"Inside The Weird, Romantic And Ridiculously Expensive World Of Wedding Culture"
Jen Doll has been to many, many weddings. She has attended as a maid of honor, bobby pins jammed into her scalp, and a drunk, heels-in-hand guest. Go to enough weddings and you start to notice, as Doll did, that everybody there—from the bride to the bartender—is hoping to get the best party favor of all: a good story.
What started for Doll as a writing exercise turned into an essay for The Hairpin and, from there, grew into a book, Save the Date, that simultaneously celebrates and investigates wedding culture in its weird, sometimes romantic, often expensive, preferably open-bar-having glory. “I’d been thinking for a long time about what it means to go through so many weddings throughout a life,” Doll said, and as a culture writer regularly tasked with thinking and writing about the lady-issues of the day—your “have it all” and “what does marriage mean” kinds of conversations—she decided to “tell it in a way that was more personal.” Read on for my conversation with Doll about couple culture, why the “perfect day” is a myth, and just how much money it costs to be a serial wedding guest.
In revisiting all these memories while writing the book, were you surprised by anything in particular?
I guess I was surprised in my writing that I was gentler about it. It’s easy to read a viral blog post about some bride being bitchy to her wedding guests who sent her a present she doesn’t approve of, those stereotypical anti-wedding stories. I never thought it was going to be a mean, snarky book. I’m way too earnest and mushy a writer for that. But I guess I didn’t expect [that] by the end of the book, the idea of love becomes so important to me. The idea of love not just through romantic love but through the friendships you’ve had in life…and how these support structures are kind of the best things in our lives. I didn’t expect to be so totally mushy about that…This common thread of a good wedding is based on this good connection between people you believe in, and in turn, believe in you as someone you want to be there.
I guess another thing that was interesting is the idea of tradition versus progress, and economy and independence versus wanting to be with people and wanting to have love and connections. If you look at just the idea of the institution of marriage, it seems very traditional and not very pro-woman, looking at the history of it. You could apply that same lens to wedding-having: this is girly, in a bad way. You’re just doing all this traditional stuff and you’re making your friends do this stuff. But if you look at it more broadly, there’s this great sisterhood aspect to it. I think a lot of it depends about how it’s done and how you’re treating other people.
It all seems to be exacerbated by the idea that you, as a friend, should be ready and willing to drop everything in your life for someone else’s life.
It’s hard not to feel a little bitter and irritated. I’m spending all my money on these people. I’m taking all my vacation days on these people. In the past there was this sense that “We all do this for each other because eventually it will happen to all of us,” and I wanted to explore the question of: what if it doesn’t happen to all of us? What if we don’t want it to happen to all of us? Is it really this quid-pro-quo scenario? I don’t want it to be that you do it just to get it back.
You didn’t explore this in the book too much, but I’m curious if you have any thoughts on the economics of weddings, especially from a guest’s perspective. Weddings are expensive to throw, of course, but they’re also expensive to attend—especially if you’re in that twenty-something or thirty-something sweet spot and you probably have multiple weddings a year to attend.
There were hints of it [in the book]. I’m talking about clothing I wore. The point of that is not to make it a book about fashion; it’s to give a broader kind of construct. If I talk about how much my shoes cost, it has to do with the growth of being this person in a life when you can start to spend money on yourself, but a lot of that money is going to weddings… Early on [in my twenties], it wasn’t a question of whether I would pay to go to other people’s weddings, because I thought if I was being invited to these huge important weddings, I had to go. And I wasn’t great with money. [I thought,] that’s what credit cards are for! And later in life, it was like, oh God, this is ridiculous… [I was just asked], about how much do you think you’ve spent on weddings?… The number I came up with was $24,000. So yeah, you could put a down payment on a house. But I guess I didn’t focus on the money too because I wouldn’t have given up those experiences for that much money. I don’t know. I do think it’s interesting. Of all the things you’re expected to spend money on in your life.
What’s especially interesting about the finances of weddings is that it’s not what the day is “supposed to be about” and yet there’s a lot of pressure on everyone to create a “perfect day,” and everything required to make that day “perfect” winds up costing a lot of money.
I absolutely hate the whole “perfect day” thing. I think it’s dangerous for a couple and dangerous for the wedding guests. The second you say it’s a perfect day, it’s going to become imperfect. Something will go wrong. And that a perfect day is supported by money and materialistic things, and the ideal flowers and the ideal dress, as opposed to the purpose that you’re there for, which is the interconnections between all these people. It makes things go askew very quickly.
You write in the book about this idea of “real life” being something that doesn’t start until you get married, which it feels like the culture of weddings does perpetuate. This the day that the couple’s lives really start, but then, what does that say about people who aren’t married? That their lives aren’t real?
That your real life doesn’t start until you’re married, of course, is so untrue. And why would these strong smart women with careers and lives, who do things, why would we believe our lives haven’t started yet? I think that pressure still exists in society: that you’re not really a full-grown adult until this happens. Although that is changing, there are remnants of it for sure. And in our heads, it can get confusing: I do want this, but not like this, what’s wrong with me if I don’t want it or don’t have it, why am I in my thirties and haven’t found this thing all my friends have found? And you can go in a tailspin: did my friends choose right? All those thoughts are things you can think when you’re going to weddings. And I guess the conclusion I came to is that, we have to all figure it out for ourselves, and don’t judge your friends too harshly for the decisions they make, because everyone’s got these pent up fraught things going on about weddings in their head.
Is this something you find your female friends think about more than your male friends do, or is it just more socially acceptable, or even more expected, for women to ruminate on wedding culture and marriage?
