The Marriage Myth: An Introduction

Twenty-five is the cusp of wedded bliss for many, but for me, twenty-five has been defined as the year that my vacation days succumb to friends’ marriage nuptials. Summer, otherwise known as wedding season, is well underway. Another wedding to attend means another wedding website, perfectly organized with the couple’s bridesmaids, groomsmen, details of the wedding, and of course, their love story. With each passing ceremony, I find myself increasingly bored over cliché love poems, quotes, and readings. At first, I asked myself some tough questions: “Am I being too harsh?  Am I too judgmental of wedding ceremonies? Am I anti-romance? Anti-marriage?”

Upon further reflection, I realized that I think much more critically than most about marriage and its related rituals simply because of my background in gender and sexuality studies. My opinions and feelings about marriage are rooted in historical critiques of societal expectations and traditions associated with heteronormative, defined coupling--things that seem so obvious when they're brought to our attention, but are far from thought when we're wrapped up in our day-to-day lives.

When I first began my research, I considered engagement rings, proposals, and ceremonies to be 'traditions,' however, after familiarizing myself with the literature, it is clear that these are referred to as 'rituals' throughout academia. Although closely related, a ritual is defined as "a religious or solemn ceremony consisting of actions performed to a prescribed order" while a tradition is defined as "the transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation, or the fact of being passed on in this way." In consideration of these definitions, I believe that weddings do serve as an intersection for rituals and tradition, but the actions classified as 'traditions' by most (i.e. the ring, the proposal, the engagement party, etc.) are a part of the ritualistic performance of marriage. The groom-to-be "pops the question," even though he likely knows the answer. The bride-to-be happily flaunts her engagement ring to friends and family as proof of the couple's deeper commitment to one another.

Gender is not something that one is, it is something one does, an act... a “doing” rather than a “being”....Our notions of what a human being is problematically depend on there being two coherent genders. And if someone doesn’t comply with either the masculine norm or the feminine norm, their very humaness is called into question.
— Judith Butler

We live in a world of defined roles, typically thought of in absolutes of masculine and feminine, male and female, husband and wife, and so forth.  The performance of wedding rituals requires associated gender roles, and these roles reflect a reproduction of, typically white, heteronormativity (Fetner & Heath, 2016). Although room is being made for same-sex couples, there is still a long battle for a more gender-inclusive society. Some same-sex couples feel liberated to legally participate in a performance that was once reserved for heterosexual partners, while others feel no obligation to sanctify their commitment through reproducing the heteronormative institution of marriage (Fetner & Heath, 2016).

Through my preliminary research, it became clear that definitions of what 'traditional' translates to in the wedding world are non-exclusive. From the ring, to the procession, vows, and even the location, there may be new takes on these rituals, but research indicates that these elements, no matter how manipulated, are still included in the marital performance. Although some brides mentioned a desire to stray from the norm, most concede to their family and friends' desires in order to maintain what I label as 'the happiness status quo.' Other women admit to not giving traditions and rituals much thought simply because they felt these rituals were things that they were 'supposed to do.'

Each holiday season, you make your great-grandmother's famous chocolate chip cookie recipe, but it isn't as meaningful without the memory or familial history that is attached to it. Tradition is often cited as the primary reasoning for participation in marital rituals, but what about tradition? What good is the preservation of rituals if we cannot trace them, or understand their complex histories and origins? I think it is perfectly acceptable to want your partner to propose, to have an engagement ring, and to plan the wedding of your dreams. I also believe that there should be a deeper understanding as to where the traditions arose from besides simply stating, "it's tradition." It is so easy to get wrapped up in the conventional simply because we believe that we "should," rather than reflecting upon how tradition and rituals fit into our interpretation and definition of deeper commitment.

Fetner, T. & Heath, M. (2016). Do same-sex and straight weddings aspire to the fairytale? Women's conformity and resistance to traditional weddings. Sociological Perspectives, 59(4), 721-741.
Schweingruber, D., Anahita, S., & Berns, N. (2004). "Popping the question" when the answer is known: the engagement proposal as performance. Sociological Focus, 37(2), 143-161.

The Painted Bride by Isaiah Zagar, Philadelphia, PA --  Read about its past, present, and future

The Painted Bride by Isaiah Zagar, Philadelphia, PA -- Read about its past, present, and future