- The Wedding Complex: Forms of Belonging in Modern American Culture
There's a crass old joke—still popular in low-end greeting cards—that goes something like this: "If I knew how much fun the honeymoon was, I would have got married years ago." In The Wedding Complex Elizabeth Freeman plays on the same theme, using the wedding rather than the honeymoon as her starting point. To Freeman, our culture got it backward. Marriage is the lifelong hangover after a really great party that starts and, sadly, ends with the wedding.
Freeman's idiosyncratic research strategy, which ranges from the American literary canon to modern experimental film to U.S. presidents' daughters' weddings, yielded what she calls an "archive of found objects." From this archive she "disinters" two main themes: a dialectic between "the wedding form and the institutional control of heterosexual couplehood" and the possibility of making "minoritized or subjugated affinities between people more culturally legible" (xiv). There is, for Freeman, a "productive non-equivalence" between marriage as an institution and its great kickoff, the ritual that "represents and guarantees" it (xv). Thus weddings can subvert marriage. By examining the wedding, particularly those that are the easiest to see (i.e., the ones in fiction, film, or elsewhere in pop culture), Freeman invites us to view the dramatization of ties "altogether outside of, beyond, or even antithetical to couplehood itself" (3). The power of the wedding, she declares, is the way it "preserves exactly what it claims to renounce: cultural possibilities for organizing social life beyond either the marital or mass imaginary" (44). [End Page 100]
Weddings are indeed a curious combination of medieval and modern, at once sexually demure and boisterous, carnivalesque and consumer-driven. The ritual bears the marks of the ages, and every garter, vow, and grain of rice can be deciphered and dated. Indeed, there is a vast literature—by sociologists, anthropologists, and historians—that has done just that. Freeman's original contribution to this topic stems from her feminist and queer sensibility and her own ambivalence about where the current drive for same-sex marriage is leading us. Concerned about a movement that praises monogamy and mortgages as the apex of commitment, Freeman wishes instead that we could collectively imagine "new ways of being in relation . . . to produce something like a deployment of affinity" (x).
Freeman is on much stronger ground in her analysis of the present than the past. Her excursion through literary and cultural representations of American weddings is too fast and too loose. This study is "American" only when Freeman wants to make a (selective) point about nationalism; it is uninformed by basic texts on the history of ritual and carnival, and, most frustratingly, the choices of books and films are never really explained. Imagine how many novels and films have weddings in them; on what basis did Freeman make her selections? Why Father of the Bride and not, to draw one random example, The Philadelphia Story? Why an entire chapter on Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom and seven (truly fascinating) pages on Tricia Nixon's wedding? I also note crankily that this is the second book in cultural studies I've read recently that lists "cocktail party conversation" about the subject as a means of research. Could we not simply agree that everyone writing a book talks about it with friends and colleagues? And while I'm all in favor of the conversational style, some conversations—like the national, temporal, or geographic framework of one's research, for example—are more important than others.
So the contemporary analysis definitely outshines the historical and literary argument here. But the timeliness, sophistication, and originality of the argument make this a worthwhile book, even (actually, especially) for those beyond the field of "wedding studies." It's also well written and occasionally hilarious. I write from Canada, where in the past month alone same-sex marriage has become a lifesaver for a desperate tourist industry, a serious political liability for the federal government, and an...