Here Comes the Bride
By Jaclyn Geller
Four Walls Eight Windows
428 pages, $15
Young Wives' Tales
Edited by Jill Corral and
320 pages, $16.95
Listen: If you're a feminist and you're married, or about to get
married, or if you've ever thought about getting married, or even
if you simply respect the choice to be married, stay away from Here
Comes the Bride: Women, Weddings and the Marriage Mystique.
Self-proclaimed "spinster-for-life" Jaclyn Geller has written a
book that will only piss you off. Here's what Geller, a graduate
student in English, says in the opening of her book: "To achieve
real social equity women ... must dispense with the stories they
tell themselves about wedlock: fairy tales about personal choice,
unique, private love, individualism, and self expression. We must
stop repeating the absurd mantra 'It's okay to be single,' and adopt
the more aggressive stance that 'it's not okay to be married.' "
But eradicating marriage isn't high on any feminist agenda I've
come across, and Geller
is already taking heat for suggesting that it should be. Writing in
Salon, Amy Benfer spent roughly 4,000 words mocking Here
Comes the Bride a few weeks back, arguing that a major gain from
second-wave feminism was the power to choose; shouldn't women be trusted
to make the decision whether to marry for themselves? A characteristically
shallow profile in the New York Observer focused more on the
woman than the work, making much of Geller's makeup- and perfume-wearing
ways, and the fact that she has a cop (who, she tells them, she "fucked"
on the first date) for a boyfriend.
But one needn't tease Geller to slam her overwrought, shrill, annoying
and disappointing book. The tension between feminism and marriage--a
very real thing for feminists, especially those of us third-wavers--should
not be waved off as nothing. Still, a feminist considering marriage
should not be so much worried about betraying the sisterhood, as
Geller would like to have it. If she's worried at all, it should
be over the possibility of betraying herself.
Here's the question: Are marriage and feminism compatible? Geller
says no way. In her opinion, rejecting marriage is the political
act that today's young feminists should be concentrating on; she
hopes with her book to "dissuade many would-be wives from draping
themselves in white and walking down the aisle." (Note: It's no
better if you wear pink, purple or plaid; Geller unleashes her worst
venom on those who attempt to have a "quirky" wedding.) Viewing
marriage as "a political arrangement that merits a political critique,"
Geller promises a political dissection of the institution, one that
will expose marriage as a real conspiracy, cooked up and maintained
to keep women down. Here Comes the Bride falls way short
of that goal.
Instead of bolstering a feminist argument against marriage with
facts, stats or testimony, Geller focuses on how weddings have become
a kind of spectator sport: packed with people, exclusive and expensive.
No doubt she's right, and for a while her disgust for the privileged
union is pretty gripping. But as it stretched over 426 pages, I
felt I was being beaten into submission.
It's a shame, not only because the book gives you one whopper of
a headache, but because there are better critiques about marriage's
past, present and future in this country to be made. For instance,
Geller barely touches on how inextricably marriage is woven into
the fabric of the Constitution and nearly every component of our
government (as historian Nancy Cott does clearly, evenly, and thoroughly
with Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation)--the
shocking truths of which could have won her some converts. Neither
does she give more than a cursory nod to those thinkers--St. Augustine,
Francis Bacon, Mary Astell, William Godwin and Mary Daly--who she
claims "inform her analysis."
Instead she bitterly close-reads bridal magazines, Cosmopolitan
and various wedding planners available at Barnes and Noble; recounts
episodes of Sex and the City and Ally McBeal; and
cites celebrity ceremonies profiled in InStyle. At one point
she goes "undercover" to a huge bridal shop in Brooklyn and pretends
to be a bride in search of a gown. In another episode, she's off
to Bloomingdale's to "fake" register for a china pattern. She claims
that the wedding reception, where "couple fascism" is "nowhere so
powerful," is merely a tool to thrust " 'single' people together
in a minimarriage market"; the honeymoon destination is "a place
where [the couple] can copulate day and night without fear of interruption."
