Have you ever noticed that we speak about marriage as if it is something that is inherent to our nature as humans, and as if there is only one specific way to devote your life to someone? Because, a relationship isn’t “real” without a legal document, right? But the thing is, a wedding is obviously so much more than two signatures– I would argue that it’s a performance – one of the biggest performances of your life.
Ever since I was young, I’ve dreamed about my wedding day; the billowing ivory dress, the tears in my dad’s eyes when he walks me down the aisle to the steady hum of the designated Wedding Song, the perfect man waiting at the altar, anxious to make me his forever. I’ve watched television shows like Say Yes to the Dress and movies like Bridesmaids, I’ve shed tears at wedding video montages on Facebook and I’ve already picked out my maid of honor. I have expectations, specific expectations, that come along with marriage and what it’s supposed to be like, and these collective expectations permeate even the way we, as a society, talk about it. “Bride,” “groom,” “engagement,” “bachelor,” “best man,” “bridesmaid,” “fiancée,” “honeymoon,” “proposal,” “vows”; these words all elicit certain images and assumptions about marriage that we make unconsciously, such as the notion that a legitimate marriage is between a man or a woman, or that it’s the groom’s duty to ask the bride to marry him.
One specific moment that stands out in my memory as significant in rebelling against these preconceptions about marriage occurred in the very same way that the preconceptions are often reiterated – through language. In one of my psychology classes last year, my professor was describing her perspective on marriage as an institution by describing her own marriage. She initially clarified for us that she prefers to refer to her marriage as a “partnership” because it is an egalitarian relationship. She fulfilled many of my own personal expectations of a marriage; she recounted her wedding day as one of the best days in her life, and remembered her own anxieties and excitement as she walked down the aisle of her family church towards her other half. However, she didn’t describe it the way I normally would – her father didn’t “give her away” to her husband; in fact, her father didn’t even walk her down the aisle. She walked by herself. She didn’t receive a fat diamond ring on her designated ring finger, she slipped on a gold wedding band, identical to her husband’s. She didn’t wear a glamorous, white wedding gown with a matching veil, she wore a simple cocktail dress because she wanted something she could wear again. She didn’t take her husband’s last name because she liked her name.
My professor talked about her own wedding experience casually, but it was so nontraditional that we, as students, were confused and intrigued. Hands shot up with questions like, “How are you a family with two last names?” and, “Was your husband upset?” We felt as though it wasn’t real; she didn’t go through the motions, the motions by which we were all so enchanted. It appeared she just didn’t get the concept of what marriage was; which, of course, is exactly how she meant to make us feel.
After casually entertaining our questions for a while, she explained what our reactions meant. Our confusion and slight disappointment for her description of marriage hinted at our patriarchal ideas of the institution itself. Many of the traditions that she chose to forego, such as the “giving away” of the bride by the bride’s father, are sexist in nature and place the men in power. She chose to carry out her wedding and her marriage in a more feminist way, even if that meant sacrificing the approval of society or the label of a “normal” wedding. She forced us to realize our own terministic screens, or perspectives, and that sometimes these perspectives are rooted in charged values of which we may not even be aware. She used herself as an example to show us that often, the way we talk about societal institutions contributes to their penetrance into society itself.
I would absolutely consider myself to be a feminist, and I had never even considered how sexist most marriage rituals are, nor how the language that is used to describe marriage is so connected to patriarchal and heteronormative ideals. Because of my own terministic screen, I kept my own feminist views separate from my image of marriage to preserve its fairytale appeal; I wanted to feel like a princess on my wedding day, even if it meant objectifying myself and sacrificing my own independence. But the fact is, our idea of what a marriage is supposed to be like isn’t inclusive at all; we speak as though real marriages only exist between certain types of people, and that the ceremony is a process by which the groom receives his bride from her family and marks his territory by planting a diamond ring on her left hand.
The “perfect wedding” happens at a specific moment in the bride and groom’s lives; they’re supposed to be twentysomething, attractive, college-educated, and financially stable. It’s supposed to be their first and last marriage ceremony, the bride cannot be pregnant, the couple must be heterosexual, the event is to be large and in a church, and the bride and groom should be of the same racial, religious, and political background. There’s a reason why wedding planners exist, and that the term “bridezilla” is as mainstream as it is; weddings are incredibly stressful and almost chaotic due to our colossal expectation of The Best Day of Your Life. These monumental moments start with the proposal, and continue with engagement parties, bachelor/bachelorette parties, wedding rehearsals, photoshoots, and even after the ceremony in the form of honeymoons, anniversaries, and the eventual expectation of a hasty pregnancy.
My professor knew that many of us probably had preconceived ideas about what “perfect” weddings and marriages were like, and how we wanted our own marriages to be in the future. By knowing her audience, she allowed us to prove her point for her through our questions. She waited until we were thoroughly confused before explaining her point, and gave us a chance to accept her description before we ultimately questioned it. Her decorum was purposely meant to disenchant us and evoke a sort of disapproval from us, since the societal script of marriage was so engrained in our minds. She didn’t simply tell us that our visions of marriage and weddings were wrong or sexist, but rather she led by example.
Although I was originally taken aback and disappointed by my professor’s seemingly anticlimactic wedding day, she truly changed the way that I view and speak about weddings and marriage in general. Weddings are a ritualistic practice, but that doesn’t mean that those rituals can’t be changed to fit the people who are acting them out; and straying from tradition doesn’t make them any less special or beautiful. I still dream about my perfect wedding day, but I dream less about what I’ll look like and more about what I’ll feel like; I want to feel beautiful on my wedding day, and I want to be surrounded by those who love and support me. I don’t expect the perfect day or the perfect man, I expect happiness, no matter where or how I find it. I no longer want to feel like a princess, I want to feel like myself, like I would on a Sunday morning. I refuse to let my wedding ceremony be a performance for others, and I refuse to allow myself to simply be somebody’s wife. I learned, that one random day in my psychology class, that sometimes childhood dreams need to be shattered to realize what you want, and that what I really want isn’t a consummation of love, but rather a celebration of it; a celebration of me.
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