This summer I was invited to five weddings. I went to three, and of those was in the wedding party for one. Don’t get me wrong, they were lovely, but at 26, it seems I’m in the wedding prime, although I myself find the prospect a little terrifying. And the only thing that terrifies me almost as much as marriage is the prospect of the wedding itself. Weddings seem like forces of nature with lives of their own, and I resent the fact the fact that the expectations of others end could end up costing you a fortune, all in the name of keeping up appearances.
For though weddings are supposed to be about love and lifetime commitment, they are also a show, an elaborate display of who we want to be. It is a day to have the advantages of a celebrity — you look perfect, you act graciously, there are lavish gifts, and everyone is there to see you. We want the way we marry to be a reflection of the way we are as individuals, yet in her book One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding, Rebecca Mead illustrates that weddings are not so much a meaningful reflection of individuals, but of society as a whole.
Her principal argument is that marriage is no longer a major transition: partners are older than they used to be, they’ve lived independently or together, they’ve often had sex, sometimes they’ve even been married before. Consequently, in order to preserve the momentousness of the occasion, we throw a lavish party, enacting “traditions,” though many were in fact recent products of consumer culture (Take the supposedly sacred diamond engagement ring, which didn’t even appear on the scene until the late nineteenth century with the availibility of cheap South African diamonds, but insinuated itself into the American consciousness with the 1937 DeBoers’ ad slogan “A diamond is forever.”)
The wedding day must becomes the focal point because the marriage, solemn vows aside, is life as usual. And so, if the wedding is the main event, and supposedly a reflection of who we are, we want the wedding to be perfect. Mead points out that this is more than just vanity, there is a more sinister side; the bride often starts to believe that a perfect wedding will yield a perfect marriage. The wedding (and the time leading up to it) is a “quest for self-perfection” (often accomplished through the accumulation of a literal hope chest of over priced bridal goods and services) and that supposedly inward transformation can lead the couple to anticipate a fantasy life. Take for example, the bridal registry, often filled with ridiculous whims of a scanner-drunk couple, who find items such as a $250 gravy boat new life essentials (an example I’ve borrowed from an unmarried friend’s experiences on the wedding circut this summer). But it’s not just simple greed, Mead points out:
“The element of absurdity that accompanies the extensvie shopping list that is a bridal registry–the suggestion that a bride and groom who have never before had use for a waffle iron or for a pair of asparagus tongs will suddenly discover they now do–does not imply mere acquisitiveness; it is an expression of the profound hope that married life will, in some way, amount to a different kind of domestic engagement.”
This concept carries through throught the book, appearing again in the chapter on wedding photography and videography. Here, Mead explores an industry which has thrived by transforming memories (personal constructions of the imaginative mind) into something external, something, that if you do not buy photos or videos, can be lost. But further, by making them externally created, airbrushed, well-lit, and selectively cut productions, the new couple can not only justify our outrageous expenditures, but also provide a “confirmation of the reality they were making a significant transitin into new status as husband and wife,” and even more scarily, these photographic records allow them to play “the role of bride and groom not to convince the wider public of the validity of their newly acquired social status, but to convince themselves.”
There are too many passages I’d love to quote, but suffice to say Mead is critical but restrained and often sympathetic, and her expeditions into the darkest corners of the white industry are laced with plenty of humour. In addition to photography and registries, she tackles the white dress, wedding planners, destination weddings, pseudo-religious ceremonies, the traditionalesque and more.
Mead chose to conclude her book with a discussion of gay marriage rights, which at first I thought seemed like an oddly placed afterthought for such an important issue, but it turned out to be the perfect conclusion. For here, Mead shifts the focus away from weddings and back to marriage itself, the thing that is supposed to be the reason for the celebration, but gets lost long before the colour schemes are decided. She argues that marriage itself is something we take for granted, and perhaps, if heterosexuals had to fight harder just to marry, to consider why this official union was so important, they would see how it would actually change their lives, beyond exquisite dinner parties complete with asparagus tongs.
Thanks to B.Kienapple at A Certain Bent Appeal for bringing this excellent book to my attention with her review.
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