Weddings are most often big and beautiful declarations of love between a man and a woman. Sometimes they are flashy, sometimes quietly artistic, and usually highly emotional. Whatever the budget, weddings are a time for individuals and families to lay aside other important endeavors and invest what they can into the creation of a new family. They take a lot of energy and a lot of focus.
In the West, we commonly talk about a wedding being the primary time for a women to "express herself," carefully arranging even the smallest details to reflect her beliefs, tastes, whims. If she wants to feel like a princess, her wedding will involve sparkles and tiaras. If she is an environmentalist, she will work to make her wedding as green as possible. If she is a musician, great care will go into arranging the music. The list of things to express is as varied as women are. Every bride has been told, "It's your day." We've all had conversations with women who are greatly concerned with displaying the best things about herself through her wedding. The West looks at a wedding and expects an answer to the question, "Who are you?"
We need to pause here and consider how much pressure women are under by believing the idea that their weddings must demonstrate who they truly are. So much of the stress surrounding weddings is first and foremost stress concerning identity. Even the bride who declares, "I don't care about all of these silly details!" is often still trying to tell the world something about herself. She is still telling us what to think of her as much as any other bride.
If this is all true, and weddings have become the primary place for women to express the things they identify with, then I've come to realize that weddings really incredibly fragile and tender things. And the women behind them even more so. How can an event and the woman behind it bear not only the weight of a covenant and vow, but also the brunt of ultimate self-expression?
I first started to see this problem in myself when I got engaged and then married. Up until my engagement, I had exhibited many different attitudes towards weddings. As a little girl growing up, I idolized them and dreamed of the day I would act and feel like the fairy princesses I dreamed of being. In high school, I believed a wedding was an inevitable dream and would never have doubted my chances of wearing the white dress. By college I started to develop a more critical attitude. A hint of scorn started to show towards other women who openly obsessed about their future wedding day. Though a wedding still loomed large as my secret heart's desire, I thought it best to approach it circumspectly and realistically.
In the five years between finishing college and my own marriage, I mostly harbored bitterness towards weddings. Really what I harbored was bitterness towards other women's weddings. I hid this jealousy under a veneer of criticism concerning "wedding traditions" and "frivolous expectations." The amount of money, time, and energy given to weddings became ridiculous to my mind and only the closest and dearest of my friends escaped my all out exasperation with wedding season. I declared to myself that I would not be like every other bride if I ever found myself planning a wedding. I was going to be sensible, after all, and avoid throwing myself into the unnecessary craziness of obsessing about insignificant things. My three main goals were to never make wedding planning a bigger priority than all of my already established relationships and responsibilities; to never obsess over what I perceived to be the silly and superfluous "details"; and to make sure the wedding was a community event, not something isolated from the people involved in every aspect of my life.
But once the ring was on my finger, and real decisions had to be made concerning an actual wedding, it felt like something slowly and powerfully started to take over my mind. I cared about everything connected to the wedding and obsessed over every detail. But it wasn't an obsession that led to joy and delight in the coming day. It was an ensnaring obsession that more often than not led to insecurity and worry. I could not let go, because in my mind, the decisions being made weren't about an event, they were about me. For example, if I had never been a girlie girl, but chose pink bridesmaids dresses, what did that say about me? My girlfriends were all surprised with this color choice, as was I, so how could I not contemplate what these physical details told the world about the changes romantic love was creating within my personality?
As I broke everyone of my three "goals" concerning weddings, it felt like I was slowly loosing ground to a version of myself that I never wanted to exist. I felt guilty about putting so much time into the wedding, but I didn't know how to not think about it. I became more and more isolated over the period of engagement, one of the primary things I had promised myself would not happen. I wasn't being the person I wanted to be, but I didn't know how to be free of this thing that was so incredibly important.
I continued to muddle through this minefield my entire engagement, through the wedding day, and into the first months of marriage. Of course, I often found peace in knowing that in the light of eternity, the details of the wedding didn't matter. In the comfort and love of my fiancé, I knew that the vows we made were the most important part of the whole thing. And of course my wedding was one of the most wonderful and amazing experiences of my life, blessing my husband and I deeply as we committed our lives to each other before the Lord.
