home Commentary, Family, Feminism, Society, Women A “feminist wedding” is an oxymoron

A “feminist wedding” is an oxymoron

Summer is the most popular time for weddings. Driving by a church on a Saturday afternoon will most often mean watching a bride and groom pose for pictures while families smile with what is in some cases constructed glee. Though many mainstream feminists claim to have thrown off the mantle of princess, when the white dress and alter call it all comes rushing back in a wave of bad bridesmaid dresses and tacky dances at the reception. How many have done the Macarena at a reception, forcing a smile, while desperately counting how many more of these “celebratory” events were left on the calendar for the year?

No matter what conventions we change, a wedding will always be a wedding, even though reclamation is very popular in progressive circles. Many have also worked hard to reclaim words like “b*tch” and “slut,” but show me one woman that is happy to be called either name and I’ll show you a woman so drunk on patriarchal values that a polyester turtleneck in the middle of July seems like a good idea.

Can we just be honest between us girls? No matter how committed we are to feminist ideals, each day in small ways we collude with patriarchy to maintain male hegemony.

We could burn every single bra we own, throw all of our makeup out, grow hair on our bodies until we can braid it, and purchase stock in Birkenstocks, but by choosing to live in society we cannot avoid acting in ways which support the subordination of women. To lead a totally feminist existence, we would have to move to some deserted island and lead a subsistence-geared life, solely in the company of our fellow eschewers of the great phallus. Since I cannot think of any modern tribes of Amazons, it is safe to assume that despite our best intentions as womanists/feminists, we daily collude with patriarchy.

Reading the writings of progressive women it is clear that we watch movies like “40-Year Old Virgin” and television shows like “Big Love” even though we know that they contain an anti-woman message. In our less guarded moments, we might even admit to laughing when we know damn well we should be shaking our fists with rage. Some of us will even secretly say “but I’m a girl” to avoid doing something gross like taking out the garbage or rescuing a mouse that our cat caught, yet when it comes to admitting that participating in a ceremony that has its foundation in treating women like property, the blinders come out faster than you can say something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.

It begins with a moment of apologizing for not waiting until all could legally marry, but hey, it is possible to use this archaic patriarchal ceremony to advance same sex marriage. Just use rainbow flag napkins or some cool fauxgressive symbol and your lack of solidarity will hopefully be forgotten. Make sure you use your wedding as an opportunity for activism and awareness, even as you participate in a ceremony that legitimizes heterosexuality and male headship. Don’t worry about wearing that glass slipper instead of Birkenstocks on your big day, perhaps if you forgo shaving your legs you can still display some sort of coded resistance. Remember, the personal is political and the more you can convince others that this is your great stand for justice, the less silly you will look when you fall into stereotypical gender roles.

Somehow, your man above all others managed to avoid internalizing patriarchal values, so the cursory interest he is displaying in wedding invitations and seating charts, is because he is more concerned with ensuring that his attendants (notice I didn’t say groomsmen), are busy planning a feminist-geared bachelor party for him. Not to worry, you’ll get all the fancy underwear and pots and pans you will need at the other traditionally feminist event – your bridal shower.

If your father gets upset about being asked to forgo the tradition of “giving away” the bride, just ask your mother to join you on your jaunt down the aisle. Now you will have two people confirming that you are property that can be given away. When you order your closest friends into hideous dresses that they will never wear again, be sure to refer to them as attendants and not bridesmaids, we would not want to give credence to the idea that all women are secretly waiting their turn to be princess for a day.

Perhaps, you’ll be really radical and decide to keep your own name, and we’ll all just ignore the symbol of ownership, or should I say wedding band, that goes along with this little ceremony. You can be a Mrs or a Ms, though isn’t that having your cake and eating it too?

That’s feminism for you: the freedom to participate in what is not necessarily a feminist act, while talking yourself into believing that somehow you as an individual are being disruptive of social norms.

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Renee Martin

Renee Martin lives in Canada and writes the famous Womanist Musings blog. She is as interested in socio-political issues as she is in television.

