A feminist! In the Vows section!

Jessica Valenti's wedding gets a write-up in the Times -- and garners a wild range of responses

Topics: Feminism, Broadsheet,

Not long ago, I mentioned Jessica Valenti’s big feminist wedding as a way into discussing the campaign for marriage equality. That, I figured, would be the end of our dissection of the Feministing founder’s nuptials. After all, we’ve written plenty about how her decision to marry Andrew Golis of Talking Points Memo has fueled conservative criticism and feminist debate. On numerous occasions, Valenti herself has publicly addressed the running commentary on her wedding. So, what more is there to say, really?

A lot, it turns out. A colleague e-mailed around a Playboy.com blog post about Valenti’s appearance in the New York Times’ Sunday Vows column and the e-mail responses immediately poured in. The post at issue didn’t inspire the commentary (its main offering was an immensely lame joke about Valenti’s husband telling the Times reporter that he didn’t care for raw fish) so much as it gave my fellow Broadsheet writers an excuse to throw down their final thoughts on this much-debated union. – Tracy Clark-Flory

Sarah Hepola: A friend of mine recently said, “Oh my god, did you see Jessica Valenti in the New York Times Style section? That made me SICK!” and I said, “Why would that make you sick?” (because, while I personally have no interest in being in the Vows section, I thought it was fine, whatever), and she said something about “Gah! Weddings!” and I said, “Yeah, I guess I don’t really care how people get married” and she said, “But it’s Jessica Valenti! You just don’t hold yourself up to some ideal and then …” but my mind drifted because, frankly, I was really hungry.

I understand we covered the whole flap about her having a wedding in the first place — which I thought was ludicrous then and still do. But, seriously now: Are people mad about this?

Amy Benfer: You know, I really can’t believe that anyone seriously thinks merely getting married is an anti-feminist act. The uproar over the Vows section seems to be more about the section being an icon of smug, bourgeois status-grubbing (you know, to generalize). Sort of like bragging about the size of one’s rock (something Jessica claims not to have done). While I’ve grumbled about a woman or two who seemed to be unduly proud of scoring a Vows column, it just doesn’t seem to be so much of a feminist issue as it is a status issue.

And while I guess you could see a Times wedding announcement as an entire part of the wedding-industrial complex — along with the ring, the dress, the destination wedding, etc. — I’m not sure why it seems such a betrayal. What is she supposed to do, refuse to talk with the reporters? And if she does, should we read that as a “Fuck you Wedding-Industrial Complex”? Or would we just, you know, not read about it at all? Like I said, I’m more often grossed out by that section than not. But in their defense, they’ve been using that space to promote gay couples, poor couples, even, famously, that formerly homeless couple.

A feminist wedding seems irresistible. There’s a riddle in here somewhere about a master’s tools and a master’s house. Guess it depends where you come down.

Rebecca Traister: As life brings us all kinds of surprises and complications, I’ve found that many people who have strongly held opinions about marriage — say, a lifelong desire to walk down the aisle in a Princess Di gown and stuff cake in someone’s face — can shift in a heartbeat after befriending one gay couple who can’t marry, or falling in love with a partner who doesn’t want to, or can’t because they’re the same gender as you. The personal is political is true in reverse, that the political becomes personal at some point, and can change rapidly. I know some women who talked and talked about weddings when we were younger, and who now find themselves single parents by choice, or in long-term relationships with men or women they don’t plan to marry.

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This clarifies for me why the Jessica issue is fraught for some people: They see her as trying to have both — the staunchly held political view, the books about the evils of the Wedding Industrial Complex, the intersectionality-based approach to marriage as an exclusive institution and the Vows column, the bustle, etc. — without admitting a shift on either side. In a funny way, I wonder if even her anti-wedding detractors would have been more satisfied if she’d just said, “You know, falling in love and getting sucked into the complexities of party-planning has made me feel differently about some aspects of the marriage business.” I am not saying that that would have been a good idea, and I am not saying I agree with her detractors. Jessica is my friend and I am very happy for her. I’m just wondering aloud.

Tracy Clark-Flory: My feelings about marriage are very conflicted. I want very much to enter into a legally recognized union of some sort, at some point in time, with the man I love. But I detest the state’s involvement in what is an exclusionary institution. I hate to pull the “I have gay friends and family” card but … I do have gay friends and family and, as Rebecca points out, that matters. I refuse to be a part of any club that wouldn’t have them as members.

