- La passion du mariage [A passion for weddings] by Florence Maillochon
Since the 1970s, there have been many fewer marriages in France and people marry later in life.(1) Marriage, which used to constitute a fundamental step in the transition to adulthood, has now also been disconnected from living with an intimate partner in that it is preceded by sexual debut and cohabitation. However, from the 1990s, the wedding ceremony itself has been massively reinvested in France. Its forms have been diversified, and couples now celebrate their union as opulently as possible with the understanding that it is a moment for impressing wedding guests with their singularity and the force of the partners' commitment to each other.(2) Florence Maillochon here analyses a qualitative study of 49 young married couples(3), reconstituting the different stages of their wedding celebration, the intertwining of those stages, their conjugal meaning, and effects due to the roles associated with each sex.
The book explores the different components in the celebration sequence: the wedding announcement, wedding preparations and, finally, the wedding party. Maillochon's study of couples' discussions and choices during these different stages reveals the presumed individualization of the rite to be in fact "a regulating norm and constraint" that standardizes practices as couples comply with a "model of romantic luxury" (p. 346). Because wedding culture and the wedding industry(4) determine representations, most notably through film and marketing, partners ultimately make their choices within a precise and relatively circumscribed framework.
To begin with, the wedding announcement moment has been reorganized. While the notion of engagement refers in collective representations to age-old practices, despite the fact that their form has changed,(5) a new conjugal sequence known as the proposal has now emerged in France. In the first section of the book, Maillochon observes that marriage proposals seem to involve the staging of a "surprise" (p. 22). While in most cases, the couple's decision to marry is made jointly, it is important to recreate a feeling of surprise with the help of a special and, if possible, luxurious setting in which each partner performs a highly gender-specific role. The man organizes this event, which is supposed to surprise his future wife while being tailored to his own personality. And in the rare cases where the woman takes the initiative, her future spouse makes a second proposal, [End Page 161] considered from then on the only "true" one. For the proposal to be well made, it must take a special rather than banal form as it is supposed to attest to the depth of the man's commitment in front of friends and/or family. The second characteristic of the new type of wedding celebration in France is that the engagement has been "diffracted" into a series of events: the proposal, the announcement to the family, and increasingly, the announcement to the couple's circle of friends. Here again, the dominant way of proceeding is to stage a surprise: the couple organizes a meal and/or an evening party in a festive setting, seeking thereby to ensure their families' support for and participation in their future union. But in France, family responses often seem cooler than expected: a generation gap may be observed between parents, who may be critical of marriage as a model and who "reason above all in terms of an institution", and the younger generation, who "think mostly in terms of an event" (p. 85).
In the second section, the author analyses how wedding preparations are handled, notably by comparing couples' pre-wedding aspirations to how fully those aspirations were realized. She observes that the pre-event organization period has grown longer, amounting today to at least a year–a length of time that would have been considered excessive twenty years ago. The point of the organization period is to find ways to personalize or customize every stage of the ceremony and party, an observation that suggests "form is more important than substance" (p. 138). To ensure the event goes off well, a...