But I started to realize something was really wrong when I continued to obsess about my wedding after it had taken place! For days, then weeks, then months, I found myself going back over the details of the wedding. Had everything been as I wanted it to be? Maybe if I had just changed a few things here, a few things there, then it would really have been ideal. I fully acknowledge that some of these things can be chalked up to personality - it's rare, but sometimes I really can be a bit of an OCD psycho.
But who among you married women of my generation hasn't dealt with some of these feelings when you first get your wedding pictures back from the photographer? You scour them, desperately hoping that the photographer has captured the true atmosphere of the day, the one that you skillfully crafted and planned. You look to make sure that you are captured as you want to be, according the image that you picked for yourself on the most special of all your days. And if something, anything in the pictures didn't turn out how you hoped? You have to admit you feel like a key piece of the wedding, a key piece of your identity, has been lost.
So let's pause here. What am I trying to get at with all of this musing and soul sharing? Frankly, I believe modern weddings have become a quagmire of idolatry in our generation's drive to create their identities. Women are being trapped within their own drive for self-expression when it comes to their weddings. I spent a lot of my first year of marriage chewing the cud on this topic and here are the conclusions I came away with.
1) We need grace.
Your identity is not found in your wedding. Christ has made you free and given you a new identity! You do not need your wedding for anything - anything - to tell yourself or the world who you are. That is Jesus' job, let him do it. If you want an environmentally sound wedding, and styrofoam plates show up, the blood of Jesus covers you. If you want to lose ten pounds and instead gain twenty, the blood of Jesus covers you. If you want to create community by inviting everyone you know, and your parents will only pay for half of the guest list, the blood of Jesus covers you. If you want to walk down the aisle to Sufjan and your best friend insists on singing a duet, the blood of Jesus covers you. Create beauty and do good in your wedding, but remember that not a single thing on that day can stick to you like the sweet blood of Jesus. Claim it is as the strongest identity you have.
2) Think upon the wedding feast in heaven.
Because of your new identity, you know where all of this is headed - think upon it in the months leading up to and following your wedding. Whether your wedding turns out exactly as you dreamed up, is an unmitigated disaster, or just more normal than you're content to accept, it is only the faintest foreshadowing of the real wedding we expect to attend. Relish the good things about your wedding as a foretaste of heaven and mourn the disappointing things about your wedding as the remnants of a fallen world, but in both, keep your eyes on heaven. With the whisper of heaven in your ear, the work of a wedding will become sweeter and the disappointments less tragic.
It took me months before I could think about my wedding without worrying over everything that went wrong and what people would think about it. But I learned that with your identity soaked in the blood of Jesus and your mind caught up in the winds of heaven, the anxieties and frustrations of "your day" can blow away like the chaff of yesterday. There are many things I still wish had ended up different, or better, about my wedding. But when I think back on it, I delight in the beauty that was created not because of what it said about me, but because "...Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know if part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known." The feast of Christ is coming and I could see its approach on my wedding day.
A few years ago there was a popular cartoon floating around Facebook. It depicted the Disney princesses and then purported to unmask the true moral behind each story. Every princesses's story was displayed as derogatory to women in one way or another, and the general idea was how harmful the Disney princesses are for little girls.
While I didn't disagree with every point made in this cartoon (Belle really does seem to have Stockholm syndrome and Ariel really does promote the idea that talking isn't necessary for women to be happy in a relationship), and I do think that much about the Disney princess obsession and culture is unhealthy and at times destructive, much about the cartoon left me befuddled. In particular, I felt confused about the complaints against Cinderella.
Cinderella was never my favorite Disney moving growing up and I still don't respond to it emotionally as I do to many of the other films. But my entire opinion of the story changed dramatically in my early 20s. Sometime towards the end or shortly after finishing college, I happened to watch the old cartoon while babysitting some little girls. What I saw amazed me - Cinderella is one of the most woman-centric Disney cartoons made. And I am not unversed in feminist theory - I wrote my senior thesis on the New York Heterodites and Simone de Beauvoir.
