In the many years before our engagement, a friend of ours used to joke that my (now) fiancé and I should be the pilot participants in a new twist on wedding-related reality TV, a show of his own devising ingeniously entitled, ‘Don’t Tell the Groom’. The premise of the show would be roughly the same as BBC Three’s ‘Don’t Tell the Bride’, the premise of which is that a couple are given twelve grand for a wedding on the proviso that the groom plans everything in secret. If you haven’t seen it, you must: it’s a glorious exercise in emotional manipulation that makes for some real car-crash viewing complete with guaranteed saccharine happy ending. It also, in many ways, encapsulates everything that is wrong with and so dreadfully sexist about societal attitudes to marriage.
“Don’t Tell the Groom” would operate in almost exactly the same way, except that it’s the bride who has three weeks to plan the wedding on someone else’s cash. She sets everything up and then somehow tricks the man into turning up on the day, presumably in tails (this, to me, even as an enterprising young woman, seems a stretch) and surprise-marries him. Cue confetti, pop corks, dance down the aisle into a lifetime of marital bliss and sexual torpor.
To deconstruct: the joke seems to be that, as a woman, my desperation to wear the big white dress (signifying my apparent* virginity to everyone we know) far outstrips the value I would place on other potentially important things like, y’know, my then boyfriend, now fiancé, actually wanting to get married to me or conceiving of our future married life as an equal partnership entered into with willing, built on trust.
The, apparently, comic trope here is an all too common one: attractive young woman, desperate to find a man who will “make an honest woman of her” (because that’s not horrifyingly sex-negative and offensive language belying a deeply ingrained double standard in our cultural approach both to marriage and female sexuality or anything). Attractive young man, rakishly resistant until his hand is forced into charming capitulation by the apparent perfection of that same poor young woman (because that’s not indicative of a broader social pressure on young women to aspire to unattainable ideals of femininity and directly connecting that to their future happiness in a way that can only be horribly damaging or anything). Cue dramatic chase to the airport, confetti, popping corks, dancing, bliss, etc. It’s basically the plot of most rom-coms from the nineties (do not overthink this too much: it will ruin many, many films for you including Pretty Woman).
Such a stereotype is both bizarre and bizarrely pervasive. It is, these days, entirely anachronistic considering the nature of most relationships and marriages. It’s not uncommon for a couple to live together for a period before getting married. It also, rather uncomfortably, ignores the possibility that the right reverend may pronounce you, “Man and Man” or “Wife and Wife” (hooray Ireland! Hooray!). Quite apart from this frankly appalling and in many ways really rather sinister point, this stereotype, so deeply ingrained, denies myriad possibilities for heterosexual couples: what if, heaven forefend, the chap is the party who would quite like to “tie it down”? What if the young lady would like to be able to propose without being characterised as some pathetic damsel in distress? What if the desire to get married is equally shared and rooted in multiple complex, potentially painful, experiences that that couple have shared?
I have to admit that the first thing I said after my very own rake proposed was: “And it’s because you want to, not because I’ve nagged you for the last seven years?” Now, I am well aware that I do here appear to have slipped into the socially comforting and expected role of desperate young woman, conflicted as I beg to get married, “I’m a feminist! I love you! All I really want is for you, you big strong man, to take me in hand and make all that illicit sex we’ve been having justified!” The truth of the matter was, very sadly, more along the lines of, “I’m a feminist! I love you! You love me! We both know this is a done deal and I really want my seriously, seriously unwell Mum to be there when we stand up and say that in front of everyone!”
Now all us rational, progressive twenty-first century folks recognise traditions around marriage as unfortunate relics of a bygone golden age of chauvinism and chattle, or at least we do in our sensible twenty-first century brains. Many of us know that marriage used to be a business transaction and are happy to overlook the last vestiges of this that linger in the pomp and ceremony, mainly because they make quite nice traditions. I know my dad loves me and certainly does not view me as a commercial asset that could help him secure that small part of the Kentish countryside he’s had his eye on for a while, so where’s the harm? Although I do feel bound to point out that, were my mum still with us, it would definitely be both my parents walking me up the aisle. Equally, many women know their entire identity is not going to be subsumed and moulded by their husband and so will happily take their husband’s name as a symbol of the union they have both committed to, though I am going to be taking on the most ridiculous of double barrels (if we’re going to inflict Cocksworth-anything on children then the least we can do is share it with them).
