It's a story many of us know by heart: The couple meets at a summer share in the Hamptons or a charity ball in uptown Manhattan. He is a vice president at a major accounting firm; she is a rising star at a prestigious P.R. firm. They fall in love over lavish dinners, romantic evenings at the opera and European vacations. When they get married, after a few years of sensible courting and perhaps some glossed-over cohabitation, she wears a Vera Wang dress that costs more than some of us earn in a year. It's a classic story for the couples profiled in the New York Times' weekly "Vows" column -- and for some reason, we just keep reading the country's most exclusive and ridiculous wedding announcement, absorbing every brand and destination the well-heeled newlyweds can name drop.
Perhaps that's because the "Vows" section is the ultimate wedding porn, a status even the Times' public editor Clark Hoyt acknowledges in a fascinating editorial that ran on Sunday. Like thumbing through Vogue, the column has allowed us to imagine what it might be like to be young, in love and poised for a life of Upper West Side privilege. (Or to mock that life. Both can be equally satisfying.) Even those of us who don't fancy getting married any time soon (or ever) can fall prey to the guilty pleasures of "Vows." Amid a Sunday paper packed with news about war and economic crisis, silly "Sunday Styles" is an oasis of escapism.
But could all that be changing? Hoyt's editorial centers on June 28's edition of "Vows," which profiled Jennifer Keen and Peter Sousa, quite a deviation from the "Vows" section norm:
Sousa, 41, grew up homeless, was hooked on heroin by 15, and was in and out of prison for the next 24 years. Keen, 26, came from a stable household but said she was sexually abused by a relative and by 16 was addicted to methamphetamines, marijuana and alcohol. They met outside a Narcotics Anonymous meeting in Sacramento.
While most letters praised the Times for publishing the hopeful story of triumph over addiction and abuse, some readers were disgusted. "Are we telling young adults it is alright to waste half their lives in a drug stupor and somehow it will magically work out?" one asked. Some were more open about their classism: "I heard from other readers who said they regarded the weddings pages as a place for upstanding people with good educations who come from good families," Hoyt writes. "Sousa and Keen, they said, did not belong."
These contradictory reactions raise the question of what, exactly, the paper of record's wedding announcements should look like in 2009. (Hoyt raises, but quickly dismisses, the question of whether such a section should even exist. And at a moment when other parts of the Times are rapidly shrinking, if not disappearing outright, that seems like a fair topic of discussion. Although it's a good assumption that the "Vows," along with its announcements, brings in a crapload of wedding-industry advertising.) According to Robert Woletz, the editor in charge of the section, "The basic premise is that we’re looking for people who have achievements ... It doesn’t matter what field these achievements are in." Hoyt also cites David Brooks' book "Bobos in Paradise," which included the observation that the entries "had shifted over the years from an emphasis on bloodlines to education and brains." But if there's one thing socially mobile high achievers born into middle- or working-class families share with the bluebloods they have largely (but by no means entirely) replaced, it's prestige and, often, wealth.
Hoyt only mentions the recession briefly, noting that some announcements are starting to include such sentences as, "Until January, Mrs. Steinberg, 27, was an associate selling options contracts to hedge funds at Merrill Lynch." Yet he fails to ask a bigger question about the Times' motivation for printing Keen and Sousa's story. In the midst of one of the greatest recessions our country has ever seen, do we really want to keep reading about rich people's spendy ceremonies? Or does our era of high unemployment and depleted savings call for coverage of regular people who have struggled and strained to build a modest but stable life together?