“The Vows” column, which runs every Sunday in the New York Times, is a perverse pleasure — the Women’s sports pages, as it is known. Here is where months of awkward dates, relationship roller-coaster rides, and frenzied planning are transformed into a seamless narrative of modern marriage — or, at least, unbelievably hip union. The featured couples have friends who describe them in such flattering terms as a “a combination of Cinderella and Holly Golightly” or a guy who “loves fast cars yet enjoys opera and the ballet.” Sleek brides and grooms casually reference their quaint houses in the Hamptons, their always-thriving careers, and their plans to take a year off to travel and “explore each other.” Each week brings a couple more well-rounded, attractive, and witty than the last.
After wading through these impossibly charming courtship and wedding stories, one longs for the acerbic eye of the old-fashioned muckraker. Where is the voluble bride who admits she settled for Bachelor X? Whither the less-than-besotted groom who secretly feels smothered by the dozens of calla lilies chosen by his life mate to bedeck the site of their union? We need an Ida Tarbell for the wedding set. Only occasionally do “Vows” reporters give us glimpses of the matrimonial underbelly. After bagging her man, one thirty-something bride mused, “I never wanted to get married,” implying that her prenuptial life was brimming with adventure and singleton fulfillment. “The Vows” scribe covering the wedding wickedly followed that observation with some candid thoughts from the new groom: “She was talking marriage after three months!” he said.
Better yet, what the wedding industry needs is a modern Jessica Mitford, whose 1963 book, The American Way of Death, did for embalming and the funeral industry what Upton Sinclair did for sausage and meatpacking (and what hundreds of heaving passengers recently did for confidence in the cruise ship industry). Mitford challenged the practices of the nation’s funeral homes and undertakers by posing as a grieving widow; her resulting expose described in chilling detail the avaricious nature of these purveyors of all things funereal.
Like the funeral industry, the wedding industry is one that has grown hardened by serving people during emotionally taxing times. It is a $70-billion-a-year behemoth whose average customer, according to a recent Bride’s magazine survey, spends $19,000 a pop on her way to the altar. The array of products, services, and publications is staggering — and finely honed to the demands of our tech savvy age. There is elaborate wedding planning software such as “My Wedding Organizer,” which one eager customer described as “powerful, comprehensive, easy to use,” qualities brides-to-be used to be intent on finding in their spouses, not their laptops. Straightforward decisions about clothing, music, food, and flowers become elaborate rituals overseen by the high priestesses of the industry — the bridal magazines. These hefty glossies woo brides with mellifluously worded wedding dress descriptions. Perusing tulle confections called “Melissa Sweet,” “Guzzo,” “Champagne,” “Mon Cheri,” and “Moonlight,” one can’t help wondering why the dress styles sound more like a list of exotic dancers than chaste commitment attire.
There is an Association of Bridal Consultants, which advertises Crest White Strips, the teeth-whitening product du jour, on its homepage (“a day to remember. . a smile they’ll never forget”). The association claims its mission is “to increase awareness of the wedding business and improve the professionalism of members.” Is it merely coincidence that the association was founded in 1981, the same year Britain’s Prince Charles married Lady Diana Spencer in a storybook ceremony at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, televised worldwide? As we later learned, Lady Di felt disempowered in her own unsuccessful marriage. Not so today’s brides-to-be. At Blissbridal.com, the company’s mission is to “provide clear, unbiased information to the bride about wedding vendors in her local area, empowering her with the tools she needs to make planning decisions with confidence.” Brides are promised “strong user support.”
The rhetoric is empowering; unfortunately, what today’s lovebirds seem empowered to do is talk. A lot. Couples pour forth in excruciating detail the most tedious elements of their wedding experience on websites such as “The Knot,” “ShareTheMoments.com,” “VirtuallyMarried.com,” and “WebWedding,” whose terrifying motto is “Bringing the world to your wedding.” At “The Knot,” you can read about couples that have willingly provided details of their dating life, engagement, and wedding day for the edification of anyone with an Internet connection. One man describes how he proposed to “Jessica” in the wee hours of the morning while they strolled along the beach in Miami. “She was cranky and tired, but I convinced her to take a walk with me,” he reveals. We learn that Geoff, an up-and-coming professional golfer, wore Valentino trousers, a Brioni tie, and Salvatore Ferragamo shoes at his “destination wedding” to Stacy in Venice. Readers are regaled with details of the goat-cheese puff pastry and hazelnut chocolate mousse enjoyed by the revelers at Emma and Steve’s wedding in Washington. You can even peruse the vows exchanged at the dozens of unions chronicled on the site.
After the tell-all enthusiasm of these modern marriage stories, one longs for the pluck and dignified reticence of brides like Isabella in Horace Walpole’s 1764 romp, “The Castle of Otranto.” Moments before her wedding, the intended groom, a rather puny and unprepossessing character, is crushed by a supernaturally large helmet. Sensing an opportunity, Manfred, the thwarted father-in-law-to-be, announces his intention to divorce his wife and marry Isabella. Decked out in her wedding dress and pursued by the marauding Manfred, Isabella still has the wherewithal to find a subterranean passage and escape the castle. Only after considerable prompting does she tell her tawdry tale to the local priest.
But our modern muckrakers seem ill-suited to the task of taking on the wedding industry. In White Weddings: Romancing Heterosexuality in Popular Culture, Chrys Igraham, a sociology professor at Russell Sage College for Women, critiques a range of contemporary bridal banalities. As the subtitle of the book suggests, however, her gimlet-eyed view of marriage is informed more by feminist theory than old-fashioned muckraking, hence its cranky and ineffective tone. A self-avowed critic of “normative sexuality,” Ms. Ingraham peppers her book with phrases such as “heterosexual fairy tale,” and she likely was not one of those women who sat rapt and misty-eyed before the television set when Chuck and Di tied the knot. “To develop critical consciousness when romance is the prevailing form is to challenge the boundaries of acceptability,” she states. Unfortunately for Ingraham, strident deconstruction has lost its sting in a world where such symbols of free-spirited, feminist single living as Gloria Steinem and Sex and the City writer Candace Bushnell have said, “I do.”
Then there are those who have decided to opt out of wedding altogether, although they, too, are eager to tell you about their choices. In their recent book, Unmarried to Each Other, Dorian Solot and Marshall Miller, founders of the Alternatives to Marriage Project, offer practical advice on achieving domestic bliss without the sanction of church or city hall. The project, founded in 1998 and based in Boston, describes itself as “a national nonprofit organization advocating for equality and fairness for unmarried people, including people who choose not to marry, cannot marry, or live together before marriage.” But even this effort to construct a respectable legal façade for what disapproving grandmothers everywhere correctly refer to as “shacking up” cannot avoid the tentacles of the wedding industry. As Solot and Miller write, “There’s no reason you can’t wear the white dress, walk down the aisle, exchange I do’s and rings, and dance the Electric Slide all night long.” If even avatars of alternative lifestyles are embracing matrimonial trappings we can be assured the wedding industry will never die; it will simply keep adapting to new consumer niches. Without a muckraking Mitford to set us straight, it appears we are destined to have meddlesome matrimonial planners and product developers continue to admit their impediments to the marriage of true minds.
— Christine Stolba is a fellow at the Ethics & Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.