Wedlock. It’s the kind of word that ought to send chills down a modern woman’s spine. It describes with deadly aptness the prison-like qualities of that institution and evokes a cold sense of confinement and consignment. An Englishman’s home may be his castle, but an Englishman’s castle is an Englishwoman’s jail. The hermetic seal of wedlock provides the perfect cover, the immaculate veneer which conceals at worst domestic violence and emotional abuse and, as a norm, a vast well-documented housework and childcare disparity between the sexes.
And still women go for it. Indeed, according to the bizarro-world values of Hollywood, we can’t get enough of marriage – and it’s making us go bonkers. Last year the ultimate real girl, Carrie Bradshaw, turned into a couture-drenched Bridezilla in the Sex and the City film. And this week we have Anne Hathaway – another real-girl heroine after her appearance in The Devil Wears Prada, a loving tribute to the fashion industry – in two marital movies, Bride Wars and Rachel Getting Married. In all three cases the husbands-to-be might as well be shop mannequins, mutely looking bemused while the action unfolds around them. The real drama is among the women, who all seem to have been infected by a particular microscopic bug that lives in off-white silk tulle and transforms them into nitpicking obsessives who’ll scratch out each other’s eyes for their chance to be queen for a day. It says something about the paucity of women’s lives that a marriage offers them their one and only opportunity to feel significant.
The gender cliches are obvious. You have the stoical males looking on, genuinely baffled, as the women wind themselves up tighter and tighter, hysterically rechecking puny details and rejigging placements in a desperate attempt to make everything stylistically perfect. The pettiness and vulgarity of the ceremony is revealed in the women’s hunger for countless accessories, items, treats, fripperies, until the wedding resembles the Sunday pantomime of a precocious child. The wedding becomes a bitter parody of the marriage that is to follow: the lazy man who does absolutely nothing, the dynamic woman who overdoes everything but is lured by meaningless frivolities. Bagging a husband is such a great achievement for a woman in these films that she will humiliate herself a thousand times just to make it happen.
That’s the standard critique. But I have another take on it. I think there’s something significant behind women’s anxious need to create the perfect wedding, the overzealous management of every facet of the event and the perilous fear that if things go wrong, “everything” is ruined and the marriage is cursed. It’s ambivalence, deep ambivalence. It is generally accepted that the night before a wedding, the groom will get cold feet and get chivvied along by his friends before descending into a state of drunken acceptance, possibly after a nice visit to a brothel. But female doubtfulness is more dangerous, since marriage has been set up as such a great prize. Yet women too are dubious about it, and this is revealed by their desire to constantly reinforce a sense of the fated immaculacy of the day. The excessive focus on the staging is actually worry, fear, uncertainty, only sublimated and channelled.
The desire for a lifelong friendship with one loving, loyal, funny, kind, lively person is a natural wish and a genuinely sweet ideal. But I have no deep desire to get involved in the legalised prostitution trap cum labour exploitation racket that is wedded bliss. I know too much about the real, private, unequal life which follows the public spectacle, and the sight of Hollywood’s brides stroppily rending their designer label veils reassures me that a wedding really is more hassle than it’s worth.