Contents | February 2001
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The Wedding Merchants - Page 3
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f class confusion is the order of the day at many white weddings, these occasions are also chock-full of conflicting messages regarding the bride's sexual experience. The white dress; the hand-off from father to groom; the lifting of the veil, which undresses the bride just a bit; and the presence of flowers and small children (evoking the fertility that will soon be unleashed) are all popular components—in various combinations—of the modern wedding.
Perhaps most representative of this ambiguity is the kiss that concludes the wedding ceremony, permission for which is granted only after bride and groom have been legally transformed into man and wife. Often, Miss Manners writes, the kiss "draws laughter, as if it were a love scene viewed by an audience of early adolescents." Although few couples would forgo this crowd-pleasing bit of business, many have reshaped its purpose, using it not to mark a newly sanctioned physical relationship but rather to give a peek at one that is already red-hot. More than once during the rehearsals on A Wedding Story I have seen the officiant instruct the intendeds to approach this moment with a bit of decorum. What patsies these poor clergy members must feel like, forced into the role of a sexual naif primly instructing a young man who has been living with his girlfriend for the past three years that he "may kiss the bride." Well, why not? He's been doing God knows what else to her since the night they met at the softball-league happy hour.
To pick up an issue of Bride's magazine, which has been instructing American women on weddings since 1934, is to find this confusion writ large. In one respect Bride's harks back to a time when women's magazines never mentioned sex at all, and the advice on offer was of a most genteel nature. A recent issue is full of the kind of pointers that well-bred mothers have given their daughters for generations: write the thank-you note as soon as you get the gift; send the announcement to the newspaper several weeks before the wedding. The advertisements (and they are staggering in number) feature brides so demure that many of them can't even look us in the eye; they gaze off in deepest repose or trail clouds of tulle through the marble lobby of the Ritz-Carlton, Pentagon City. The reader of Bride's, it seems, is meant to make an imaginative leap, to enter a world of untouched ladies preparing chastely for their most special day.
And yet. I'm not quite sure what to make of the young miss who writes that "a few months ago, my fiancé and I"—"fiancé": old-fashioned word, isn't it?—"started watching porn together," which has caused the couple a specific problem that I had no idea was within the purview of Bride's magazine. Then there's the unfortunate woman who seems to have spent down her sexual capital a little too early in the game: "I promised my fiancé that once we were engaged, I'd do anything he wanted, sexually speaking. Now he's suggesting a threesome." (This is one of the reasons those unliberated but canny girls of an earlier era didn't put out until after they had tossed the bouquet: they didn't want to have to put the kibosh on icky sexual fantasies before they'd established joint checking.)
The problem of introducing drama to the wedding night is a big one, and Bride's tackles it unflinchingly. It's uphill all the way. The bride should consider packing her honeymoon suitcase with "a bunch of sex-research books" and "two highlighter pens in two different colors." Call Domino's and pass the No-Doz; it's gonna be an all-nighter. If she's absolutely determined to unveil a new trick, the bride might consider a suggestion that involves a thirty-six-inch strand of acrylic pearls, preferably strung on nylon, and some water-based personal lubricant, although she is cautioned (in what may be the issue's single best piece of advice) to "be careful with the necklace's clasp."
In one sense, all this is in line with the kind of information to be found in many magazines aimed at today's young single women—publications that have supplemented frank information about reproductive health with step-by-step sexual instruction (a typical copy of Jane makes the Kama Sutra look like a compendium of calisthenics for senior citizens). It seems in today's climate that only prudes and religious fanatics suggest that young women ought to forgo sexual experience before marriage; very few grooms, certainly, are troubled by a bride's colorful past. Marry Me! is a recent book by three "professional guys" who share the secrets of snaring one of their elite confraternity (and any woman hell-bent on becoming the helpmeet of an orthopedic surgeon, an accountant, or a lawyer should by all means pony up the $13.98 for Amazon's overnight-shipping option). Along with some repeated—and to my mind rather pointed—advice along the lines of "Never comment in any way about your man's penis being small," the brain trust informs readers how many men they can sleep with and still end up married to a CPA: ten. You're not necessarily out of luck if you worked your way through most of Sigma Chi during junior year, but you are going to have to lie about it.
But the sexual experience (or, rather, sexual ennui) of the contemporary couple accounts in no small part for why—much to the delight of caterers and banquet-hall operators everywhere—today's wedding receptions seem never to end: with only a dispiriting and possibly dangerous interlude with acrylic pearls awaiting them in the bridal suite, there is nothing to hurry the principals off the dance floor. The couple is far more interested in boogying down at the opulent party they've ordered—after all the hard work, a chance to have some fun!—than in attending to the drudgery of consummating the marriage. There was a time when a wedding wasn't just a fancy party, when it commemorated an occasion of tremendous moment, as true ritual always has—in this case the beginning of a woman's sexual life. The reception was once marked by a particular kind of shared anxiety, which fostered a genre of American humor that is now all but lost: the wedding-night joke. The clanging of tin cans tied to getaway cars struck a primal note that nobody failed to locate and that no amount of Ritz-Carlton catering can ever reproduce.
oday a wedding unites a couple who may or may not spend the rest of their lives together and who may or may not have nullified the spirit of their every promise with an ironclad prenuptial agreement. Usually the sexual union has already occurred, and oftentimes cohabitation, with its disappointments and indignities, is in full swing. A bride's beautiful white gown and her flock of flower-bearing attendants may constitute nothing more than an enduring female attraction to the sort of thing that would make Betty Friedan lean her old gray head against the keyboard and weep. Or they may be part of a frantic and terribly expensive effort to infuse a wedding with some small measure of the meaning it once had.
A little more than thirty years ago Joan Didion reported, in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, on the Las Vegas wedding industry—which, she found, was not based solely on "the premise that marriage, like craps, is a game to be played when the table seems hot." She found instead that the Vegas wedding chapels, "with their wishing wells and stained-glass paper windows and their artificial bouvardia," were in fact selling "'niceness,' the facsimile of proper ritual, to children who do not know how else to find it."
Today's children do know where to find "proper ritual." They find it in a thousand showrooms and expos and trunk sales; they skip out on student loans to pay for it; and when they need more cash for the limos, they transform their bridal registries into complicated money-laundering operations (a place setting of Lenox is, after all, a liquid asset). One can't help thinking that they would trade every bit of it for one simple, elusive assurance: only death will part us.
Photograph by CSA Archive.
Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; February 2001; The Wedding Merchants - 01.02; Volume 287, No. 2; page 112-118.