That said? I don’t think there is any one right way to personally respond to marriage inequality, and I don’t think there is any one right way to have a feminist wedding. There’s a dissonance between Jessica’s Vows column and her past criticisms of the wedding industry, and I’d love to see her address that — not because I think she needs to apologize for having the wedding she wanted, but because that kind of personal and political conflict is normal! It’s inevitable and understandable. Feminist theory is one thing, functionally living (and being raised) in this world of ours is quite another; and good luck to those who aim to perfectly reconcile the two — you’ll need it.

Judy Berman: As far as weddings go, I don’t have strong views. At least at this point in my life, marriage isn’t my glass of champagne (although, should I ever desperately need health insurance, prepare to watch me reconsider). Wildly expensive, bridezilla-making nuptials tend to make me shudder. But a wedding is about what the couple (and/or their family) wants, and Jessica Valenti’s choices don’t seem particularly offensive to me. Perhaps, for her, Vows was yet another public forum for making the statement that feminists can get married, on their own terms. Or, you know, maybe she had more selfish and personal reasons. Either way, I’d still rather read about Valenti than yet another finance/P.R. couple with a Vera Wang gown and a second home in the Hamptons.

That said, Vows’ inclusion of the “fish story” raised my eyebrows a bit, too — but not because I think the Times meant to include the unfortunate subtext Playboy points out. To me, it felt like an attempt to add color of the “Feminists are so pushy! They make men do things they don’t like!” variety. If that wasn’t the point, then why even bring up what sounds like a pretty standard first date?

Kate Harding: My basic take is that objections to the wedding and/or Vows column fall into four categories, and the extent to which I’ll tolerate people giving Valenti (with whom I am Internet-friendly) and her husband, Andrew Golis, crap for any of it depends on which of those categories seems to be the primary source of the objection:

  1. Marriage is anti-feminist, because it’s a patriarchal institution based on the idea that women were property, blah blah blah.
  2. Marriage is anti-feminist if one claims to take an intersectional perspective (which Valenti does), because gay people are still excluded from it most places, and thus getting straight-married is a conscious exploitation of privilege unbecoming a public figure committed to social justice.
  3. The Vows column is a classist, sexist celebration of everything reasonable people, especially feminists, find appalling about the Wedding Industrial Complex.
  4. I hate Jessica Valenti, because she’s so successful/talented/pretty/in love/sorta famous/New York-based, and taking her down a peg is the next best thing to being all of that myself.

1 and 2, in my opinion, are perfectly valid arguments that can provoke thoughtful and important discussions — although I’m married, so I obviously don’t find them 100 percent persuasive. No. 3 is the plain truth, but outside a fairly narrow segment of mostly New Yorkers, who gives a shit about the Vows column? I can appreciate the hypocrisy argument there; I just can’t muster the will to care.

No. 4, unfortunately, rarely stands alone and announces itself — it most often inflects the other three arguments, and to what extent it does is variable and always open to interpretation. So all I can say is, I’ve perceived a whole lot of it, and it irritates me so much I’d probably be inclined to give Jessica a pass if she’d let the NYT photographer remove her garter with his teeth. Reasonable people can disagree about whether marriage is inherently anti-feminist, but when public criticism of a happy, successful women turns into an Internet-wide Schadenfreude-fest, the sexist undertones are pretty blatant.

Finally, a feminist wedding really isn’t the point; a feminist marriage is. And I wish them both the best of luck in figuring that one out — as privately as possible — for the rest of their lives.

Mary Elizabeth Williams: All of the tongue wagging and head shaking and second guessing that’s gone on over Valenti’s nuptials are pretty much a grand version of what any bride, anywhere, has to go through. To be honest, the NYT wedding section generally makes me hork, but that doesn’t mean I get to be the buzz kill on anybody else’s Very Special Day. A wedding is one of life’s ultimate intersections of the public and private sphere, which usually means that every jackass you’ve ever known and many you don’t will gladly volunteer their opinions on what you’re doing wrong. And I have never, I mean never, met a married woman who didn’t have some story about who was pissed off regarding the execution of her wedding day.

The thing about being a human being of any gender is that you come into the world with a whole lot of historical expectations of how you’re supposed to behave, and those get kicked up like crazy when you decide to have a go at cleaving unto another. And whether you invite 400 people or two, whether you run away to Reno or get written up in the Vows section, you’re never going to make everybody happy. So you might as well do it your own way and not mind what the world thinks anyway. Isn’t that what feminism is all about?

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