You Don't Have to Wear White: Rethinking Those Disney-esque Marriage Traditions

While the idea of marriage may be outdated and tied to patriarchal, gender/sex-biased traditions, it remains an ideal for the majority of Americans
03/26/2013 06:45 pm ET Updated May 26, 2013

"Very often women who are feminists still behave according to sexist traditions when it comes to events like marriage. We have all been to weddings of self-identified feminists who have kitchen-teas, wear white wedding dresses etc. Why do these traditions persist?" ― Cheryl de la Rey, "Culture, Tradition and Gender: Let's talk about it.

I recently had a conversation with a soon-to-be married colleague about the influx of debates and blog posts on whether women should take their husbands' names when they marry. She was rather upset that so many women (almost 90 percent) still succumb to such patriarchal, gender/sex-biased traditions in 2013. As a fellow feminist, I, too, find many of the prevailing norms associated with the marriage-industrial complex to be quite problematic and in need of reevaluation and/or removal from today's rather anti-women, anti-black, anti-queer, anti-trans society. However, I also realize that not all women, including many of my closest childhood friends, fully comprehend the consequences of abiding by lasting traditions that have been ingrained in us since the doctor said, "It's a girl." Some of us didn't grow up hearing words like "patriarchy" and "feminism." We weren't taught to question Disney-esque customs that were fed to us as timeless and "just the way it is." We didn't grasp that the overwhelming majority of romantic traditions are deeply rooted in sexism and heterosexism, attempting to turn "sweet" little girls into passive women. Fortunately, I had enlightening feminist professors, peers, and colleagues in college and graduate school to impart some much-needed wisdom.

So, instead of ranting about the absurdity of "I choose my choice!" feminism and the so-called "happy feminist housewives," I offer this list to all of my friends and any other women who were never taught that there are no actual rules set in stone that say we must change our last names and wear a white gown when we walk down the aisle in order to have our versions of "happily ever after." Hopefully, if we continue to engage in constructive dialogue about the institution of marriage, we can aid in undoing the subjugation of women and all other marginalized people. In the words of feminist theorist and critic bell hooks:

I still think it's important for people to have a sharp, ongoing critique of marriage in patriarchal society -- because once you marry within a society that remains patriarchal, no matter how alternative you want to be within your unit, there is still a culture outside you that will impose many, many values on you whether you want them to or not.

1. You don't have to change your last name. It's upsetting that as young girls we are still taught that our names are only temporary, and that a part of achieving our "happy ending" involves taking on our husband's last name. In grade school, we often drew hearts and scribbled our first name along with the last name of our crush in our marble-covered notebooks. We imagined last names that would fit perfectly with our first names. Honestly, we need to stop embedding notions of temporality and inadequacy into the minds of little girls. Think about it. Your name is an essential part of your identity. From birth, you carry it with you wherever you go. On your birth certificate, driver's license, diploma, school ID, passport, etc. You create a life with this name. So, when you take on the name of your husband, you are essentially losing a part of your identity and giving in to a societal myth that says woman cannot be whole without a man to complete her. Guardian columnist Jill Filipovic recently sparked a debate around this topic with her article, "Why Should Married Women Change Their Names?," in which she argues that to change your name is to give up "the most basic marker of your identity."

When women see our names as temporary or not really ours, and when we understand that part of being a woman is subsuming your own identity into our husband's, that impacts our perception of ourselves and our role in the world," she writes. "It lessens the belief that our existence is valuable unto itself, and that as individuals we are already whole. It disassociates us from ourselves, and feeds into a female understanding of self as relational -- we are not simply who we are, we are defined by our role as someone's wife or mother or daughter or sister.

2. You don't have to wear a white dress...or even have a wedding. While I often heard jokes and "Oh, no she didn't"s about a relative with two children who wore a white gown to all three of her weddings, I never actually took the time to truly question the traditional long white gown and white wedding. I never questioned why women continue to buy into Disney fantasies and the false promises of the wedding industry as divorce rates continue to rise. Or why as little girls, it is "normal" for us to clip photographs from bridal magazines and sketch the "perfect" white princess gown as we plan our "perfect" white wedding.

According to historian Ellen K. Rothman, "The elaborate wedding was critical to a Victorian woman's identity because it was her reward for having remained a virgin." While some women today are against the Victorian-style white wedding and wedding gown because of its association with innocence and purity, others embrace such symbols, longing for rituals that once again respect female sexuality in a contemporary society that demeans and devalues our bodies and sexualities. Conversely, women such as Cele C. Otnes and Elizabeth H. Pleck contend that the color white no longer retains these previous symbols. In Cinderella Dreams, the two argue that "nonvirgins with independent incomes, now the bridal majority...have redefined the meaning of white as a symbol of tradition rather than of purity.

