So what is a feminist bride-to-be to do with these traditions seeped in the patriarchy? If we incorporate these traditions into our weddings, are we willingly subjugating ourselves to the patriarchy and an unequal world view? Can we actually escape from the patriarchy while not abandoning our customs?
I do not in any way believe that traditions are stagnant. I believe that forms move freely between cultures, times, and peoples. We ascribe our own meanings to things and they are infused with the power of our own imaginations. However, this is not to deny the power of rituals in terms of how they have been and are used to create realities. Legally changing one’s name does not change a person in any physical way, but it change’s people’s perspectives of you. Likewise, marriage does not physically bind two people, but they are treated differently under the law and their union is often treated more permanent and ‘real’ by family members even when the couple has been together for years.
So, this is my conclusion about patriarchy-seeped rituals – each and every one depends on how the ritual has been transmitted to you.
I have known very brides who were virgins on their wedding day, but I have never met a Western woman in a Western ceremony who has not worn a white dress (yes, there are a few, but I haven’t been to their weddings). That is to say, with the exception of the Dutch Reform bride, who I never personally met, I have never had a direct experience with women themselves associating white with virginity.
Personally, I would love to wear a black lace dress. As a subdued goth myself, I have not worn white since I was about 8 years old. I am known for always wearing black, so much so that my mother cornered me on my last trip to Canada imploring me not to swath myself in noire. On this point, I have decided to give up the battle. If wearing white means a ‘normal’ wedding for my mother, and if white does not carry any patriarchal trappings of an innocent virgin for me, then this is a battle I will not fight.
The Veil and the Bows
When it comes to Korean wedding clothes, the practicality rather than the meaning is a bigger concern. You see, not growing up Korean, it is hard to associate ‘Korean style veiling’ with subjugation. Rituals have to mean something in order for them to have power over you. I admit that the Korean wedding itself seems more of a costume ball or pageantry to me. I know my part and I will play it for the audience. Negotiating the clothes and the headpiece is more about not fucking up than about physically subjugating myself (pyebek included). In fact, bowing to my white Canadian mother in pyebek would be absolutely bizarre and probably make her uncomfortable from a cultural perspective. I am also protected by the fact that we will not be living with Mr. Lee’s parents, and as a modern woman of my own means, I am not financially or otherwise dependant on the kindness of my in-laws. Since Mr. Lee is also the youngest son who is marrying later in life, we will also be supporting his parents instead of the other way around which shifts the power balance considerably. See – context is everything. With these considerations in mind, bowing becomes a sign of respect rather than a symbol of submission.
As to the Canadian wedding veil…I admit to being undecided. As a former religious studies academic, I am enamoured with evil eye and malicious spirit symbolism. But I am also disturbed by this custom, possibly because of my deeply held views about women being ‘encouraged’ to cover in the Orthodox church….not to mention the practicality of walking down the aisle with my vision partially obscured! I may find peace with this ritual if I do the lifting – or, as my mother has suggested, I may decide on a half birdcage veil as a way to modify the custom.
As I have written before, my father died a few years ago. My mother has spoken about asking a male relative to ‘walk me down the aisle.’ I guess in this kind of ceremony, the officiant’s words could change to ‘who comes with the bride and gives the couple their blessings?’ This change in wording has certainly been a common way for modern women to reconceived of this ritual while making more conservative family members happy. However, after discussing the situation with my sister, we realized that walking with another male relative would only serve to highlight our father’s absence and bring more grief to a joyful ceremony. As a result, I’ve decided to walk down the aisle by myself.
Whoever we pick as our MC will be explicitly instructed to never utter the words ‘Introducing for the first time…Mr. and Mrs. His First Name Lee.” I will not be changing my name. I will never be known as ________ Lee in the Korean context. Women who choose to take their husband’s name do so for a litany of reasons including tradition, pressure from others, problems with their birth families, and having little connection with their birth name. I on the other hand love my name. I have grown up with a strong grounding in my clan history, and most importantly, changing my name after 30 years of being this person would critically damage my sense of self.
Rice and Chestnuts
We will not be having rice, confetti, or bubbles, in part because there is an ‘immediate $200 charge at the moment confetti is thrown’ clause in our Canadian venue contract (and who wants bubbles on their wedding dress?) As to the chestnuts – again, it’s more like a game than an archaic custom to me. That and the fact that as a strong advocate for birth control, I have control over my own fertility. We may work out the ‘catching’ part so that we nicely catch 2 chestnuts and leave the others scattered around on the floor. Children are a definite part of our marriage plans, but they will not define our love or our partnership.
So are weddings seeped in the patriarchy? Yes. But is there only one reading (ie. The ‘traditional’ … which may not be so static) of said rituals and symbols? – A resounding ‘no.’ I have strong views about certain things, such as taking my fiancé’s name, but in being faced with Korean customs which are also deeply archaic…but equally ‘foreign’ to me, I have seen that women choose to follow, modify, or abandon customs based on a complex combination of personal experience, family/social pressures, historical background, and interpretation. Seen from this perspective, ‘feminism’ is less about hammering down ‘good’ and ‘bad’ or ‘patriarchal’ and ‘matriarchal’ customs and more about listening to women’s individual needs, experiences, and voices.