23 thoughts on “A “feminist wedding” is an oxymoron

  1. KAC,

    But the point is that there are no princesses without patriarchy. You can’t reject patriarchy while holding onto patriarchal worldviews and values and roles and institutions. That’s called inauthenticity, aka “lying to yourself.”

  2. KAC, sure, you don’t have to think of it in the context of a prince. But “princess” is still a socially constructed role that derives its meaning from the social context it emerged from. And without patriarchy there wouldn’t be princesses. Patriarchal values and beliefs are inherent in the very concept of “princess.” So you can’t take the role of princess out of a patriarchal context – it’s nonsensical without that background. “Princess” comes with patriarchal baggage, and if you’re looking to reject the baggage, then you have to relinquish the princess idealogy. Embracing two contradictory things is irrational. You’re either feminist and egalitarian, or you embrace the patriarchal worldview and values involved in princess culture. But you can’t do both.

  3. I disagree that a feminist wedding, and more importantly, a feminist marriage has to be a contradiction. I won’t go in to detail, but suffice it to say that while the situation you describe seems common, it is so foreign to my own loving and inclusive marriage, where my spouse was and is completely all in.

    I recognize that class privilege and straight privilege allowed me to have the wedding I did (although I must note that gay marriage was legal in the state I married in, at the time I married). The decision to get married was intensely personal, as is your decision not to get married.

  4. I must agree with Sarah, while I am committed to ideals of womanism wholeheartedly, I dream constantly about the day when I can put on my white dress (and buck the norms by doing so) and have a day all about me 🙂 You can change and alter your wedding so that any signs of patriarchy are gone or diminished, but for those of us who just want to be a princess for a day, let’s not piss on our parade.

  5. The thing I think about when reading this is, do you think this applies to gay marriages too? Because there are places in the world and the US where it is legal, and those, whilst they may be indicating that each then owns the other, don’t seem to me to have anything near as much as the patriarchal baggage that heterosexual marriage does. I don’t expect my (lesbian) marriage to do so, when it finally comes around.

  6. I’m not sure what to make of this. As a feminist, my immediate inclination is to say, “Right on.” But another side of me says that you’re looking at the whole idea of weddings kind of unimaginatively. You suggest having someone’s mother and father walk them down the aisle? Why have anyone walk you down the aisle? Why have an aisle? When I got married, my husband and I walked together up the non-existent aisle to the minister (who was female, I might add). My thinking was that we’re both adults, entering this partnership together, why not walk into it together? Who says you need attendants? You don’t. I don’t believe in engagement rings because they do feel like a way of the male marking his territory. But yes, I do wear a wedding band. So does my husband. It’s a reminder of our shared commitment to one another. And honestly, in a long term relationship, there are periods when you have to recommit yourself every day. That’s part of being human. I commend your integrity and commitment to principle, but I fear that your stridency is stifling your imagination.

  7. Says who Rachel? That’s my point, you can make a wedding out to be what you want it to be, more or less patriarchal or not. I believe being a “princess,” or anything for that matter, is what I make it out to be. If I don’t want to think of it in the context of a prince, or any other male figure, I can.

  8. I think I understand your point but a key factor that’s missing from your analysis is that people do not have to conform to what society or religion says a wedding must look like. If a couple wants an equal partnership, and decides to get married, then any wedding celebration or ceremony (and these are totally optional, by the way) should reflect that choice. It’s up to the couple to recognize and reject not only the sexist traditions but anything else that does not reflect their own principles and beliefs. Of course, this takes backbone.

    It’s true that most people who get married do conform to the expectations of a traditional wedding. But it’s not impossible to get married while avoiding all the princess and patriarcy stuff. There is NOTHING on the marriage certificate that says what you have to wear, what you have to say, what you have to eat or what kind of party you have to throw. A couple can go to a justice of the peace and that’s it. No fluffy white dress required! 🙂

    Many couples (and that includes gay couples in the countries/states that allow it) choose to get married for all the legal protections that a marriage certificate provides without having to pay for a lawyer. I’ve always been rather pragmatic about this issue. I know that marriage by itself does nothing to enhance or detract from the commitment that my partner and I have made to each other. But all the legal issues made it worth it to get married.

