't have minded if Mead had talked about her own wedding plans throughout -- maybe just a few lines at the end of each chapter, as a way to structure the book and give it a personal touch. But tossing in an epilogue just to let us know that her priorities were in order feels much more self-congratulatory than reflective. If she found herself unable to discuss her own wedding planning and celebration in the same spirit of generosity and open-minded inquiry that she applied to the rest of this book, she ought to have left it out.

Time for me to stop reading about other people's wedding plans and go back to thinking about my own. According to the automatic counter on our wedding website, we have only 164 days left, and there's much to be done. I'm just glad I've made the apparently countercultural decision not to determine every little detail on my own, because where's the fun in that?


Deane said...

I've been reading you for a few weeks and, having read numerous comments about your own upcoming wedding, wondered what kind of wedding you were planning. Since it's still a ways off, and I know that mega-weddings take months and even years to plan, I assumed you must be the kind of bridezilla who's currently getting her 15-minutes of reality-TV fame. But this clashes with your otherwise thoughtful posts, tinged with the right amount of intellectual irony. So thank you for writing about your impressions of this book and giving me an in-direct keyhole view of the upcoming day.

And now for my own self-satisfied moment of smugness: my wedding 7 years ago cost a total of $3,000, including all the clothes and rings. It was intensely personal and lovely and a day I will always remember despite not spending obscene amounts of time or money. About the only design theme I had was "simple!" This did not stop my mother-in-law from ordering red napkins printed in gold (from but that's another story.

I enjoy reading you every day and living your New York/Broadway/Hamptons life vicariously out here in the Pacific NW!

Mollie said...

Thanks, Deane! I'm glad to have you reading. I don't mean to be too cagey about my wedding, and I'm sure I'll be talking about it more as it gets closer, but for now I'm making an effort not to let it take over my personality (or my blog!) completely.

Congratulations on keeping yours simple! It sounds like it was wonderful. I'm a little jealous... And reading this book did make me question some of the decisions we've already made -- are we capitulating to the industry too much? Especially since I think my fiance and I would have been happy with a small and simple celebration. But we both have very big families, so keeping it small didn't seem like an option for us, and the way the timing worked out, we couldn't seem to get it done before January (we got engaged in February, too soon to plan a summer wedding... and we had 3 family weddings already planned for the summer and fall, and then you get into the holidays... etc.). So we're just trying to keep things in perspective and focus our attention and our budget on the stuff that really matters.

I will be glad when I'm no longer a bride-to-be, believe me... And I'm afraid, when January rolls around, people will be saying, "You had 11 months to plan and this was the best you could do? Where are the red-and-gold napkins?!"