Let's think about it. There are no men as central characters; all of the primary agents of action are either female or non-human (and even then, the strongest non-human elements are female). My biggest complaint about Cinderella growing up was that it did not depict true love because the prince wasn't a real figure in the story (this is still a valid complaint). But if you are complaining about misogynistic Disney movies, I suggest you reconsider the fact that Cinderella is the only Disney movie thus far in which the prince is pretty much unnecessary. It isn't a true love story, because it's not a story about love. Rather it is a story about one woman's struggle against the circumstances which keep her down. Cinderella repeatedly and methodically works to overcome that which oppresses her through decided and concerted effort with the best means available to her. Isn't this the most simplistic cause of feminism?
Since this realization, I've been deeply loyal to the story, and in particular Disney's rendition of it. So, when Kenneth Branagh's version came out last month, it was with both breathless anticipation and dreadsome lothing that I went to see it. In short, this movie could not have better identified and exploited all that is marvelous for women about the Cinderella tale. I've heard many people praise it for its simplicity, lack of cynicism, and willingness to embrace fairytale. These are all indeed commendable. But I don't think it is in these things that its power truly lies. After all, there are times and places for complex stories, cynicism can speak truth, and no story but One should be left unrevised.
The real power of Disney's live-action Cinderella is that they got the hidden strength and power of the story right - that not all attributes traditionally associated with women, namely kindness, are signs of weakness. As I think back on Disney's original cartoon and why the Jezebel readership despises it so much, I am convinced it is because Cinderella is too nice. I hear so much about women needing to step up and take control and it often really only amounts to devaluing kindness. As a result, stories that exemplify a woman for displaying such a trait are belittled and mocked. Kindness is associated with an inability to defend or promote oneself, so best to do away with it altogether.
But is kindness really about becoming a wet rag? In order to be kind women, must we also be domineered? I find it very sad indeed to associate the two. Sometimes it feels like women are in such a rush and frenzy to do away with the things that have truly oppressed us for so many millennia that we label those true strengths that have always been ours as false and harmful. I propose that kindness is a strength women need to be careful not to weed out of our gardens in order to play with the boys.
And Cinderella depicts why this is true. As women, we may be inspired by and fall in love with the Katniss Everdeens of this world. When faced with unimaginable situations, we may hope to take up our arms and fight. At times this may be available to us; there are times when fighting openly and bitterly is in our power. But what about the many times that type of fight is not in our means? What about times when the forces are just too great and we are just too small to become Katniss? What if we are Cinderella? Are we really willing to say that the only strength that matters is the strength to fight? Or do we have a definition of female power that is both big and small enough to include kindness and perseverance in times of trial and duress?
Part of the debate around the Disney princesses concerns what values we want to instill in our daughters. As a child and I teenager, I didn't resonate with Cinderella. I resonated with Belle, and Mulan, and Katniss, and Eowyn - the women who were strong and could put up a good fight. I am glad that I had these characters to look up to and be inspired by and I am thankful for parents who never dampened my love of them or tried to instill a singular vision of feminine virtue. I will give my future daughter these women to admire. And I will tell her to fight when and if the time is right.
But I will also give my daughter Cinderella. And if my daughter is anything like me, I will give her Cinderella more than the other women, because kindness and perseverance are not my natural gifts. I want my daughter to know that strength is multifaceted. I want her to know that kindness is not weakness. I want her to know that serving the good of others does not mean giving up her agency. Most of all, I want her to know that like Cinderella, there may comes times in which she is not enough to beat the bad guys and when or if that happens, she will need to live in such a way that acknowledges their power but not her moral defeat.
As I said above, there is only one Story that does not deserve revision - it is the single story for all ages. The point of this post is not that we should withhold doubt and reexamination from the stories we tell our daughters. What we tell them does shape them more than we can ever imagine. I just don't think our current version of Cinderella is one to do away with, for it rounds out and enlivens all that we want our little girls to grow up to be.