Ten years ago, when the reality show “Bridezillas” stormed onto cable television—all tulle and tirades and tailored, four-figure gowns—a kind of counter-pop-cultural way of thinking came along with it, centered on knee-jerk disdain. In some feminist circles, it’s taken for granted not only that this billion-dollar complex exists (the average American wedding now costs upwards of $28,000), but that it’s ridiculous. There are Internet memes like the “My Friends Are Married” blog and the “My Friends are Getting Married. I’m Just Getting Drunk” Facebook group. Last year, the popular women’s website Jezebel mounted a vicious attack on the women featured in a New York Times Style section story who plan their weddings before they are engaged.
If you’re actually getting married, and consider yourself something of a feminist, navigating this digital minefield of derision is no easy task. (Is it gauche to Instagram a ring shot? Is the now-standard standby “she said yes” Facebook status less informational than self-aggrandizing?) In 2009, the announcement of prominent feminist author and speaker Jessica Valenti’s nuptials were met with a torrent of caustic commentary from the feminist blogosphere and conservative commentators alike. “There’s pressure to be critical of weddings,” says Jill Filipovic, editor of the popular blog, Feministe. “To maybe say, ‘sure, I’m wearing a white dress, but allow me to explain to you why.”
Jen Doll’s Save the Date: The Occasional Mortifications of a Serial Wedding Guest and Eimear Lynch’s The Bridesmaids: True Tales of Love, Envy, Loyalty ... and Terrible Dresses signal a sort of third- or nth-wave of modern feminist thinking about weddings. These authors understand that this is a business that preys upon our most basic desires to signal specialness, to have a crowd affirm we’ve “made it”—at least in this one important aspect. They grasp that this business is rooted in patriarchal traditions that no longer reflect our modern realities. But both Doll and Lynch also divine meaning, wisdom, and purpose in the weddings they chronicle. Their sensibilities (both debut authors are modern, educated, unmarried New York women) seem to tell us that in spite—or maybe because—of discount wedding dresses and victories for marriage equality, we’re not escaping the wedding-industrial complex anytime soon.
Save the Date—which began as a blog post on The Hairpin (yes, blog posts can become books these days)—justifies its tales of real-life wedding excess with Doll’s sentimental notion that weddings are really about what each guest brings to her assigned table by way of emotional baggage. As her jacket bio states, Jen Doll has attended dozens of weddings “and had pretty much every possible feeling about them.” The wedding where she confronts an old high school debate team rival and seduces him brings feelings of schadenfreude. The series of weddings that unravel an important friendship elicit heartbreak even greater than the wedding that marked the beginning of the end of a romantic relationship. There’s professional pride after she covers a wedding for the Village Voice (among the first gay weddings after gay marriage had been legalized in New York City). There's shame: Doll gets so drunk at one wedding she makes out with a bartender, a guest and a random bargoer, who later posts a Craigslist “Missed Connections” ad which likens her to Amy Winehouse.
The emphasis on the feelings of the modern wedding guest serves as the narrative thread between the 17 weddings chronicled in the book. It is fairly short on any larger commentary; emotional description overwhelms any broad cultural criticism: weighty price tags or feminist guilt aren’t matters Doll addresses head on. And the book skirts the significant economic commitment involved in being a bride or a wedding guest. (Thirty percent of the more than 1,000 brides surveyed by Brides magazine in 2012 had used credit cards to pay for their wedding.) Doll has attended dozens of weddings, yet she mentions the financial squeeze just once: after she’d been laid off from a magazine job and had already booked a trip to attend a destination wedding in Jamaica. Doll, in the end, wants us to have our wedding cake and eat it too: an emphasis on the emotion lets her partake in a charade that now includes Bridezillas and feminist Bridezillas.
But if you read Save the Date as a coming-of-age story rather than social commentary, there’s an underlying sweetness to the book. Doll presents these stories with a “we’ve all been there” wink, but it's hard to believe that Doll’s experience is universal. As a little girl, Doll was enthralled by wedding imagery; she had a quirky love for Pachelbel’s Canon, which she blasted from a tape recorder. That innocent affection for the meaning of matrimony is not drained by her independent, unmarried woman’s point of view. Doll underscores that wedding ceremonies can carry meaningful weight, even when stripped of fairytale affectations. “It is something of a luxury to be able to feel ambivalent about weddings, and yet, it’s hard to feel truly ambivalent about weddings,” she writes. “Both macro and micro, in the fabric of life, weddings are a primary thread—which is yet another reason denying any adult the right to weave that thread into his or her life seems so blatantly cruel, small-minded and wrong.”
Eimear Lynch’s Bridesmaids—a collection of short, true stories based on Lynch’s conversations with bridesmaids of all stripes: an ex-nun, a bridesman, a daughter-of-the-bride, a prison bridesmaid—paints a nuanced portrait of what weddings might mean in a DOMA-free world. A bridesmaid who officiates a wedding between two of her girlfriends concedes that the two women getting married “could have thought outside the box, but they didn’t want to be seen as different. They just wanted to be together.” Here, even more than in Save the Date, is where progressive, feminist posturing falls apart: It’s difficult to criticize those engaging in traditions when they've been denied the right to practice them for so long.
Like Doll, Lynch is something of a modern wedding expert. At age 28, she's been a bridesmaid on five occasions. “At times, I didn't see the point,” she confesses in her introduction. “Why is it okay to make adult women wear matching dresses and shoes, and why do they carry flowers? What exactly are they supposed to be doing anyway?” The answer, she decides after interviewing 80 bridesmaids, is part tradition, part popularity contest. But mostly, she finds that bridesmaiding is an act of genuine support. Even the most jaded bridesmaids think about the tradition “in the context of gender issues and society mores,” Lynch writes. This is the collection’s only clear progressive assurance, and it seems to suggest that the very action of questioning wedding tropes is perhaps the most progress we can hope for.
For both Doll and Lynch, that seems to be progress enough. While they might not ask tough feminist questions, they signal that we might not ever have tough, cerebral answers. No matter where you fall on the feminism spectrum, no matter your religious traditions, the act of witnessing vows requires a certain emotional reverence that can only be healthy in an increasingly disconnected world.
While short on bold cultural analysis, the books offer a few clues about how to reach peaceful reconciliation with the wedding-industrial complex. Doll encourages us to look inward with every invite; Lynch's stories urge us to look at those reinventing the traditions some feminists find troublesome. Of course, some estimates have it that same-sex couples spend more on weddings than heterosexual couples. (Former Mayor Bloomberg has claimed that legalizing same sex marriage generated $259 million in spending in its first year in New York City alone.) Clearly, the wedding industry will keep running no matter how many critical e-mails land in Jessica Valenti’s inbox. Books like Save the Date and Bridesmaids help us embrace that as modern, thinking women. Let’s just hope our progressive questions keep up with that engine, too.
Image via Shutterstock.
Amanda Palleschi is a writer based in Washington, DC, whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, Washingtonian, USA Today and National Journal. Follow her on Twitter @APalleschi.