I'm sitting in a Minneapolis hotel as I write this, here for the weekend so my Minneapolitan husband and I can meet with vendors about our upcoming wedding reception. We eloped in Vegas last December, with one guest, for a total cost of about $300. "Screw you, Wedding Industrial Complex!" we thought smugly -- right up until we got home and realized everyone wanted us to have a big party anyway. And truth be told, we kinda wanted one, too.
So, boy, do I ever empathize with Jessica Valenti's piece in the Guardian today about trying to plan a feminist wedding. I thought I already had planned one -- in less than a day, even -- but now here I am talking about color schemes, having an ivory silk dress made (I got married in black), and traveling 400 miles to taste mini quiches. All while feeling vaguely ridiculous and/or guilty about A) participating in the patriarchal tradition to end all, B) enjoying benefits many of my gay friends still can't, and C) actually spending over an hour of my life debating whether we need to rent chair sashes.
You might recall how discussing the difficulty of planning a wedding that departs from patriarchal custom has already led to Valenti being called a "feminist bridezilla" by Kathryn Jean Lopez, not to mention taking plenty of crap from some of her own readers. (She has also, awesomely, been called a "ball-cutting cybersuccubus" by a blogger focused on emasculating her fiancé -- "Think I can get that on a business card?" she asks.) Whether it comes from the right or left, from men or other women, the bulk of the criticism essentially amounts to the same thing: "Ain't no such thing as a feminist wedding, lady. Nice try."
And, you know, there's more than a little truth in that. 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. When my dad offered a contribution to the party fund, my husband immediately balked -- and I immediately went, "I'm sorry, are you really suggesting we turn down free money just so we don't have to feel beholden to my father and/or harken back to a tradition in which I'm basically a piece of property changing hands? Because I really don't think you're focusing enough on the free money part." Unlike Valenti, I might actually be a "feminist bridezilla" -- and I'm not even technically a bride.
I'm not sure the problem is just feminism vs. patriarchy here, though. For years, I've watched my friends struggle to plan "non-traditional" weddings that reflect who they are as a couple, only to end up going through the same basic ceremony-champagne-dinner-dancing motions as everyone else anyway. Sure, one couple had that stunning location and another that awesome chicken satay, but I have yet to attend a wedding that struck me as anything but, you know, a wedding: a big party that adheres pretty closely to a well-worn template. The individuals involved make each one memorable and unique in its own ways, but the most painstakingly chosen details can rarely overcome the essential sameness of it all. Whether you mean to break the mold because you're a feminist or an atheist or a ren faire geek or all of the above, breaking it in any meaningful way is a lot easier said than done.
Why bother with the whole mess, then? Isn't the most feminist solution not to get married at all? Well, sure. "But never underestimate the power of being in love," Valenti writes. "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." That's just it. Though plenty of people choose never to marry -- and more power to 'em -- a lot of us just plain want to be married to the people we love. That's one reason why marriage equality is so important to many feminists of every sexual orientation, even if gay couples don't strictly need it to demonstrate their love or commitment to each other. Legal and practical benefits may provide the most compelling intellectual arguments in favor of gay marriage, but at the end of the day, it's also about people in love wanting to get married.
You can argue that that desire issues mostly from a patriarchal culture constantly shoving its heteronormative values down our throats and ... well, I'll back you up on that, actually. But for a lot of us, even feminists, it's still there and still powerful -- both the desire to get married and the desire to throw a big effin' party to celebrate. So the next most feminist solution available is to try to remain conscious of all of the sexist pitfalls involved in wedding planning, avoid as many of them as possible, and be open with our friends and families about why we're making certain choices. It's far from a perfect answer to a tremendously thorny question, but as Valenti says, "There is no such thing as perfect when you are a feminist getting married." Now if you'll excuse me, I have some mini quiches to try.