This article aims to explore some of the ideological discourses that reinforce marriage as a central social and cultural institution in US-American society. Andrew Cherlin argues that despite social secularisation, rising divorce rates and the emergence of other, alternative forms of love and living, marriage “remains the most highly valued form of family life in American culture, the most prestigious way to live your life” (9). Indeed, marriage in the US has become an ideological and political battlefield, with charged debates about who is entitled to this form of state-sanctioned relationship, with the government spending large sums of money to promote the value of marriage and the highest number of people projected to get married (nearly 90 per cent of all people) compared to other Western nations (Cherlin 4).
I argue here that the idea of marriage as the ideal form for an intimate relationship permeates US-American culture to an extent that we can speak of a marital hegemony. This hegemony is fuelled by and reflected in the saturation of American popular culture with celebratory depictions of the white wedding as public performance and symbolic manifestation of the values associated with marriage. These depictions contribute to the discursive production of weddings as “one of the major events that signal readiness and prepare heterosexuals for membership in marriage as an organizing practice for the institution of marriage” (Ingraham 4). From the representation of weddings as cinematic climax in a huge number of films, to TV shows such as The Bachelor, Bridezillas and Race to the Altar, to the advertisement industry and the bridal magazines that construct the figure of the bride as an ideal that every girl and woman should aspire to, popular discourses promote the desirability of marriage in a wide range of media spheres. These representations, which I call bridal fictions, do not only shape and regulate the production of gendered, raced, classed and sexual identities in the media in fundamental ways. They also promote the idea that marriage is the only adequate framework for an intimate relationship and for the constitution of an acceptable gendered identity, meanwhile reproducing heterosexuality as norm and monogamy as societal duty. Thus I argue that we can understand contemporary bridal fictions as a symbolic legitimation of marital hegemony that perpetuates the idea that “lifelong marriage is a moral imperative” (Coontz 292).
By drawing on Gramsci’s term and argument of cultural hegemony, I propose that public, political, religious and popular discourses work together in intersecting, overlapping, ideologically motivated and often even contradictory ways to produce what can be conceptualised as marital hegemony. Gramsci understands the relationship between state coercion and legitimation as crucial to an understanding of constituted consensus and co-operation. By legitimation Gramsci refers to processes through which
social elites constitute their leadership through the universalizing of their own class-based self-interests. These self-interests are adopted by the greater majority of people, who apprehend them as natural or universal standards of value (common sense). This ‘hegemony’ neutralizes dissent, instilling the values, beliefs and cultural meanings into the generalized social structures. (Lewis 76-77)
Marital hegemony also consists of those two mechanisms, coercion and legitimation. Coercion by the social elites, in this case by the state, is conducted through intervening in the private life of citizens in order to regulate and control their intimate relationships. Through the offering of financial benefits, medical insurance, tax cuts and various other privileges to married partners only (see Ingraham 175-76), the state withholds these benefits from all those that do not conform to this kind of state-sanctioned relationship. However, this must serve as the topic of another discussion, as this paper is more interested in the second aspect of hegemony, the symbolic legitimation. Symbolic legitimation works through the depiction of the white wedding as the occasion on which entering the institution of marriage is publicly celebrated and marital identity is socially validated. Bridal fictions work on a semiotic and symbolic level to display and perpetuate the idea of marriage as the most desirable and ultimately only legitimate form of intimate, heterosexual relationships. This is not to say that there is no resistance to this form of hegemony, as Foucault argues, eventually there is no “power without resistances” (142). However, as Engstrom contends, contemporary bridal fictions “reinforce and endorse the idea that romantic relationships should and must lead to marriage, which requires public display—the wedding” (3). Thus I argue that we can understand contemporary bridal fictions as one key symbolic factor in the production of marital hegemony.
The ongoing centrality of marriage as an institution finds its reflection, as Otnes and Pleck argue, in the fact that the white wedding, in spite of all changes and processes of liberalisation in regard to gender, family and sexuality, “remains the most significant ritual in contemporary culture” (5). Accordingly, popular culture, reflective as well as constitutive of existing cultural paradigms, is saturated with what I have termed here bridal fictions. Bridal representations have been subject to rigorous academic investigation (c.f. Currie, Geller, Bambacas, Boden, Otnes and Pleck, Wallace and Howard). But, by using the term “bridal fictions”, I seek to underscore the fictional nature of these apparent “representations”, emphasising their role in producing pervasive utopias, rather than representing reality. This is not to say that bridal fictions are solely fictive. In fact, my argument here is that these bridal fictions do have discursive influence on contemporary wedding culture and practices. With my analysis of a bridal advertisement campaign later on in this paper, I aim to show exemplarily how bridal fictions work not only in perpetuating marriage, monogamy and heteronormativity as central organizing principles of intimate life. But moreover, how bridal fictions use this framework to promote certain kinds of white, heterosexual, upper-class identities that normatively inform our understanding of who is seen as entitled to this form of state-sanctioned relationship.
