Photograph By Adobe Stock (bride) / Book Cover Design: Alysia Shewchuk / Cover Image: Studioloco/shutterstock.com
Book excerpt: ‘Shrewed’
An enlightening letter from author to daughter about the complicated role of women in modern weddings
BY Elizabeth Renzetti
In Shrewed, Elizabeth Renzetti’s new book of essays, the acclaimed author and Globe and Mail columnist explores her personal journey toward becoming one of Canada’s strongest voices on feminism. In honour of Mother’s Day (and wedding season, for that matter), we bring you this excerpt: an open letter from Renzetti to her daughter about womanhood and the frivolous trappings of modern weddings.
My most cherished hope for you and your brother is that you will each find someone to love, and be loved by that person in return. Otherwise, your ambitions are your own to determine. Take care of your heart, and the rest will follow.
Once, when you were four years old, you were playing with your friend Martha at our house in London, and the two of you came up to me, holding hands. You tugged my sleeve.
You looked at Martha, who was, if I remember correctly, eating a Jammy Dodger. “Mans can marry mans, right?”
I debated whether to get into the whole question of global human rights, but settled for a local answer:
“Yes, they can.”
“And ladies can marry ladies?”
You looked over at Martha again, clearly imagining your future nuptials, the two of you dressed in matching Peppa Pig gowns. You looked puzzled. Finally, you said, “Then why did you marry Dad?”
I immediately went to tell your father that story, of course. I hope to be telling that story forever, unless you tell me it’s too embarrassing, in which case — sorry, too late. There’s only one place I hope not to tell that story, and that’s at your wedding, because I hope you don’t have one. At least not a traditional one, where the bride is received as if she has won the greatest of life’s prizes: a man to marry. I mean, get married if you want — I did. Be joyful and bountiful in your love. Have a party, dance, laugh. But don’t feel you have to engage in the Olympics of one-upmanship that is the modern wedding.
I know, it may seem slightly hypocritical, given the amount of wedding-related television we watch. There’s Four Weddings and Say Yes to the Dress and those artificial twin peaks of showmance, The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. But I feel that each episode is actually a tiny vaccine against the virus. We lie sprawled on the couch in the basement watching four women compete to see whose wedding deserves the free honeymoon — the lady who got married in the shark tank? the woman who made all the food for two hundred guests? — and I feel that I’m ensuring your shots are up to date.
We watch Say Yes to the Dress and recoil in horror and delight at the bridal shoppers at Kleinfeld, as family dysfunction unspools against a backdrop of satin fit-and-flares and $20,000 princess ball gowns containing more crystals than an entire chorus line at the Bellagio.
“Not enough bling,” whispers the bride, crushed. “It makes you look like a linebacker,” says a sister, mining a vein of sibling resentment that lies an inch below the surface. And I look at you, Maud, and think, Please, let’s never do this. Please have a paintball wedding instead.
There is no “one,” there are many — many people with whom you could share a happy life.
And as we watch, I will point out to you that these shows — like commercials for laundry detergent or diet products — present a world almost entirely free of men. The wedding, and by extension the marriage, is seen as women’s work. Only she would be invested in the emotional labour of making sure the day is perfect, in its million expensive details, from the cake to the photographs. She is the successful hunter, and he is dragged, like a shot deer, from one ridiculous appointment to the next. Occasionally he is prodded to life so that he can mumble, “Sure, honey, teal works for me.”
But there is one universe where the men are equally involved, isn’t there? We watch far too much of The Bachelor, in which dozens of women with the finest hair and bodies that science can produce compete for the attention of one man. Its sister show, The Bachelorette, reverses the genders. Both shows are draped in the filmiest of modern camouflage but might as well take place five hundred years ago, lit by the flicker of a tallow candle: There is always the expectation of a proposal at the end, and it is always — always — the man who proposes. But she is the victor; the ring the spoils.