The sexism embedded in the wedding industry is, of course, well-documented: brides-to-be everywhere are reduced to their marital status and expected to spend 18 months preening and primping themselves in order to achieve pinnacle perfection. For it is to be their PERFECT day. Not a pimple in sight (nothing does skin good like stress); thinner than you’ve ever been (nothing looks better than an ill-fitting wedding dress) and beaming at every PERFECT detail that you, the PERFECT bride, have put in place, in order to become the PERFECT wife. It’s like you get engaged and you suddenly find yourself trapped in the 1950s.
There is a male flipside to this. A very lovely, and recently engaged, male colleague of mine (who identifies as a feminist) described the sensation as akin to the boulder scene in Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark, both inexorable and inexplicable. The expectations of perfection placed on a bride-to-be are matched by equally bewildering expectations of masculinity on behalf of the groom. The soon-to-be-married version of masculinity is machismo in the extreme, responding to marriage as a bind, wife as “ball and chain” and really seeing the whole thing as an inevitable end to his glory days and freedom. In effect, this is the marital version of that other well-documented social double standard requiring women to be virginal and selective in their sexual partners and men to have as much sex as they can with as many women as possible. It’s the slut v. player paradigm, if you will.
It’s these sexist, outdated attitudes that lead blokes you otherwise love and respect to hang out in strip clubs for a night objectifying the bodies of women they don’t know in ways they would never normally as a way of celebrating their impending union to a woman they do know. A woman whose naked body they would most likely not enjoy male strangers ogling for their pleasure.
The only (and last) stag do I’ve ever been on ended, totally unexpectedly, in this way and I was, quite vocally, horrified (and quickly escorted to a cab). I can, with unapologetic smugness, say that my own fiancé’s stag do was quaintly wholesome involving eight men and two boats on a trip up the Thames, though, as I expressed at the time, if they had managed to get a stripper onto an eyot (small island in the river where they were camping) I would be so impressed by their initiative that I wouldn’t really mind.
Sexist social attitudes to marriage are so deeply ingrained that they come out of the mouths of very sane, apparently progressive people. Of course the institution of marriage has been a fundamentally patriarchal one: the white dress to signify “the rich worth of [one’s] virginity”, father handing over his daughter/chattle to another man, the version of the ceremony that requires the bride to “honour and OBEY”, all the ladies sitting looking pretty while the menfolk pay tribute to them and make jokes at one another’s expense, and don’t even get me started on the over-the-face veil. And, yes these elements of a wedding can be tricky to navigate, but surely the point is that they don’t have to be anymore?
Marriage itself is changing and the endemic sexism that still resides in much of our society in the most insidious of ways just hasn’t managed to catch up. Marriages, families and indeed weddings now come in all different shapes and sizes and are much the happier for it. Love the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles so much you want to theme your wedding around them? Go for it! You want to swear your love to each other in Elvish whilst wearing cloaks and fake pointy ears? Amazing!
This is what the people who tell me that “I’m going to have to get used to children” (in spite of the fact that we have been together nearly 8 years and I am teacher) and helpfully reassure my fiancé that “there’s still time to back out…” (of a relationship he is very happy in and a wedding he appears to be very excited about) haven’t got their heads round. Marriage is not what it used to be, what it traditionally has been, and that is a very good thing. Tradition, particularly where relationships are concerned, has been the proverbial stick with which to beat women back from equality for a very long time. The ‘traditional family’, constantly touted around by the right wing, has been rolled out again and again to reinforce the not-so-subliminal message: “Women! Know your place!” It has also been the drum beaten ad infinitum by those who for some inexplicable reason are against gay marriage (seriously, how, how does it affect you? It’s not like anyone is going to force you into a pair of gold lamé hot pants – or any other offensive stereotype your homophobic mind leaps to – and make you get gay married. Again, hooray Ireland! ). And so, like a fallen monarch, we should celebrate the winds of change: ding, dong Marriage is dead! Long live Marriage!
The out-dated assumptions that even the most sensible of 21st Century minds can sleepwalk into are perpetuated by a ruthlessly commercial industry preying on insecurity and insistent on diminishing women everywhere. It is high time we empowered brides forced them to catch up and get with the times. “Will you be losing any weight before the wedding?” No. Bugger off and stop making my paranoid about my body. “Has she gone a bit Bridezilla?” No. I refer you to my previous answer. If I do lose my mind it will probably because of the pressure you and everyone else are putting on me so stop it and let me AND my fiancé enjoy planning our wedding.
Marriage is what you make it and there should be no judgment about that. It should or could actually be an expression, or assertion of feminine power and the power of an equal, loving relationship that should not for one second be underestimated. It is entirely personal and that is why I will be wearing a big white dress, but I will not be sitting quietly through the speeches instead, I will be very much taking the opportunity to make my voice heard.
- Alexandra Cocksworth