Furthermore my aim is to highlight the role of postfeminist frames in sustaining marital hegemony. Second Wave feminism, seeing marriage as a form of “intimate colonization” (in Finlay and Clarke 416), has always been one of the few sources of critique in regard to this institution. In contrast, postfeminist accounts, now informing a significant amount of contemporary bridal fictions, evoke marriage as actively chosen, unproblematic and innately desired state of being for women. By constructing the liberated, self-determined figure of the postfeminist bride, contemporary bridal fictions naturalise and re-modernise marriage as framework for the constitution of modern feminine identity. An analysis of postfeminist bridal identities, as done in the following, is thus vital to my argument, because it highlights how postfeminist accounts deflect feminism’s critique of marriage as patriarchal, political and hegemonic institution and hence contribute to the perpetuation and production of marital hegemony.
The Postfeminist Bride
Postfeminism has emerged since the early 1990s as the dominant mode of constructing femininities in the media. Angela McRobbie understands postfeminism as “to refer to an active process by which feminist gains of the 1970s and 80s come to be undermined”, while simultaneously appearing to be “a well-informed and even well-intended response to feminism” (“Postfeminism” 255). Based on the assumption that women nowadays are no longer subjected to patriarchal power structures anymore, postfeminism actively takes feminism into account while, at the same time, “undoing” it (McRobbie “Postfeminism” 255). In contemporary postfeminist culture, feminism is “decisively aged and made to seem redundant”, which allows a conscious “dis-identification” and/or “forceful non-identity” with accounts of Second Wave feminism (McRobbie Aftermath 15).
This demarcation from earlier forms of feminism is particularly evident with regard to marriage and wedding discourses. Second wave feminist critics such as Betty Friedan (1973) and Carole Pateman were critical of the influence of marriage on women’s psychological, financial and sexual freedom. This generation of feminists saw marriage as a manifestation of patriarchal power, which is based on women’s total emotional and erotic loyalty and subservience (Rich 1980), as well as on “men’s domination over women, and the right of men to enjoy equal sexual access to women” (Pateman 1988 2). In contrast, contemporary postfeminism enunciates now that “equality is achieved, in order to install a whole repertoire of new meanings which emphasise that it [feminism] is no longer needed, it is a spent force” (McRobbie “Postfeminism” 255). Instead of seeing marriage as institutionlised subjugation of women, the postfeminist generation of “educated women who have come of age in the 1990s feel that the women’s liberation movement has achieved its goals and that marriage is now an even playing field in which the two sexes operate as equal partners” (Geller 110). As McRobbie argues “feminism was anti-marriage and this can now to be shown to be great mistake” (Aftermath 20).
Accordingly, postfeminist bridal fictions do not depict the bride as passive and waiting to be married, relying on conservative and patriarchal notions of hegemonic femininity, but as an active agent using the white wedding as occasion to act out choice, autonomy and power. Genz argues that a characteristic of postfemininities is that they re-negotiate femininity and feminism no longer as mutually exclusive and irreconcilable categories, but as constitutive of each other (Genz; Genz and Brabon). What I term the postfeminist bride embodies this shifted understanding of feminism and femininity. The postfeminist bride is a figure that is often celebrated in terms of individual freedom, professional success and self-determination, instead of resting on traditional notions of female domesticity and passivity. Rather than fulfilling clichés of the homemaker and traditional wife, the postfeminist bride is characterised by an emphasis on power, agency and pleasure. Characteristic of this figure, as with other postfemininities in popular culture, is a simultaneous appropriation and repudiation of feminist critique. Within postfeminist bridal culture, the performance of traditional femininity through the figure of the bride, or by identification with it, is framed in terms of individual choice, depicted as standing outside of the political and ideological struggles surrounding gender, equality, class, sexuality and race. In this way, as Engstrom argues, “bridal media’s popularity in the late 20th and early 21st centuries in the United States as indicative of a postfeminist cultural environment” (18).
