[Cross-posted from my daily blog The Chicktionary]
Feministing editor Jessica Valenti has just publicly responded to critics of her wedding. In today’s post, she gives her take on media coverage of her nuptials and the appallingly cruel backlash and accusations of hypocrisy.
Though I admit that I was surprised to learn she decided to get married, I can’t fault her for wanting to take part in an institution and ritual so ingrained in our society. The festivities she describes sound exactly like what I hope the weddings of my friends will be like. I, on the other hand, don’t know if I’ll ever get married. I’ve written before about the problems with the institution but I still struggle with the idea of never partaking in a social ritual that most other people will get to experience. Though I could just choose to opt in (just this once!), I try to keep in mind the following:
1. The only reason I care about having a wedding is because I’ve been socialized to believe that this is a crucial life event. I wouldn’t want it if everyone else didn’t also have a “special day” for the sole purpose of a personal celebration.
2. Many people never get to have weddings, and I’m not just talking about same-sex couples. Think of those beyond the Western world who will never experience our conception of a “wedding”: women who have been raped or have dared to have premarital sex, couples from different religions/races/etc., or my own parents who were simply too poor.
3. I want the wedding aspect a lot more than I want the piece of paper. Beyond legal benefits, it is irrelevant whether or not I’m someone’s “wife”. The label has zero impact on how people about their partners. And if it does take state recognition to fully love someone, then that’s one screwed up relationship.
And yet, how I still yearn to don a floor-length gown as the belle of the ball. The desire to partake in some traditions is sometimes too deeply ingrained to be erased by a feminist awakening (and I’ve had about a dozen at this point). I can’t emphasize how much I don’t want to give in to my inner bride, but that’s easy to say when I’m 22 and co-habitating while my friends are off being young and single. (Right now, they think I’m the boring and domestic one.) I have no delusions about how tough it’ll be in a few years when they get into serious relationships, become engaged, and throw huge bashes while I play the supportive bridesmaid who will literally never be a bride. It won’t be easy, and quite frankly, I don’t know if I’ll be able to withstand the temptation or if I’ll just say, “To hell with it!”
Would doing the latter make me less of a feminist? I don’t think so, nor do I think Valenti is a hypocrite for getting married. She, of all people, is enlightened enough to realize the baggage that comes with the club she’s joining, and it’s unreasonable for anyone to expect her to resist the overwhelming urge to simply live like other people for once. Personally speaking, it’s not easy to live in a patriarchal, capitalist society which is fundamentally opposed to my beliefs about equality (gender, economic, and otherwise). Abiding strictly by my values would mean completely opting out of the world in which my friends and family live — and sure, some people do that but end up having zero impact on the mainstream, which is where equality really matters. Jessica Valenti and Andrew Golis negotiated that conflict by making their wedding “representative of the institution [they’d] like it to be”. In other words, they’re trying to change it. That’s precisely why I can get behind the idea of a feminist getting married or of a gay couple getting married. Weddings can be transgressive affairs, and mine will be if I ever have one.
Still, that’s a big if. I can be happy for those who make that decision and extraordinarily happy for gay friends who now have the option, but when I ask myself why I’d want a marriage, it ultimately comes down to wanting other people to celebrate my relationship and recognize its significance. And let’s face it, I could throw a big fat feminist non-wedding sans ceremony and marriage license, but how many people are really going to take that as seriously as “the real thing” or actually purchase plane tickets for the affair? So while I don’t need others to validate my relationship, sometimes I do just want to be treated like everyone else, which I know I won’t be if unless I get married “for real”.
It’s disheartening, then, that the marriage equality movement ignores people like me, who run the risk of losing domestic partnership benefits altogether if same-sex marriage is legalized en masse. The line of reasoning is that if everyone could get married, then there’s no point in having special rights for those “living in sin”. But there will always be some people who opt out even of a courthouse wedding, not because they have commitment issues or because they like living on the margins of society, but because they don’t think getting married changes anything, because they recognize that the only reason anyone wants to marry is because it’s one of the most basic expectations of American society, along with work and kids. Even without all its anti-feminist trappings, marriage would still be problematic, as is anything that becomes so much of a given that it’s just taken for granted that everyone should have one.
Can the personal ever not be political? I actually don’t think so. I applaud Valenti for an incredibly thoughtful treatment of a traditionally consumerist, gendered institution, but even if her wedding wasn’t consumerist or gendered, it was still a transgressive induction into an institution, one that people take for granted as desirable. So what does Valenti’s case demonstrate? That she, too, wants to be part of that institution. But a feminist who has a wedding isn’t any more of a hypocrite than a Marxist who buys groceries. You can be incredibly progressive and still not be willing to grow your own food or give up mainstream acceptance (or live in a cave — pretty much the only way to truly realize most ideals). While I’m sure that her marriage will set an example for other couples, perhaps forgoing a wedding altogether in the name of a cause is the type of sacrifice you couldn’t really ask of anyone, not even a completely self-aware feminist. That says much more about how effectively this cultural tradition has been spoon-fed to the masses than it does about Valenti.