December 30, 2012

How same-sex marriage can save the traditional wedding

The lavish ceremonies of modern times actually constitute a radical break with tradition


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It is the lavish wedding of modern times that actually constitutes a radical break with tradition. The white dress and veil, expensive gifts, elaborate flowers and diamond rings are recent inventions fueled in the 1920s by an emerging consumer society and buttressed in the 1950s by an aspiring middle class that made the lavish wedding a rite of passage. Even the seemingly timeless diamond engagement ring, symbol for millions of eternal love, is an invention of 1930s and '40s mad men.

An extremely common stone, not at all rare (merely monopolized) the diamond shot to popularity thanks in large part to the N.W. Ayer advertising agency. In a series of dazzling campaigns, Ayer used images of famous cathedrals, world-renowned art museums and highly romanticized paintings of and by famous artists to link diamonds with the sacred and priceless. Sales of diamonds jumped 25 percent in the first six months of the campaign and by the 1950s diamonds were not just forever, they represented the first step in the highly choreographed march to the lavish church wedding. According to historian Elizabeth Pleck, consumers spend approximately $74 billion a year on diamonds while the average wedding costs more than $22,000.

If the New York Times "Style" section is any indication, same-sex marriage will not likely alter those numbers; the lavish wedding is an equal opportunity business. But same-sex marriage makes visible what the lavish wedding obscured: marriage as a legal act. No matter what the rites of organized religion, it is the state that legitimizes marriage, turning a private affair into a secular act of citizenship -- a contract with certain legal benefits, obligations and responsibilities. This, in a nutshell, is why same-sex marriage matters. "Yes on One" redefines the legal status of the couple, not the marriage contract they enter into.

For better or for worse, "traditional" marriage will always be subject to fashionable reinventions, but in a democracy like ours, marriage is a matter of laws historically shaped by the secular traditions that make our legal system meaningful and hopefully, in the near future, available to all United States citizens.

I'm ready.

Ardis Cameron is a professor of American and New England studies at the University of Southern Maine.


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