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Marriage Rites and Rights

A wedding is always a spectacle in the sense that it is a public display or performance. But In Society of the Spectacle, French social theorist Guy Debord defines spectacle slightly differently. Dubord writes that

“the spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between the people that is mediated by images.”

Weddings are now spectacles in the way Dubord meant: they are not so much about relationships, but how those relationships are then publicly displayed as images.  At this point in time, all weddings are always already mediated by the images of other weddings.

Well, royal weddings have long been spectacles, but before the 19th century it was difficult to circulate the images of royal weddings to the masses. By 1840, when Victoria married Albert, technology was far enough along that the wedding could be circulated in newspapers throughout the world. The white dress of Victoria was an image that women could consume, but not imitate since few could wear a dress for one day, but about a century later, as factories could produce huge numbers of dresses for a fairly low cost, the white wedding gown became a must-have item for most weddings.  As photography and then videography blossomed, the image of the wedding could be produced and then circulated and then reproduced and recirculated. It is this mediation of weddings by images of weddings, whether from movies, reality TV shows or among friends and families, that moved weddings from a real event to a spectacular one.

But if all weddings are now spectacles, why was a particular wedding singled out in the “Vows” section of the New York Times this week? The article was entitled  ”The Wedding as Spectacle, Bearing a Message” and chronicled the incredibly extravagant affair thrown by Bill White, 44, and Bryan Eure, 32.

I am not clear how these two men are so important (White is the former president of the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum and Eure sells commercial insurance), but somehow they know everybody and their mother. The wedding singer was Aretha Franklin, their guests included important actors and journalists, like Barbara Walters,  as well as former New York governors and mayors. Sarah Maslin, writing in the Times, described the event as “a carefully orchestrated spectacle to draw attention to legalizing same-sex marriage.”

And it surely sounds like a spectacle with bowls of flag lapel pins for guests who

…walked up one of three carpets — red, white or blue — flanked by 40 uniformed members of the Naval R.O.T.C. Honor Guard… At the coat check, the Gay Men’s Chorus heralded guests with “Son of a Preacher Man” in front of a gaggle of identically dressed young women who seemed to be siphoning celebrity guests from the crowd, directing each group into different rooms… To start the ceremony, Ronan Tynan, of the Irish Tenors, and others sang “God Bless America.”

All this patriotism to highlight the right of these two men to marry and the fact that in most states such a marriage is impossible (not to mention the fact that the Defense of Marriage Act prevents such a marriage from being recognized at a federal level) certainly twists the spectacular nature of weddings by re-representing it as not just romance, but also claims to citizenship.

And it is not the extravagance of the wedding that is striking (since many of the weddings in the Vows section display similar levels of wealth and consumption) nor the fact that it is two men (since many of the Vows articles are about same sex couples at this point), but the marriage of politics and romance that seems to have created a need to dismiss the wedding as spectacle rather than love.

But of course not only are all weddings spectacle at this point, but they are also political theater. As marriage has become the most important site of citizenship rights in the U.S., from accessing healthcare to inheritance, it has also become a political rite marking those who participate as worthy and deserving (and those who do not or cannot as not really full citizens).  This spectacular wedding’s marriage of romance and patriotism made the connection between rites and rights, romance and patriotism, explicit—and for that it was named spectacle. But really, even if romance forces us to pretend otherwise, marriage is always a spectacular display of citizenship even without the red, white, and blue carpets and bowls of flag lapel pins.

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