And although the contemporary white wedding still rests on patriarchal traditions that symbolise what the Second Wave called an “intimate colonization” (such as the bride’s vow of obedience; the giving away of the bride by one male chaperone, her father, to the next, the husband; her loss of name in marriage etc.), feminist awareness of the patriarchal dimensions of marriage and the ritual of the wedding is virtually absent from contemporary bridal culture. Instead, the patriarchal customs of the white wedding are now actively embraced by the women themselves in the name of tradition and choice. This reflects a prevailing characteristic of postfeminism, which is a trend towards the reclamation of conservative ideals of femininity, following the assumption that the goals of traditional feminist politics have been attained.
This recuperation of traditional forms of femininity is one key characteristic of postfeminist bridal culture, as Engstrom argues: “bridal media collectively have become the epitomic example of women’s culture, a genre of popular culture that promotes, defends, and celebrates femininity” (21). Bridal fictions indeed produce traditional femininity by positioning the cultural, social and historical significance of the wedding as a necessary rite of passage for women and as the most important framework for the constitution of their (hetero)sexual, classed and gendered identities. Embodied in its ritual qualities, the white wedding symbolises the transition of women from single to belonging, from girlhood to womanhood and implicitly from childlessness to motherhood. However, instead of seeing this form of hegemonic femininity as a product of unequal, patriarchal power relations as Second Wave did, postfeminism celebrates traditional femininity in modernised versions. Embracing conservative feminine roles (e.g. that of the bride/wife) is now a matter of personal choice, individuality and freedom, characterised by awareness, knowingness and sometimes even irony (McRobbie “Postfeminism”). Nevertheless, the wedding is not only positioned as the pinnacle of a monogamous, heterosexual relationship, but also as the climax of a (female) life-story (“the happiest day of the life”). Combining feminist informed notions of power and choice, the postfeminist wedding is constructed as an event which supposedly enables women to act out those notions, while serving as a framework for gendered identity formation and self-realisation within the boundaries of an officialised and institutionalised relationship.
I would like to exemplarily illustrate how postfeminism informs contemporary bridal fictions by analysing an advertising campaign of the US bridal magazine Modern Bride that paradigmatically and emblematically shows how postfeminist frames are used to construct the ‘modern’ bride.
These advertisements feature American celebrities Guiliana Rancic (“host of E! News”), Daisy Fuentes (“host of Ultimate Style”) and Layla Ali, (“TV host and world champion”) stating why they qualify as a “modern bride”. Instead of drawing on notions of passive femininity, these advertisements have a distinct emphasis on power and agency. All advertisements include the women’s profession and other accomplishments. Rancic claims that she is a modern bride because: “I chased my career instead of guys.” These advertisements emphasise choice and empowerment, the key features of postfeminism, as Angela McRobbie (“Postfeminism”) and Rosalind Gill argue. Femininity, feminism and professionalism here are not framed as mutually exclusive, but are reconciled in the identity of the “modern” bride. Marriage and the white wedding are clearly bracketed in a liberal framework of individual choice, underpinned by a grammar of self-determination and individualism. Layla Ali states that she is a modern bride: “Because I refuse to let anything stand in the way of my happiness.” This not only communicates the message that happiness is intrinsically linked to marriage, but clearly resembles the figure that Sharon Boden terms the “super bride”, a role which allows women to be in control of every aspect of their wedding and “the heroic creator of her big day” while being part of a fairy-tale narrative in which they are the centre of attention (74).
Agency and power are clearly visible in all of these ads. These brides are not passive victims of the male gaze, instead they are themselves gazing. In Rancic’s advertisement this is particularly evident, as she is looking directly at the viewer, where her husband, looking into another direction, remains rather face- and gazeless. This is in accord with bridal fictions in general, where husbands are often invisible, serving as bystanders or absent others, reinforcing the ideal that this is the special day of the bride and no one else. Furthermore, all of these advertisements remain within the limited visual repertoire that is common within bridal culture: young to middle-aged, heterosexual, able-bodied, conventionally attractive women. The featuring of the non-white bride Layla Ali is a rare occasion in contemporary bridal fictions. And although this can be seen as a welcomed exception, this advertisement remains eventually within the hegemonic and racial boundaries of contemporary bridal fictions. As Ingraham argues, ultimately “the white wedding in American culture is primarily a ritual by, for, and about the white middle to upper classes. Truly, the white wedding” (33).
