It’s a widely held opinion that white wedding dresses bring sexist ideals to the altar.

You’ve probably heard the problematic claim that a bride should wear white to symbolize her sexual purity. I’ve been told by my own relatives that I need to wear white at my wedding for that very reason. And the reason I’m not going to is that any woman’s sexual history is her business. You’ll notice that the groom is never told to wear certain colors to symbolize his virginity.

I propose an end to women participating in traditions that are used to demean them.

But I don’t need to bore you with that argument, because you already know it, and judging by the continued popularity of white wedding dresses, it clearly hasn’t worked.

I think the bigger problem nowadays is that throughout the wedding, the bride is often treated like a child. She is supposed to be allowed to have everything she wants, because it’s her day, the most important day of her life. Not the day she got her degree, or the day that she became CEO, but the day that she got to put on the tiara and the white dress and have Prince Charming whisk her away to his castle.

Women as Children

The scholarly article “Gender, Media, and Madness: Reading a Rhetoric of Women in Crisis Through Foucauldian Theory,” makes this exact point, drawing upon the work of Jennifer Pozner in her book Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV. According to these authors, reality TV uses the idea of the “happy ending” to portray women as children, first in expecting them to want to be a fairy-tale princess, and second in exposing the temper tantrums they throw when they don’t get to be a fairy-tale princess.

If you don’t believe it that this relates to white wedding dresses, think about the wedding dresses you’ve seen, both in real life and in media portrayals. No doubt you’re calling to mind laughably impractical gowns with huge, puffy skirts or excessive trains. These are not grown-up dresses for women with careers; they are dresses for little girls that want to play pretend for a day.

You’ll notice that the media places way more emphasis on the way a bride looks on her wedding day than on how the groom looks. This creates the notion that the groom is not pledging his loyalty to a human being with equal autonomy, but that he is receiving a delightfully wrapped present that later will be his to unwrap.

A quick web search will bring up countless articles condemning the inherently sexist symbolism behind many of our most cherished wedding traditions, including the white dress. But these articles tend to lose their momentum in the conclusion, because they don’t want to make a statement. They claim that a bride can do whatever feels right for her, and that she can pick and choose what traditions to uphold. It’s OK if she still wants to participate in  rites that are trying to take away her very identity as a person, as long as it’s her choice.

This double standard is satirized in an article featured in The Onion, titled “Woman Takes Short Half-Hour Break From Being Feminist To Enjoy TV Show”. This piece follows feminist Natalie Jenkins as she watches an episode of Say Yes to the Dress, highlighting all the sexist aspects of the show that portray women as childish and demanding. Throughout the article, “Natalie” claims that none of this bothers her because right now she is relaxing; she’ll go back to smashing patriarchy once she’s enjoyed this brief respite.

While this article is hilarious, it’s also sad because “Natalie Jenkins” is all of us. Women recognize the ways that wedding traditions are sexist, but are willing to “take a break” from the cold, hard truth for the duration of their own weddings.

The TV Princess

We come up with any number of reasons that could possibly make having a traditional wedding OK– we’ll say that these customs have a different meaning for us, or that we don’t want to upset our families, or that we’re so confident in our equality that we don’t have to make a show of it– we’ll tell ourselves anything just so we can wear the pretty white dress and be like all the pretty princesses on TV.

I propose an end to the myth that women are children, to thinking of women as something to look at, and to fluffy white wedding dresses. I propose an end to women participating in traditions that are used to demean them.

Alternatively, you may consider starting a new tradition: dressing the grooms up in frilly white tuxedos and making them look like ridiculous cupcakes, too.


image via Steven Tom on Flickr