Okay, I’m being a bit hard on The Bachelor. It’s been fun and educational for the whole family, hasn’t it? Remember when we tried to make Granny watch an episode, and she looked at the bachelor — his teeth much brighter than his eyes — and said, “Do you think he has all his wits about him?”
At every opportunity, I’ve outsourced life lessons to The Bachelor. There was the time when I used the “Fantasy Suite” episode to explain human reproduction, and you turned to me and rolled your eyes and said, “I know how it works.” I know, I’m terrible. I fully expected Children’s Aid to show up and take you and your brother away.
You’ll notice I’m not addressing this letter to your brother, by the way. That’s because society has broader and more interesting ambitions for him than the precise shade of pewter in the centrepiece or whether St. Bart’s is the hottest spot for a destination wedding. Perhaps I am unwittingly feeding into the stereotype as well when we watch these shows together.
But then, life is full of contradiction and complexity. You will find this out. You’re probably already starting to discover it. For example, you may point out that Dad and I got married, and made our peace with societal convention. And that is true. Except that none of it was conventional, and the only place our wedding would have been featured is Ripley’s Believe It or Not!
I could have proposed, like a good feminist, but I didn’t. Dad proposed, if you can call it that, as we were driving back from Ikea in our decrepit K-car, which leaked fuel and stalled during left turns.
“Maybe we should get married,” he said, startling me from my reverie about whether I should wash my hair for the first time that week. “Sure,” I said. Or possibly “Okay” or “Why not?” We both thought of ourselves as beatniks at heart.
Even if we’d had the money — which we didn’t — our wedding would never have been about floral arrangements and flung garters. I’d been to too many that were joyless and artificial, the bride and the groom stressed and weary. I’d watched how weddings had become a status trap, a retrograde game show. Imagine being handed over from one man to another!
So we eloped instead. I wore a tiny red mini dress covered with Eiffel Towers. We got married on the site of an ancient fort in Nova Scotia, in the town where your great-grandparents are buried. The justice of the peace was not used to tiny, reckless weddings. She said, “Are you sure you want to get married outside? It’s twenty bucks extra.” The fellow who was supposed to be our best man couldn’t make it because he was planting turnips that day — a true story, ask your dad — so his name had to be covered with Wite-Out on our marriage certificate.
Maybe that makes it invalid. Who cares? Your dad’s name is written on my heart. (Are you throwing up yet?)
The whole thing cost a couple hundred dollars. It left us enough money to throw a party for our friends in Toronto, where we danced to our first song, the dancehall classic “Murder She Wrote.” Do you know how much an average Canadian wedding costs these days, Maud? It’s $27,000. You could travel around the world for that amount of money. You could buy a racehorse!
I hope it doesn’t shock you to hear this, but your dad was not the first man I’d, um, “dated.” Nor was I the first woman for him, though I was certainly the first woman he’d proposed to in a car that was little better than a barbeque on wheels. We’d both been around the block. When we found each other, we were busy doing other things — working, travelling, and in your dad’s case inventing a new cocktail called the “Braino” (equal parts Pernod and Brio, it should have made him famous).
My point is that neither one of us was consumed with the idea of “the one.” The idea of “the one” is a pernicious myth propagated by Disney and The Bachelor, which, now that I think of it, belong to the same corporate empire. You notice how few of the matches on The Bachelor ended up lasting? I rest my case. There is no “one,” there are many — many people with whom you could share a happy life. Or your happy life may involve a series of matches, which worked for Elizabeth Taylor. Or it may be that your happy life involves you, alone, with a lot of cats. I think that’s your plan at this point, though it may change.
Anyway, sweetheart, you will make this decision for yourself. You may choose never to marry. You may choose to live in a commune, or on a mountaintop with goats. Or perhaps you will choose to have a lavish, splendid wedding with a white dress and live peacocks and a samba band. I doubt it, because it doesn’t seem like you, but I have no way of seeing into the future. And if that is what you choose, I will be with you every step of the way. And I will never, not once, tell you that your dress makes you look like a linebacker.