Furthermore, these advertisements illustrate another key feature of bridal culture, the “privileging of white middle- to upper-class heterosexual marriage over all other forms” (Ingraham 164). Semiotically, the discussed advertisements reflect the understanding of the white wedding as occasion to perform a certain classed identity: the luscious white dresses, the tuxedos, the jewellery and make up, etc. are all signifiers for a particular social standing. This is also emphasised by the mentioning of the prestigious jobs these brides hold, which presents a postfeminist twist on the otherwise common depictions of brides as practising hypergamy, meaning the marrying of a spouse of higher socio-economic status. But significantly, upward social mobility is usually presented as only acceptable for women, reinforcing the image of the husband as the provider.
Another key feature of postfeminism, the centrality of heterosexual romance, becomes evident through Daisy Fuentes’ statement: “I’m a modern bride, because I believe that old-school values enhance a modern romance.” Having been liberated from the shackles of second wave feminism, which dismissed romance as “dope for dupes” (Greer in Pearce and Stacey 50), the postfeminist bride unapologetically embraces romance as central part of her life and relationship. Romance is here equated with traditionalism and “old school” values, thus reinforcing sexual exclusiveness, traditional gender roles and marriage as re-modernised, romantic norms. Angela McRobbie describes this “double entanglement” as a key feature of postfeminism that is comprised of “the co-existence of neo-conservative values in relation to gender, sexuality and family life […] with processes of liberalisation in regard to choice and diversity in domestic, sexual and kinship relations” (“Postfeminism” 255–56). These advertisements illustrate quite palpably that the postfeminist bride is a complex figure. It is simultaneously progressive and conservative, fulfilling ideals of conservative femininity while actively negotiating in the complex field of personal choice, individualism and social conventions; it oscillates between power and passivity, tradition and modern womanhood, between feminism and femininity. It is precisely this contradictory nature of the postfeminist bride that makes the figure so appealing, as it allows women to participate in the fantasy world of bridal utopias while still providing possibilities to construct themselves as active and powerful agents.
While we can generally welcome the reconfiguration of brides as powerful and self-determined, we have to remain critical of the postfeminist assumption of women as “autonomous agents no longer constrained by any inequalities or power imbalances whatsoever” (Gill 153). Where marriage is assumed to be an “even playing field” as Geller argues (110), feminism is no longer needed and traditional marital femininity can be, once again, performed without guilt. In these ways postfeminism deflects feminist criticism with regard to the political dimensions of marital femininity and thus contributes to the production of marital hegemony. But why is marital hegemony per se problematic?
Firstly, by presenting marital identity as essential for the construction of gendered identity, bridal fictions leave little room for (female) self-definition outside of the single/married binary. As Ingraham argues, not only “are these categories presented as significant indices of social identity, they are offered as the only options, implying that the organization of identity in relation to marriage is universal and in no need of explanation” (17). Hence, by positioning marriage and singledom as opposite poles on the axis of proper femininity, bridal fictions stigmatise single women as selfish, narcissistic, hedonistic, immature and unable to attract a suitable husband (Taylor 20, 40).
Secondly, within bridal fictions “weddings, marriage, romance, and heterosexuality become naturalized to the point where we consent to the belief that marriage is necessary to achieve a sense of well-being, belonging, passion, morality and love” (Ingraham 120). By presenting the white wedding as a publicly endorsed and visible entry to marriage, bridal fictions produce in fundamental ways normative notions about who is ‘fit’ for marriage and therefore capable of the associated cultural and social values of maturity, responsibility, ‘family values’ and so on. This is particularly critical, as postfeminist identities “are structured by, stark and continuing inequalities and exclusions that relate to ‘race’ and ethnicity, class, age, sexuality and disability as well as gender” (Gill 149). These postfeminist exclusions are very evident in contemporary bridal fictions that feature almost exclusively young to middle-aged, white, able-bodied couples with upper to middle class identities that conform to the heteronormative matrix, both physically and socially. By depicting weddings almost exclusively in this kind of raced, classed and gendered framework, bridal fictions associate the above mentioned values, that are seen as markers for responsible adulthood and citizenship, with those who comply with these norms. In these ways bridal fictions stigmatise those who are not able or do not want to get married, and, moreover, produce a visual regime that determines who is seen as entitled to this kind of socially validated identity.
The fact that bridal fictions indeed play a major role in producing marital hegemony is further reflected in the increasing presence of same-sex white weddings in popular culture. These representations, despite their message of equality for everyone, usually replicate rather than re-negotiate the heteronormative terms of bridal culture. This can be regarded as evidence of bridal fiction’s scope and reach in naturalising marriage not only as the most ideal form of a heterosexual relationship, but increasingly as the ideal for any kind of intimate relationship.
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