When I was 12-years-old I was invited, along with my parents and my older brother, to the wedding of a second cousin. It was a church wedding in a small English village, followed by a reception in a second tier stately home in Northamptonshire complete with six-course, sit-down meal and champagne reception. The bride wore an enormous white dress and was walked down the aisle by her father. It was what you might describe as a traditional wedding. And, even in 1980s terms, also very expensive.
At the reception I was sat on a table with my parents, grandparents, brother and a few other distant relatives. At some point, one of these relatives asked me, since I was a little girl on the cusp of adolescence and therefore must be harbouring dreams of my own special day, what kind of a wedding I would have. And I remember replying something along the lines of: If I get married (and it was definitely an “if”) I will pay for it myself. And I don’t want anyone giving me away.
There was possibly a short silence and then definitely laughter and a few jokes to my Dad about “you should hold her to that” and “She’ll change her mind when she sees how much it costs.”
But nearly 30 years later, I haven’t changed my mind. My 12-year-old self was bang-on. What I saw then is what I see now: these big traditional weddings are ridiculous and make no sense in the context of the kind of life I want to lead. The symbols, the rituals and rites are loaded with all kinds of assumptions and values about property, ownership and power. Most obviously, the idea of a father walking his daughter up the aisle and “giving her away”. But also more implicitly – and perhaps perniciously – the way this most “feminine” of special days is woven through with rituals that give voice to men and silence women: the best man’s speech and the tradition that he thanks the bridesmaids (the very idea of brides’ maids?) and then the father of the bride speaking of her and for her. In a traditional wedding party, there is no speaking role for the women. So while the relentless marketing and imagery around marriage is aimed mainly at women, the ceremony itself – in its traditional forms – still reinforces the power of the man. Which is also further reinforced when – as custom would have it – the father pays for it.
What these wedding rituals indicate is the degree to which male authority over women is such an implicit part of our lives and culture. Which is not to say that individual men – husbands and fathers do, or even want, to control and own the women in their life. But to highlight the unspoken, taken for granted nature of the symbolism of male authority and women’s roles within it; from the mother who patiently and humorously finds her husband’s briefcase, to “daddy’s little Princess” who get’s a Disneyfied makeover for her fourth birthday treat.
Definitions of patriarchy are highly contested – both in theory and practice – but it might be useful to look at patriarchy as propaganda – “soft power” of male authority and dominance. For this reason, I think it is helpful to look at the ways in which symbols of patriarchy are presented as being a normal and natural part of the kind of life we should aspire to, particularly in terms of what it means to be a woman.
At its crudest perhaps the two most pervasive and powerful cultural symbols that represent the essence of being a woman are still somehow – despite the gains that women have made legally and in the workplace – marriage and motherhood. Of course, actual marriage and actual motherhood can be all manner of things: satisfying, challenging, complicated, stimulating and exhausting but basically real. What’s interesting is how they are sold to us – the culture of propaganda and promotion that surrounds them.
Maybe this is obvious. But the very obviousness is why it’s worth reminding ourselves. This was bought home to me recently when I was visiting the British Library’s excellent propaganda exhibition. The exhibition was very simple and powerful and quite brave in taking on very recent events as examples of national propaganda such as the 2012 London Olympics.
But as well as the more recognizable propaganda relating to war and nationalism they had a small section on health. Within this there were a couple of posters demonstrating the way that motherhood has been instrumentalized to promote ideas and ideals about the nation. The two examples presented of Nazi Germany and Communist Russia illustrated a rather crude nationalistic message, but in using the mother as the conduit for a set of values these images served very well to make visible what is so often invisible. There is, of course, nothing natural or inevitable about the role that wives and mothers play. But the fact that motherhood is such a basic and effective tool for transmitting messages somehow underlines how profound these symbols are. These instances of propaganda conveyed the idea that it is the unique and special role of the mother to make sure that children grow up healthy and strong. Not breeding, or breeding in squalor and ignorance, is presented as detrimental to national welfare and the grand modernist future. Women must play their role! Perhaps this crude propaganda around motherhood is easier to identify historically in the context of Mother Russia and the Nazis (because they were so obviously the “baddies”) but in our contemporary cultures we are still surrounded by images promoting idealised versions marriage and motherhood.
I live in the United States so maybe the role of gender propaganda in relation to consumerism is more acute, but even so, happening across this advert for the chocolate spread Nutella, it struck me that the messages were as crude and as basic as the most elementary propaganda (not least in the efforts to brand Nutella as a health food).
