An Ironic, Low-Key, Unconventional Wedding Is Still a Wedding

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An ethically sourced engagement ring doesn't change the fact that you're engaged, just like a girl who got her jewelry at Zales.

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Bride-to-be Iris from Portlandia does not want anything that "reads as wedding" at her wedding (IFC)

There are, the New York Times reports, engagement rings designed with "'gals'" who "'don't want to look engaged'" in mind. Rings with black diamonds, or a vintage appearance, that look more Brooklyn than Zales. Rings, that is, for women happy to get married, and to wear gendered diamond-and-gold engagement jewelry, but who would rather if the significance of said accessories be kept quiet.

The market for discreet nuptial rings points to a wave of ambivalence operating counter to bridezilladom, the phenomenon of brides-to-be obsessing over every detail of what they view as the biggest day of their lives. It is just one sign of a discomfort on the part of certain women who have heteronormative desires (an opposite-sex partner, a document acknowledging the relationship, a dress...) with what these desires say about them.

When first noticing this phenomenon in 2011, I not un-snarkily referred to it as "fauxbivalence", a term that doesn't quite capture what is really a mix of genuine ambivalence and a performance thereof. Fauxbivalence is to be distinguished from cold feet, or a simple lack of interest in marriage. It refers exclusively to women who do want in on the institution, but who find this somehow embarrassing.

Fauxbivalent anxieties center around engagement rings, so often perceived as the ultimate symbol of wedding narcissism. The rings elicit squeals, but also anti-squeals. Fauxbivalence is central to the strangely compelling Jezebel posts about engagement jewelry. The comment threads can turn into contests over whose ring strays furthest from Tiffany. "I recently got engaged and my fiance got me a beautiful ring - 3 uncut diamonds (ethically sourced) set in silver :)," writes one. Rustic and ethical is good, heirloom and non-diamond better: Writes another: "My engagement ring was a really simple ruby and gold ring that belonged to my husband's grandmother. My wedding ring is a titanium band that matches my husband's. We bought them as a pair from an Etsy vendor who makes their own jewelry." Etsy, of course. But one can do better! Writes another, seemingly in earnest: "I'd take a blueberry ring pop and wear the little plastic piece forever."

The site does have a sense of humor about this, giving "comment of the day" to the following: "MY engagement ring is made out of an ethically sourced diamond encrusted with lentils on a locally harvested unicorn poop band." The competitiveness one expects women to demonstrate regarding whose ring is flashiest lives on, only in the other direction.

A similar discomfort with wanting the traditional trappings of marriage is present in the comments to Liz McDaniel's clever story of being dumped just prior to her wedding, then landing a job at, of all places, a bridal magazine.

One wrote:

I read this hoping that it there would be a happy ending - that surrounded by the massive consumer industry that brainwashes women into thinking they're supposed to be 'brides', the author would realize that the gazebos, tulle, diamonds, cake, and all the other products she envisioned are completely meaningless.

This commenter, and others less sympathetic, interpreted the story as the justified comeuppance of a woman who wanted a wedding, who lacked the decency to at least feign blasé.

It's easy to see why many women would have qualms about the Wedding Industrial Complex. The symbolism of a wedding can feel not merely anti-feminist but out-of-date, relics of a time when a woman's wedding day was the decisive moment in her life. And bridal beauty! Who could forget the New York Times story on the feeding-tube bride? There are professional concerns as well. What message is conveyed if one shows up for a job interview wearing a ring? Does wedding-talk at work read as announcing one's departure? All nuptial hysteria is assumed to come from the bride until proven otherwise.

It can seem as though no matter how one imagines it will go, a wedding will almost atavistically slide back into traditionalism. There's a temptation quasi-apologize for these slip-ups. Much fauxbivalence results from situations in which a woman wants not just marriage, but some of the not-so-progressive-seeming trappings. If you see yourself as the kind of person who wouldn't want a white dress, say, you may find yourself explaining—to yourself, to friends, or to a mass audience—why you went with one. See one woman's thoughts on changing her name "for pretty idiosyncratic reasons," a piece she wrote after explaining her pre-wedding diet-and-workout regime as not vanity, but also about "getting much, much stronger." A serious woman will have at least thought through these various concerns, but may well end up where she'd have been had she unquestioningly embraced the default.

But fauxbivalence has the potential to be just as alienating and even snobbish as bridezilladom. What first led me to coin the term was an essay by a young woman who married her live-in boyfriend for health-insurance purposes. Certain details (the ironic dive-bar "'reception,'" in quotes in the original) suggest that the author and her husband did want to get married, but that this felt too bourgeois:

My coworkers from the suburbs had been hard-pressed to find anything to talk to me about, but now they were fawning all over me. Buried in their generic 'congratulations!' were little epiphanies—they'd finally found a way to relate to me.

Getting married revealed that the author shared something with suburbanites—and not the hip kind. As life choices go, marriage is the height of square. From her essay, it appears that the author objected less to the commitment of marriage than to the fact that being a married woman made her seem conventional.

But the pressure to be different can be its own conformity. This itself has class implications. As Bourdieu has told us, taste is wrapped up in socioeconomic class. Weddings are expensive, ergo the rich must be the ones going all-out. But it's like a hatred of McMansions. If spending less (and the tasteful choice isn't always the less expensive) is about seeming more intellectual or old-money, then it, too, is a form of showing off.

I sympathize with much of fauxbivalence, and welcome a counterweight to the extremes in the other direction. As excited as I was to marry my now-husband, planning a wedding—let alone going into debt for one—is not something that ever interested me, so I appreciate those who insist that one is no less married for choosing City Hall. And I never did like the idea of "engaged," although this may have been less fauxbivalence and more the effect of many childhood viewings of the Seinfeld where Elaine tells off a woman bragging about her fiancé: "Maybe the dingo ate your baby." I especially sympathize with angst over pre-wedding workouts and name-changing, having noticed myself emphasizing the lower-key aspects of my own wedding—the non-bridal dress, say, but not the absurd amount I spent on shoes. Shoes I have worn several times since—see, the urge to explain away is strong—but still.

Fauxbivalence loses me, however, when it amounts to a refusal to accept a basic fact about weddings, which is that they acknowledge the universal in the particular. Whether you're a hipster or an accountant, straight or gay, chances are you will at some point want a spouse, and your desire for one will echo that of every other human being to be in that situation. Every relationship is unique, but a wedding is a way of momentarily setting aside that uniqueness and accepting that what you're experiencing—the public sanctioning of an intimate relationship—has been felt countless times before. That even if you do not own a North Face or a pair of Uggs, you have not invented some radical new way for two human beings to relate to each other. If what you want is what most everyone else does, better to support those with less conventional desires than to pretend that your own are one of a kind. Rather than playing up the subtle distinction between your alternative, low-key wedding and that of a suburban princess, you might be an ally to those who don't wish to get married at all, or who do but cannot in their jurisdiction.

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Phoebe Maltz Bovy is a writer based in Princeton, New Jersey. She holds a doctorate in French and French Studies from New York University.

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