In closing, she scrutinizes films like Betsy's Wedding, which
exalts the wedding as a vehicle for self expression, and American
Beauty--which exposes marriage for what Geller thinks it really
is: a sexually boring union that will turn you into a control-freak
shrew and your husband into a pedophile.
Sound silly? In a lot of ways it's beyond that. For one thing,
marriages and weddings are two separate things--both entail a lot
of work, but one results in a huge party. By critiquing both simultaneously,
Geller loses her focus. We need a political analysis of marriage
from a strong feminist point of view, but we don't need a book that
condescends and spends so much time analyzing wedding propaganda
we'd never take seriously anyway. Geller doesn't seem to realize
that, by focusing on the very propaganda she so hates instead of
talking to real brides, she undermines her own arguments. Sure,
the magazines, TV shows, films and books that Geller spends so much
time combing through do have some sort of unconscious effect on
all of us. But that effect is not the thing that makes so many people
want a lifelong commitment and a big party to kick it off.
I am not defending the white wedding, or the multibillion-dollar
industry attached to it. Or engagement rings, which I find just
as terrifying as Geller does. Or flatware registries, disco DJs,
garter rituals, bachelorette parties or bouquet tossing. Geller
explains that her world would be a society in which "no single model
of relationship would enjoy privileged status," where everyone enjoyed
the same legal protections. Something I think many others--married,
single, straight, gay, bi, whatever--would agree on. But it remains
unclear how calling on feminists to boycott an institution that
some people really do want to join--for intensely personal reasons--would
further this political goal. And, anyway, as Geller herself concedes,
marriage today is hardly what it was when our mothers got hitched.
For proof, take a look at the essays in Young Wives' Tales:
New Adventures in Love and Partnership. "Many young feminists
want the love, support and companionship that come with long-term
commitment, but we don't necessarily want the rigid gender roles,
strict monogamy or 'settling down' that have traditionally defined
it," note editors Jill Corral and Lisa Miya-Jervis in their introduction
to the collection. The contributors have approached the idea of
lifelong monogamy and the institution of marriage with a healthy
dose of skepticism, though many have found ways to adapt the institution
to their needs and desires.
The actual relationship responsibilities the various couples (or,
in one case, a threesome) have worked out are not so shocking or
unconventional by today's standards; splitting up household matters
like cooking, cleaning and childcare are hardly novel ideas. But
these essays are valuable because of their intensely personal nature;
each one is a well-rendered, at times moving, confession. These
women describe how they've balanced serious long-distance relationships
with serious career moves (and, obviously, writing); designed wedding
ceremonies that incorporate religious traditions with funk; decided
to make commitments after adulthoods of bisexuality; or let another
person into their lives after a long spell of singlehood. The tensions
described are fresh. Indeed, unlike the relationship-advice garbage
that Geller spends so much time acidly respewing, these essays address
real problems and questions that a lot of people--men and women,
gay and lesbian, feminist and not--have concerning commitment.
Marriage was historically first and foremost a contract--hardly
the expression of emotional commitment and love that it is supposed
to represent today. More often than not, it was an agreement between
a man and a woman's family that stripped the bride of rights, locked
her into a relationship from which there is no escape, deprived
her of property and wealth and generally stifled her development.
But it isn't anymore. And wedding ceremonies--especially those involving
feminists--are not always the white spectacles that Geller would
have you believe them to be.
Still, what is undeniable is that marriage, as an institution used
to promote heterosexual relationships between men and women, is
unfair to all those who don't fall under its purview, who are ineligible
for its legal benefits. But is calling on feminists to boycott marriage
the most efficient way to change this? Geller doesn't convince me.
And if anything, the essays in Young Wives' Tales assure
me that it's not. Don't we want a world with more choices? That
has to be better than one with less.
Hillary Frey is assistant literary editor of The