In this commercial, the slim, attractive mother is organizing her family’s morning routine in a large, pristine kitchen: she’s managing breakfast and at the same time making sure they’re all dispatched, properly equipped to face the world outside of the kitchen – where she, of course, remains. She answers a question for her daughter’s homework (“mums know everything”); she finds her son’s rucksack for him and then finally she packs off her husband handing him his mobile phone (“have you seen my…?”) while feeding him a slice of wholemeal toast.
The tone of the advert with the mother providing the narrative is that it is normal and appropriate, and even funny, that these are all the things a mother has to organise. But how aspirational is what is actually on display here? Clearing up after everyone around you? Being on hand to meet everyone else’s needs with no one paying attention to yours? Would anyone really choose this? But the normality of the presentation – even the slight humour – is actually pretty insightful and revealing about the fact that women’s unpaid reproductive and domestic labour is vital to the smooth functioning of everyone else; even if it all doesn’t run quite as smoothly and effortlessly as Nutella would have us believe.
And that’s the propaganda trick: you might aspire to the nice kitchen, perfect teeth and beautiful children, and some choice over what you get to feed them for breakfast, but the actual thing underpinning it all – this version of motherhood – is not presented as up for question. You will have children. You will be responsible for feeding them. You will have a husband, and you will do his mundane chores for him. The aspiration is the hope that what you buy, own, or have will somehow ameliorate that reality.
Which brings me back to weddings: in US culture the hyper commodification of everything is almost breath-taking and weddings are big business. Nor is the business limited to traditional heterosexual unions. The legalization of gay marriage has provided potential new markets. For example, the Equally Wed website – launched in March 2010 – promises “a modern, elegant and unique guide to gay wedding planning, from ring shopping and proposing to tying the knot and living happily ever after—and everything in between. Engaged couples can plan their weddings using our comprehensive suite of wedding planning tools, including a guest list manager, a budget manager and an extensive interactive to-do list”. The sexuality might be different, but the imagery of gender roles remarkably similar – the blonde “fem” in the pretty white dress.
But this is still a drop in the ocean of the bigger industry for the straight version – marketed almost entirely at women. In the UK alone the wedding industry is worth 10 billion pounds a year, and there is a dedicated resource for the industry with wedding facts and figures.
Of course, like the Nutellla advert, there’s a great deal of effort devoted from a very early age in selling the fantasy. Toys R Us, offer a Disney Fairytale Wedding Pair, recommended ages 3-5. The pair includes Ariel (the Little Mermaid) and her handsome prince, but these toys are certainly not being marketed to boys. Ariel's only way of being human is to fall in love and marry – her female destiny is to be a Princess. These stories are powerful and grown women can buy their fairytale princess day at the Disney Wedding Bridal Boutique and dress up as Ariel or Belle before they walk off into the sunset with their handsome Prince.
Every newsstand has rows and rows of bridal magazines. A few months ago one particular bridal magazine caught my eye with a headline, “10 tips to beat the stress of the happiest day of your life”. The basic contradiction in that sentence seemed pretty obvious. Surely the happiest day of your life would be one without stress? And not just because you’ve followed the 10 tips and bought the appropriate goods and services, but because inherently you were doing things that made you happy and relaxed and didn’t cause stress. But apparently it’s now unavoidable – what with the photos and flowers and seating plans – that a wedding will be stressful. And it also goes without saying that getting married just has to be the happiest day of your life. Right?
When something is so fraught with contradictions it does somewhat demand a critical eye. Why is there so much investment in weddings? Over and above the millions of dollars involved. What is it about a wedding specifically that allows people to spend hundreds of pounds on envelopes for invitations when in normal circumstances they would never even write a letter?
Which gets me to the politics of this: If we agree that patriarchy, as a system, is less than optimal, that it prevents women, but also men, from achieving their full potential then what can we do to challenge and overcome? It’s an old-fashioned suggestion but I think many women have forgotten something of that critical eye. These ubiquitous visions of the perfect wedding and blissful motherhood have blinded even the critical thinkers amongst us. This is not to say that we shouldn’t get married or be mothers or make breakfast but it’s important to lay bare the assumptions that underpin those things. To think about these contradictions and to allow, perhaps, that emperor’s new clothes moment so that we can resist the temptation to fall into the easy presentation of what being a woman – or a man – should mean.
Want to avoid the stress of the table plan for your wedding? Then just don’t have one! Want to minimize the anxiety involved getting your teenage children to eat breakfast? Well maybe let them get their own breakfast for a week. Your husband loses his mobile phone? Well, he can find it.
Let’s think about these images and what they’re selling us. Is this what we really want? And if it isn’t then – resist!
Hannah Davies works on international peace and security issues and is based in New York.