Are traditional weddings a harmless nod to tradition or another case of upholding the patriarchy?
The ‘big day is all about the bride’: how many times have you heard this and similar in relation to weddings? And yet, despite all the glitz, sparkle and lovehearts, what we’re really signing up for on the day can sometimes be anything but romance. If you objectively dissect some of our marriage customs (I’m such a romantic, me) much tradition is still loaded worryingly towards the, albeit subtle, subjugation of women.
An admission first up, I am discussing heterosexual marriage, because that is what I have experience of, and that is what most UK wedding traditions are based on. I am not intending to pass judgement on any individuals and their choice of if, when and how to wed; my intention is more to question some of the archaic tenets of wedding ceremonies that underpin our special day. I am married, and to a wonderful man, but despite my own situation, I still have a few reservations about marriage.
Weddings, and the multimillion pound industry they spawn, are generally seen very much as the realm of women. We are programmed to wait for/persuade/force a man to propose (because heaven forbid we be encouraged to take the initiative ourselves) and that longed-for engagement ring once on our finger, can act as a key which unlocks a whole new world of expense, extravagance and general diva-like behaviour. Obviously I am making exaggerated and sweeping generalisations, but the industry does seem to actively encourage women planning weddings to act out as ‘bridezillas’, a term coined in the mid-1990s but which somehow feels as though it’s been around far longer.
Once upon a time, men were expected to propose to their partners with a family heirloom ring, which their fiancée and then wife, would wear regardless of whether the jewellery was to her taste or not. Increasingly now, not only are we choosing our own rings (not necessarily a bad thing in my book), but we sometimes have the baffling situation whereby couples declare they are “going to get engaged” or even more perplexingly state they will “get engaged on X day”. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for trying to be organised, but surely if you’ve already had the discussion and agreement about definitely getting married, then you already are engaged? Why add an additional step in just for fun? To conform to the bridezilla stereotype? To extend the time one can pretend to be a fairytale princess before the frog of reality appears?
What worries me most about the mirage of weddings however, is that while a woman may wield total power over important matters like colour schemes and cake toppers, it is still often the man or men who have the voice. Literally. A groom and a best man are expected to speak to the wedding party, to deliver speeches to all and on behalf of others, while a bride and bridesmaid/s job is to look pretty and demurely keep their silence. Yes, we can be trusted to select the appropriate shade of flower girl sash to match buttonholes, but not to address a congregation. As so often seems to be the case in life, women have much of the responsibility and none of the power. We are also ‘taken’ in marriage, as though we are some sort of object to be given and received. Ostensibly equal vows are exchanged during a traditional ceremony: “I (the husband to be), take you, (the wife to be), to be my wife” and vice versa, however, only one of the members of the partnership tends to be ‘given away’ to their future spouse by their own parent and no prizes for guessing which one! Yes, these are customs and don’t need to be followed to the letter or taken too seriously or literally these days, but surely there is something just a little bit galling about the idea of young girls (because - me aside - we tend to be the romantic ones) dreaming about and planning and yearning for their big day, when what this occasion actually entails at its basest level, is being handed from the ownership of one man to another?
We have come a very very long way in terms of equality of the sexes but it seems as though, whereas marriage itself is seen as more of an equal partnership as time has passed, the event of a wedding is still steeped in misogyny. Many of us have moved on from the heavy religion and meringue-ed dresses of preceding generations, yet have somehow upheld the prehistoric notion that the job of a bride is to look stunning and not much else. We are (most of us) no longer betrothed at birth; nor, thankfully, is there an expectation that our bloodied sheets from the marital bed will be held aloft for all to see proof of virginity. What is left is far milder, yet still sinister in that we continue to embrace what can be quite unnerving traditions unquestioningly.
In between settling menu options and finalising seating plans, please question things. If you’d like to give a speech at your own wedding, do it. If your husband is anything like mine they’ll be grateful to share or even hand over this task. If you don’t want to be “given away” by your father, don’t feel you should be just because that’s been the norm for generations. You may find your parents feel uncomfortable with the idea themselves if they think it through. If you really want your big day to be your big day, you can make it just that: yours.
By the way, my husband and I married abroad, with two strangers as our witnesses. Neither of us can remember exactly who first raised the idea of marriage, let alone ‘proposed’. Like I said, I’m a romantic!