When I heard that Jessica Valenti’s wedding announcement was gracing the “Vows” page of the New York Times Style section yesterday, I knew that trouble was brewing. A glance at the first paragraph only confirmed my worst fears. The NYT had taken one of my feminist idols and turned her wedding to Talking Points Memo blogger Andrew Golis into an abruptly romantic fairy tale. You know the one I’m talking about: outspoken feminist finds her perfect mate and calms down, embracing the marriage she secretly wanted all along. It was almost Shakespearean; the subduing of a shrewish feminist always ends with a wedding.
But the NYT‘s article was jarring not just because Valenti is a well-known feminist. The author of Full-Frontal Feminism and, most recently, The Purity Myth, as well as the founder and a co-editor of the website Feministing, Valenti was well aware of the contraditions inherent in her wedding plans from when she broke the news last March.
In an article for the Guardian last April, she reiterated all of the issues that she first articulated in Full-Frontal Feminism (which includes a chapter called “My Big Fat Unnecessary Wedding and Other Dating Diseases”), admitting candidly, “As a kid, I wasn’t sure that I would ever get married.” And then Valenti met Golis, and they fell in love, and because he was a feminist dedicated to the principles of equal marriage, they decided to take the plunge, with a few caveats. Valenti nixed the white dress, and they agreed that both parents would walk them down the aisle.
It seemed that if anyone was capable of having a “feminist wedding,” it was Valenti, who is much beloved among feminists my age for her frankness about the difficulty of being a “perfect” feminist. Which is perhaps why I was shocked, and disappointed, by the coverage of her wedding. The NYT quoted her as saying that her views had “softened”, and the author of the article observed that more “salient” than the color of the bride’s dress was the fact that the band played “All You Need Is Love.” She then added that Valenti wore gray.
Melissa Harris-Lacewell, a professor at Princeton, has an amazing article up at the Nation‘s blog, where she talks about Valenti’s wedding in the context of last weekend’s National March for Equality. “For Valenti and for the National Equality March participants,” Harris-Lacewell writes, “as for many in America, marriage is the terrain where the personal is indeed political.” She then delves into a fascinating exploration of race, sexuality and the contradictions of marriage in a time when its complexity has been submerged under an intense focus on marriage equality. She writes, “Even as progressives fight for marriage equality for same-sex couples, we need also to reflect on marriage as a social and political institution in itself.”
As a twenty-year-old college student, my views on marriage are still evolving. I sympathize with and admire Valenti for her choice to marry Golis, and for responding honestly and eloquently to the criticism that she faced. And I do think it’s possible to have a feminist wedding, whatever that means. For example, I know that I will never change my last name or or have my father walk me down an aisle, or wear an engagement ring (unless my partner chooses to do so also), but I’m not sure if even these changes would be enough for me.
After watching my parents go through years of uneasy marriage followed by a painful divorce, and talking to gay friends whose Massachusetts marriage means nothing in Virginia, I can’t help but feel that marriage is more complicated than the symbols in a wedding ceremony, and that its implications can’t be neutralized if I’m simply not wearing a white dress. That’s why I’ve always been fundamentally uncomfortable with marriage equality as a rallying point for the gay rights movement, because marriage is something that even I’m not sure I want. It’s full of a cultural history of exclusion and oppression, and I agree wholeheartedly with Harris-Lacewell when she asks us to “re-imagine marriage and marriage-free options for building families, rearing children, crafting communities, and distributing public goods.” But I also understand Valenti’s desire to marry the person she loves – and when my parents remarried (new spouses, not each other), their weddings were two of the happiest days of my life.
I have plenty of time to figure out where I stand on the marriage question, and I’m glad that Valenti and Golis had a beautiful day, even if the NYT did oversimplify the enormity of what they’re doing. Their wedding started a discussion that I want to continue having as I move into the period of my life when marriage becomes a relevant topic, and I’m grateful to them for so boldly and candidly sharing their experiences. What do you think about Valenti and Golis’ wedding, the NYT‘s coverage, and Harris-Lacewell’s response? And what does a “feminist wedding” mean to you?
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.