I think guys are thinking about it a lot. I just think they don’t say they’re thinking about it. The expectation for women, the stereotypical thing, is all women want to land a man. And it’s like, Hmmm, I don’t know WHAT women you’re talking about! I think a lot of women don’t actually feel that way. And the stereotype for guys is that they want to be bachelors for life, and they don’t want to get married, and they want to escape the clutches of this female who will, I don’t know, make them sandwiches and treat them nicely. I think both of those stereotypes are both incorrect. Most humans want to find people that they love… I don’t think the majority of people are anti-togetherness and partnership.
One thing you touch on a bit in the book is this weird, almost religious language couples use to talk about how they felt when they met or decided to be together: “You just know.”
“You just know.” What the fuck does that mean? There is a kind of language of talking about coupling. And I think that I’ve done it, at times, when I’ve been in a couple… you really do just want to feel like: I finally got there. We just knew. This one is different from all the rest. This is the right person. But could the right person have been the right person three boyfriends ago?
There’s a lot of retroactive self-mythologizing going on in couples, especially at weddings, where the past gets photoshopped and you hop-skip right over details like “Oh, we were wasted the first time we met and I didn’t even remember his name,” or “I was hitting on her friend first.”
“You just had a one night stand with him, remember?” Just because you’re getting married now doesn’t mean that didn’t happen! But with weddings we want to have a narrative. We want to believe in the fairy tale aspect of it, because it’s more romantic, it’s a better story. I think we recraft the story a little bit, as guests and the people getting married. We want a good story, and you want your love to have a good story.
Red Wedding < Purple Wedding < Your wedding, hopefully.
You have a passage in the book about what it means to be a feminist who is also invested in wedding culture and marriage. (“Can I be a strong, independent, self-assured woman and also say I’d like a boyfriend, and maybe even a husband, someone to care for who also cares for me, forever-and-ever-amen?”) Can you talk about wrestling with that idea, that fear of being a “bad feminist” when it comes to this aspect of life?
I think that it’s hard to look at weddings and marriage as a woman in our time without a little bit of cynicism and concern that it’s just giving up everything that women have fought so hard to achieve. Why would we just go back to this traditional thing? It’s representative of the bouquet toss: women are expected to claw each others’ eyes out for this stupid thing of flowers, and what these flowers mean are they get to get married too? It’s so undignified and exploitative, I think.
Bouquet tosses are the worst.
It’s so embarrassing! I think that it’s hard to be a feminist, progressive, smart woman and probably also urban, a person who reads New York media and D.C. media, and also be like, “But I just love weddings!” It seems like we’re not supposed to… I think we still feel uncomfortable expressing wedding love or bridal enthusiasm as feminists, and maybe that’s why there’s almost this bridal shaming that goes on and wedding guest shaming that goes on… You’re supposed to be a cool, independent, smart woman. I think, also, it is hard to both let your guard down and be open to loving people and feel like you can be self-protective and strong. It’s hard to be like, “Yeah! I want some other person in my life who loves me and take care of me.” Because if you admit that, does that mean you can’t take care of yourself? But I think that admitting that IS a way of taking care of yourself. There’s a point [in the book] where I say: it took me a long time to admit that. I don’t know what it looks like, I don’t know that it’s a marriage, but I do think it’s important to have people you love in your life.
You focus a lot on female friendships in the book. It does seem like weddings can be just as much about friendships as they are about romantic relationships. You can feel like you’re getting demoted; that there’s someone in your friend’s hierarchy of “people to call in an emergency” and you got bumped down a spot, or kicked off the list altogether. And if you’ve been there for their entire relationship, you know some dirt on the guy that you might not love, or be able to forgive.
The way that your conversations with your friends changes sometimes, when they’re married or getting married, that can be a very difficult thing to deal with. “All of a sudden, you seem like a different person from four weeks ago. You said Mike was a jerk, and now you’re getting married and now you say he’s perfect, and I know that’s not true.” That has obviously been a really hard thing in my life. And I think that the idea that marriage is this thing that you cannot criticize, and once they’ve decided you cannot talk to them the way you used to, that’s been really hard for me.
And in my twenties, it felt like this really hypocritical false way of being. So what I did was get drunk and let my feelings out, which is not what I recommend to other people!… It’s hard when a lot of judgments get involved, and your friends feel judged, and you’re just not communicating anymore. It’s really a difficult thing to navigate.
If you’re not even sure that this guy is the best guy for her, you want to defend your friend and your friendship. And what does that mean? I think it’s very confusing early on, when friends start getting married. It feels a little like a betrayal. All of these things we’ve shared, you picked this guy, and I know everything you told me about him, and now we’re not allowed to talk about it either? On the wedding side of it, a lot of brides feel like they can’t talk about it because it’s “What if I’m not doing the right thing? If I admit this stuff from my past, am I not going into my marriage wholeheartedly?”
Maybe weddings are so much pressure because you never get to make that big a deal out of anything else in your life. Why is it the wedding that gets this huge party? Why isn’t it, say, your first job, or some big athletic endeavor, some other achievement? A thirty year friendship anniversary party for you and your childhood best friend? It’s like, you get a bat mitzvah and then that’s it, until you get hitched.
Having not gotten married, the book launch party is the closest thing that I’ve experienced to people coming around to support and congratulate and be like “You’ve done it!” It is really funny that that’s applied to marriage and is the main thing you get that at. Because marriage is not something you can, to me anyway, just put on your list of things you’re going to do this year, and work really hard at it and cross it off the list. Unlike a new job or writing a book or getting healthy. It doesn’t seem to me like there’s a linear way to go about it, to make it a project. And maybe that’s why the parties are so big, and there’s something magic about it. We’re just all romantics.