    I’m not pro-marriage by any means. It’s up to each person. But I do hope that couples who live together without marriage (whether as a protest or for any other reason) have seen a lawyer to make sure all the legal issues have been covered! (e.g., wills, custody of children, and so on)

  9. In certain areas of the country and the world, women are doubly oppressed if we do not marry; this was also true 21 yrs ago in the south, when I did. If poor, you could expect to end up with nothing if a man dumped you and you had no legal connection to him… in fact, I still believe that if you are poor and a mother, marriage protects you and gives you economic and property rights. This is the major reason I want gay marriage, for the rights that are conferred: adoption, insurance, power of attorney in life-or-death matters, etc.

  10. OK, I wrote my previous comment before I had any coffee, and re-reading it, it’s a lot blunter than I thought it would be!

    I totally respect Renee’s commentary, and I see where she’s coming from, but I wanted to make the point that just because she’s never witnessed a feminist ceremony or a legal feminist marriage doesn’t mean one can’t exist.

    I also wanted to clearly separate the idea of a wedding from a marriage. When I said that getting married was a private decision, I meant the legal rigamarole that goes along with getting the certificate, and the attendant benefits. Anyone can have a wedding, and indeed I think commitment ceremonies of all kinds are beautiful, no matter the cultural background. The commitment ceremony that’s most traditional to the US is definitely steeped in patriarchy, male privilege, and class privilege – that’s why my spouse and I didn’t participate in the traditional ceremony.

    I did make one concession to my in-laws, in that I wore an ivory dress, and if I get hitched again I’ll dye it green. So in the end I guess Renee is right. I grew up in this kyriarchal culture and therefore some or all of my decisions will be informed by oppression; whether I wear a white dress for one day or I keep my mouth shut when someone on the subway grabs my ass.

  11. Renee, I’m disappointed. Maybe its just the way I was reading this but I saw a complete lack of intersectionality. I saw this as a (well-deserved) reprimand to class-privileged, cisgender white women. Firstly, you shouldn’t give them more attention they already think it’s all about them. Next, as a WOC (black woman) me walking down the aisle in an ivory ball gown representing a princess, is bucking the norms since from birth till death WOC are told we aren’t princesses.
    Additionally, many of the things you wrote about, the “attendants”, the bridal shower, etc., have equal value to me in my personal revolution. WOC are conditioned to give themselves away, sacrifice for their families, so to have an event that is all about your desires and wishes is liberating in its own way.
    However, I can fully see you weren’t speaking to me so I concur. You really told those self satisfied pseudo-fems that think feminism means their equality with white men! You rock my socks, Renee.

  12. Wait a second, having a wedding is colluding with the patriarchy but wearing a burka is not? How can you support one and not the other so easily?

  13. Renee, I can see your point- marriage, as an institution, is rooted in social inequality. It is ridiculous, if you are planning to get married, to ignore the history of the institution- even today, far too often, marriage is used as a way to control women and their sexuality. It can’t be ignored.

    The other thing that can’t be ignored, however, is that both women and men deserve to be able to celebrate their love and commitment to each other in a ceremony, if they so wish. I think ritual is hugely important to human beings- marks of progress that document significant changes in our lives. It was certainly important to me and my partner, and that’s why we decided to get married- in order to celebrate our love with those who were important to us, to make promises of fidelity and commitment in front of the whole world, without fear or shame.

    There’s not a structure we’ve got in society other than the wedding to do that. I think weddings can be reclaimed, but it takes a lot of work, and I think that if one is inclined to monogamy it’s certainly work worth doing. Pretending that weddings do not have hideously patriarchal roots is naive, but I believe everyone should have the right to a ceremony to celebrate their love.

