Sunday 5 August 2012

Here Comes the Heteropatriarchy: Sexism in Marital Traditions

By Devonne

I love weddings. Wedding are fun. Weddings involve three of my favourite things – dressing up, eating food that someone else is paying for, and dancing. You know what else I like? Marriage. Love? Commitment? Monogamy? I’m a big fan of all of that. No, not everyone wants those things, and I strongly disagree with the idea that everyone would be happier married. But if you do want those things and you find someone you want them with? Go for it. What I don’t like is heteropatriarchy. And unfortunately, while I would love to just enjoy the candy buffet, and dance to Madonna in my brand new pair of heels, the sexism in marital traditions is just too glaringly obvious.
Heteropatriarchy is a big word – one that my computer doesn’t even recognize (my iPhone has learned to autocomplete it though, it’s such a good little feminist in training) but it has a pretty simple definition. Heteropatriarchy is straight male dominance. Heterosexuality is organized in such a way that the power that men have in society (patriarchy) gets carried into romantic relationships. An example of how this works is that in heterosexual families women do most of the housework and childcare because that’s how our gender roles are set up. In same-sex marriages you can’t decide who stays home with the kids and who works or who does the cooking or cleaning based on gender. So you might actually have to make these decisions based on logical reasons like who makes more money, or who likes their job more, or who is a better cook. So when social conservatives talk about how gay marriage ruins the family? They’re kind of right. It ruins the traditional (aka patriarchal) family because it shows you can have marriages and families without dumb gender roles. And that’s a good thing.

Heteropatriarchy is present in heterosexual relationships before and after a couple ties the knot. Some of the best examples of heteropatriarchy can be found right at the wedding, in certain romanticized traditions. For starters there’s the whole taking the husband’s name thing. This is super romanticized, if  you’re looking for proof just look at the thousands of young girls diaries with Mrs. (boy’s first name) (boy’s last name) written in the margins or take a glance at the recent status update of a not-so-young Facebook friend of mine announcing that she was now  Mrs. __________. Because giving up your name and identity to be defined by your marriage to someone else is supposedly super romantic. There’s the argument that “it’s just a name” and it doesn’t really have anything to do with sexism or the role of women in society. Except that when you ask men if they would take their fiancée’s last name they often exclaim “No! That would be so emasculating!” (direct quote from male relative of mine). If it was just a name, men wouldn’t be so opposed to taking a woman’s name. Clearly names do in fact matter. Am I saying that all women shouldn’t take their husband last names? No, I’m not. I just think that’s there’s lots of other options – both keeping their surnames, taking the wife’s surname, hyphenating, combining, making up a whole new name, and I wish people  would take the time to think about it and discuss it with their partner before just reverting to sexist tradition. I’ve talked to married women who have regretted changing their name and wish they’d thought more carefully about it. Personally, I don’t know what I would do. I like the idea of having the same name as your husband and your children so I think I’d lean more to the combining/hyphenating direction.

Anyways, let’s move on to another sexist marital tradition, one that occurs at the wedding itself. That lovely moment when the father walks his little girl down the aisle to give her away to her groom. Yeah, thanks but no thanks. This one stems back to the days when marriage was a contract and women were property being transferred from one man to another. I think this one is still pretty common, although I have seen a lot of brides on TV (I went through this phase one summer where I watched TLC wedding shows every day) being walked down the aisle by both their mother and father. Which is a tremendous improvement; it recognizes both parents at least and becomes a little less about male dominance. Recently, my friend went to a same-sex wedding where instead of being “given away” both women walked toward each other with their friends and family surrounding them in a circular formation. Now that is actually romantic and heartwarming. And would completely work for a heterosexual couple too. Ideally I’d like to elope (if I get married) but if for some reason I end up having a wedding, I’m totally picking the walk towards each other thing.

And now for the absolute worst marital tradition of all, the one that prompted me to write this post in the first place. A couple weeks ago I’m watching the finale of The Bachelorette. Now I know The Bachelor/Bachelorette series is trashy, ridiculous, and promotes completely unrealistic ideas about love. It very rarely ever actually results in a marriage (the goal of the show).  But just hold off with the judgement over me watching The Bachelorette for a few minutes here.  It’s the finale and we’re down to the final two guys. For those of you who have better things to do than watch women obsess over the fact that they’re not married yet while they travel around the world and make out with as many guys as possible, I will fill you in. This is the part where both guys meet the bachelorette’s family. So I’m watching, eating some ice cream, and thinking about how completely adorable Jef (potential suitor #1) is when he just has to go do something stupid like ask Emily’s (the bachelorette’s) father for permission to propose to her.  Sigh. He’s not perfect after all. Then contestant #2 (Arie) comes along the next day and…asks Emily’s father the same thing. This happens every season without fail so I was hardly surprised. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t seriously irritated though. There are so many things wrong with this. Firstly, Emily is a 26 year old grown woman. She has a kid. She hardly needs her father’s permission to do anything. I understand that for some people parental approval is extremely important. But to ask the father before you even ask the girl? That makes no sense. Also, he’s not asking her mother. Not because Emily is closer with her father or anything like that. No, no, this is all based on the fact that her father is male and therefore is given the position of power. People who are in favor of this practice argue that it’s traditional and it’s “gentlemanly” and it’s really a “respect” thing. What about respect for the woman? Personally I would feel disrespected if my (hypothetical) boyfriend and father were treating me like property being transferred from one man to another. In fact, I’d be so pissed I would turn down the proposal (although seriously, if anyone thought that asking my Dad for permission to marry me was a good idea they clearly don’t know me at all and we shouldn’t be getting married anyway). I don’t know how common this practice actually is, and from what I’ve heard it’s fading away because it’s pretty old-fashioned. But The Bachelor/Bachelorette shows and internet how to guides on how to ask (they suggest you have a man-to-man conversation. Unless the father is dead, in which case you ask the mother) prove that it has not disappeared. If this sexist tradition is for some reason important to one of the people in the relationship or to the parents of someone in the relationship, here is what I would suggest: sit down with both parents of your fiancé/fiancée and ask for their blessing (rather than their son/daughter’s hand). That way the parents are included without the male dominance crap.

Traditions are never devoid of meaning and we should always look at where that tradition originated from and question why we follow it. We sometimes romanticize sexism, when there are so many other non-sexist and more romantic ways to do things. Weddings are wonderful, joyous occasions. And they would that much more wonderful if they didn’t include heteropatriarchy.


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  2. I know this is kinda an old post buttt i AGREE this heteronormative patriarchal society is trying to oppress us and get us to conform to these stupid rules

  3. What a drag you are .... It's ten years on. Let me guess, you still not married.