I think I just got away with telling my dad he won’t be giving me away at my wedding — and the world didn’t fall apart.
I’d been putting it off, the telling him, partly because I never know whether my dad is going to care. I know he cares a lot about high-quality French fries and Chevy sport utility vehicles that rolled off the line between 1996 and 1999 (must have tailgate and be black, red or white). But the emotional stuff is a total gamble.
There was the time he tried to keep one of my high school boyfriends from using our upstairs bathroom because “he might have VD,” which I now realize was code for “Andie, you are wasting your time on this guy.” He cried when I tried on my wedding dress for him, but not when he dropped me off at college halfway across the country.
So I had no idea how he would react if I told him that I don’t want to be given away on my wedding day. Maybe he would be fine with it. Or maybe it would genuinely hurt him. But there’s not much that hurts me more than being treated like a piece of property.
Like women taking their husbands’ names, the tradition of being given away is couched in deeply sentimental rhetoric about how sweet it is, and how loving it is, and how beautiful a declaration of intense feeling it is. That all makes it really hard to talk with people on a reasonable level about the fact that both practices are rooted in oppressive patriarchal traditions that have historically had the effect of erasing or at least obscuring women’s agency in their own lives.
Let me be clear: I’m not immune to the sentimentality. I am an equal-opportunity bawler, crying my way through weddings both offbeat and traditional, and I sob especially hard when the giving-away happens. It’s a really intense, emotional moment to watch in a semi-public space. Traditionally speaking, it’s the last duty a man has as a father.
But just because something is sweet doesn’t mean it doesn’t have terribly sour undertones. For me, there’s no escaping the fact that being “given away” is rooted in a long, long tradition of women being treated as pieces of property to be transferred from one man to another. However moving the question “Who gives this woman in marriage?” may seem in the moment, it’s fundamentally a sales transaction.
I have a lot to offer Patrick, but I don’t come with a dowry — however good I may be at mixing cocktails and emptying the cat boxes. You can’t put those things in a wedding chest. And even if you did, you wouldn’t want them if they’d been sitting in there for any length of time.
One of the brilliant things about getting married today is the many and various ways people are bucking traditional gender roles by creating ceremonies and marriages that put equality first. It’s not uncommon for both bride and groom (or bride and bride, or groom and groom) to be escorted down the aisle by both their parents as a beautiful testament to the love they bear their families. Yet at even the most gender-equal, feminist-minded weddings, the groom does not seem to be jumping at the chance to be officially “given away” to a woman in marriage.
I searched high and low and far and wide for any instance of a man being “given away” by either one of his parents, and I couldn’t find one. I e-mailed my feminist contacts. I posted on wedding message boards. I polled my 474 closest Facebook friends, a diverse bunch of folks who range from my most conservative Christian schoolmates from childhood to left-wing, pinko graduate students. In terms of challenging wedding-related gender roles, it’s not unheard of for a man to take his wife’s name upon marriage or for the newlyweds to create a new last name for themselves. Men are simply not given away.
I think that’s very telling, and demonstrative of the fact that this is one patriarchal norm you can’t just invert and call it a (wedding) day. There’s no cultural precedent for the sexuality of sons being seen as something that belongs to their parents. This is why, even today, “the purity myth” persists and people panic when girls are encouraged to get HPV vaccines. Keeping women intact and pure is, classically, in the interest of parents who need their daughters to be in tip-top marriageable shape.
But boys will be boys, as the saying goes. They don’t need the close supervision and regulation of their bodies, because they’re part of the default empowered class. Giving away a man is kind of absurd when men are, historically, the people to whom ownership — of anything — has always been transferred.
I couldn’t think of a sweet and loving way to tell my dad that I find the idea of being given away truly repulsive. Luckily, I didn’t have to.
It happened quickly and easily, just last weekend. I’d gone back home to visit my folks, and there we were, sitting in the family living room after dinner, shooting the wedding-related shit as there are just 44 short days until the big one. My dad asked how the ceremony itself would go. So I told him: during the processional, the family would enter, then the wedding party, then Patrick, and then I would walk down the aisle. Me. Just me.
And he didn’t stop me or interrupt me. He just kept on listening while I told him that then the officiant would welcome everyone and then my person of honor would read a poem and Patrick and I would drink from our unity cocktail and on and on and on. Just like that.
It’s a strange feeling to be worried about offending someone you love because you want to ask them not to do something that really hurts your feelings and goes counter to your deepest personal and political beliefs. But I’ve found that negotiating a feminist wedding has largely been about that from day one, whether it’s wondering if a non-white dress would upset my mom (it wouldn’t have, but my dress ended up being white anyway) or if my not changing my name would piss Patrick’s family off (it doesn’t).
Because Patrick and I think honoring our families is important, we’re having a special part of the ceremony dedicated to a family candle-lighting (well, a tiki-torch lighting) wherein both our sets of parents will get to light the way for our future life together. After all, Patrick and I are the people we are because of our parents, and it was their hard work raising us that made us, eventually, perfect for each other. I think that needs to be acknowledged and celebrated — it shouldn’t just be the bride’s parents who get ceremony-time recognition while the groom’s parents sit and watch.
I’ll also be walking down the aisle by myself. It’s not a statement about my parents or our relationship. It’s not a f**k you. I’m not thumbing my nose at anyone. I just want to do that part by myself.
But you better believe my dad and I will slay it during our “Margaritaville” duet at the karaoke reception. I just hope he remembers it’s “nibblin’ on spongecake,” not “livin’ on spongecake.”
Contact the author of this post at Andrea.Grimes@Gmail.com. Follow me on Twitter at @AndreaGrimes.