  14. While there are problems with marriage as an institution that is rooted in patriarchal principles, most of your objections to weddings seem to be in the changeable stuff in the tradition.
    It’s still a wedding if you forgo the floof, the dress and jewelry and all that princess girly stuff. It’s still a wedding if you forgo attendants and gifts, dancing, the name changing and parental hand off. It’s still a wedding if you forgo the groom.
    Sure, it’s a problem when someone does all the standard wedding stuff and proclaims “I am a feminist so it is a feminist wedding!” But just because the typical wedding isn’t feminist doesn’t mean that no wedding can be feminist.
    It seems hypocritical to fight for my right to marriage (I’m forgoing a groom) while levying such harsh judgment against people trying to keep their weddings consistent with their beliefs. Because, really, what are they meant to do? I can’t think of a more thoughtful approach to a wedding than making an earnest effort to have it be feminist.

  15. Maybe, I’m a part time feminist…no scratch that, I am a part-time feminist. I come to work only on the weekends and sometimes, I show up late. And today, I’m late. That being said, I don’t understand this post. Like really. Are you poking fun of “traditional” weddings because you detest them, or are you criticizing women who choose to get married?

    I personally belive that weddings, marriage, and whatever else is like everything else in life…it’s what you make it. And you have a RIGHT to make it anything you want to. Why? B/c it’s your life. And I’m sorry, but, if women want to participate in the types of ceremonies you described and be placed in traditional patriarchy roles…then, they have that right. By criticizing their decisions as a staunch feminist and telling them to protest marriage…are you not doing the very thing you are protesting which is forcing women into a particular role? (Unmarried feminist)

    A wedding is an event, that’s it. No more, no less. That’s why there are traditions, rules, etc. You can change the event in any way, shape, or form. That includes the dress, the ceremony itself, and subsequent reception. So, instead of criticizing “traditional” weddings, why not come up with a new wedding ceremony that “doesn’t degrade women”?

  16. I agree TOTALLY. Weddings are rooted in patriarchy and its deluded to think that forgoing some “traditional” things qualifies it as a feminist wedding. However celebrating any relationship IMO is not a degradation of women or their rights but tradtional weddings is I am sorry

  17. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Renee, I’ve been wavering on the marriage thing (we just got the news that my health benefits are taxable income since we’re not married – it’s hitting our budget hard.)

    But the whole thing stinks. It’s not just the ceremony, it’s the actual *marriage* that is antifeminist. Legal marriage isn’t religious, it isn’t open to individual interpretation – it’s a business proposition, that brings many privileges, with terms set by the state, not open to everyone, that has been reformed but not completely changed from the days when married women were basically chattel. No changes to the ceremony change the actual legal contract.

  18. This is the greatest post about marriage that I have ever read. For all the reasons you listed and more I will never, ever participate in another wedding again. Not only will I not get married myself, I actively discourage other people from doing it and I give the old “marriage is a tool of the patriarchy” speech while politely returning the wedding invitation. Thanks for your insight.

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  21. Marriage is a legal contract between a man and a woman that binds them together. How is it unfeminist to marry, then? Feminism doesn’t support not having relationships with me. Some of traditional marriage trappings can be patriarchal in nature, but it is a choice whether one uses them or not. Having that choice is what makes it a feminist act. Not having a choice wouldn’t.

  22. “Marriage is a legal contract between a man and a woman that binds them together”

    Which is where the problem lies.

    By its very nature, marriage is a discriminatory institution. Rights and benefits are granted to people who fit themselves into the romantic, heterosexual, coupled mold.

    In short: the government approves and hoists up one type of relationship over others.

    I’ve been with my partner (het partnership) for over 7 years. We don’t have any legal protections. It would cost us a pretty penny to get all the legal documents drawn up to ensure that we had legal power of attorney, medical authority, etc., for one another. And, in the event of personal disaster, that could still be challenged and defeated by someone with blood ties to us.

    But if we got married? That one little piece of paper would guarantee us those previously mentioned rights and more. And challenges would be, pretty much, nonexistent.

    You don’t see a problem with this?

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