In her 1994 essay, "Brideland," Naomi Wolf discussed women's enduring attraction to the bride image and "perfect" wedding. As a young, soon-to-be married feminist, Wolf was both drawn to the bridal world and very critical of a ceremony "that leaves no doubt as to the naked patriarchialism of ... its origins." She writes: "How can I endorse an institution that, in the not-too-distant past, essentially conveyed the woman over to her husband as property, denying her even the right to her own property? How can I support a system that allows me to flaunt my heterosexual relationship brazenly, but forbids deeply committed gay and lesbian friends of mine to declare their bonds in the same way?" Wolf concludes with a final question: "And, less profoundly, but no less urgently, if I were to do it, what on earth would I wear?"

3. You don't have to be a housewife. Marriage does not mean housewife or caterer to everyone but yourself. There is this underlying cultural assumption that once a woman is married, she will take on a plethora of household responsibilities (or "wifely" and "motherly" duties) at the expense of her personal fulfillment. Cleaning up after your children, arranging playdates, and making sure dinner is hot when your husband gets home should be all we need to be happy, right? It's as if once we say "I do" and/or give birth, we are no longer individuals with our own goals, interests, preferences, and hobbies, but rather, we are mothers and wives expected to cater to our husbands and children. We go from autonomous human beings to washing machines, dishwashers, vacuum cleaners, and sex toys, and are shamed when we decide to take on roles outside of these patriarchal, predetermined prescriptions. Nevertheless, this doesn't need to be your reality. You do not have to accept and perpetuate these culturally determined submissive roles of what a "wife" and "mother" should and should not be. And, even if you personally choose to be a stay-at-home mom because you think it is what you want and you believe that you are "having it all by choosing to stay home," you're not. If you don't believe me, just listen to Beyoncᅢᄅ (since everyone loves "Queen Bey"): "Equality is a myth...I truly believe that women should be financially independent from their men. And let's face it, money gives men the power to run the show. It gives men the power to define value. They define what's sexy. And men define what's feminine. It's ridiculous."

4. You don't need a (blood) diamond. I always know an acquaintance is recently engaged when I open my Facebook page and see pictures of her engagement ring along with her freshly painted French manicure. In addition to the notion that an engagement ring functions as yet another custom that allows a man to mark his "territory," many diamonds are considered "blood diamonds." According to Amnesty International, "Some diamonds have helped fund devastating civil wars in Africa, destroying the lives of millions. Conflict diamonds are those sold in order to fund armed conflict and civil war. Profits from the trade in conflict diamonds, worth billions of dollars, were used by warlords and rebels to buy arms during the devastating wars in Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Sierra Leone. Wars that have cost an estimated 3.7 million lives." Are Facebook photos really that important?

5. You don't have to get married. There are frequent reports on marriage and relationship trends in the U.S., which tend to regurgitate oft-quoted statistics such as "half of all marriages end in divorce" and "married couples are no longer the majority." Additionally, marriage has unique implications and consequences for African Americans; for example, black women in all socioeconomic categories are the least likely to marry and most likely to divorce. According to black, feminist, marriage-equality advocate Melissa Harris-Perry (formerly Melissa Harris-Lacewell): "Marriage itself is still bolstered by a troubling cultural mythology, a history of domination, and a contemporary set of gendered expectations that render it both unsatisfying and unstable for many people." Yet, "a majority of unmarried people -- 61 percent -- still want to get married, even some of those who don't have a very rosy view of the institution." Given such conditions, why is there still so much fuss over getting married? According to psychotherapist William Berry: "Cultural tradition and expectations, the desire to possess another, and the idea of being a princess or prince for a day are at the root of most people's desire to marry." Forbes contributor Kay Hymowitz adds: "Americans still love marriage because, more than other people, they need to put down roots. As a nation, we have a bad case of ADD...For all its disappoints, then, marriage still strikes most Americans as the best hope for creating permanent connections. The fact that it doesn't work out that way for so many couples doesn't change the longing people have to feel like they belong somewhere with someone."

In short, while the idea of marriage may be outdated and tied to patriarchal, gender/sex-biased traditions, it remains an ideal for the majority of Americans. Seeing that this social norm continues to endure, it is time to make the institution of marriage less oppressive and more inclusive of all people (women; African Americans; the poor; gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people; etc.) and possibilities -- (from marriage equality and equal marriages to equal rights and security for those who opt out of marriage altogether).