Jia Tolentino was invited to 18 weddings last year. I’m not sure how many she actually attended in total, but the sheer amount of save-the-date cards on her refrigerator was something to behold. In a recent essay she posted on The Hairpin, where she’s the contributing editor, she explains her hesitation to adopt the tradition wholesale – or maybe even at all – although her adult life has mostly been spent in domestic partnerships and she’s drawn to the cozier stuff of marriage, like stability and assurance. She writes:
Over the summer, my boyfriend and I did go to one wedding together, when one of his former roommates married her sweetheart under the starry, wild West Texas sky. It was a warm night in Marfa and I leaned against my boyfriend’s shoulder at the reception, wine-drunk, candy-stoned. All I meant to say was This wedding is so beautiful. I didn’t realize I said the next part aloud. But I can’t imagine myself doing this, and all night I’ve been thinking, if even this can’t make me want it, then what will?
When I looked up his face was crumbly, and I wanted to throw myself away.
Her essay goes on to lay out a cogent set of reasons why she can’t get on board with the thought of marching down the aisle and getting married. With as much empathy and care as conviction and confidence, she articulates the parts of the institution that she refuses to sign up for, all while expressing her joy – real, honest-to-goodness joy – in seeing her friends’ happiness over doing the very thing she refuses to. It is, in my opinion, a beautiful and bold read. And I kind of hate that it makes sense to call it “bold” when, really, it’s just an eloquent piece of writing about someone’s personal preference, sharply but fairly taking a modern look at a tradition that can – let’s face it – be more than a little outmoded, even if not so much in its concept anymore, then at least in its pomp and its circumstance.
That’s why I was surprised when the online editor of Cosmopolitan got a hold of Jia’s essay and twisted it.
That’s why I was surprised when the online editor of Cosmopolitan got a hold of Jia’s essay and twisted it until its pull quotes formed the perfect pretzel on which to feast in a counter post called, “Are We Seriously Still Judging Women Who Want to Get Married?” Underneath the title’s block lettering, the taut subhead copy drips with Upworthy-style concern: “Sadly, yes. Here’s why we need to stop.”
In its first paragraph, the rebuttal calls the essay “a self-indulgent critique of the institution of marriage, the tradition
of weddings, and the women who want to become wives.” As it introduces a chunk of text pulled from the essay without fully explaining its context, it teases: “Though it’s difficult to draw one conclusion from her arguments, which make hairpin (yes, went there) turns at nearly every paragraph…”
Self-indulgent? I thought as I read the post. We’re calling nuanced conversations about feminism self-indulgent now?
And then I thought, I didn’t see any hairpin turns, actually. I just saw great writing.
Next, the rebuke informs us that its author, Cosmo’s online editor, is getting married next summer, feels “troubled” that “to assume marriage represents societal repression is to assume a pervasive helplessness among women” and, finally, calls into question Jia’s stance on gay marriage (the editor’s term, not mine; I’d just as soon call it “marriage,” plain and simple). Since The Hairpin is one of the least hetero-normative female-centric websites short of Curve, I could only imagine the SEO strategy that may have played into that last zing.
The editor’s tweet (which Jia good-naturedly retweeted) echoed her title: “Are we seriously still judging women who want to get married?” with a link to the Cosmo piece after it.
Frustrated at the swipe, I tweeted back: “Did you seriously not read @jiatolentino’s piece before making a cheap attempt at clickbait?”
“Of course I did,” she responded. “I just don’t buy judging women for hundreds of words and then saying ‘but I’m not judging.’”
And ‘round and ‘round we go.
I used to fantasize about growing up and working at a glossy women’s magazine. In middle school (where I’m from, we called it junior high), I was torn between the mainstream fluff of YM and Seventeen and their less-hot-pink, more-substantive counterpart – the pinnacle of cool, the monthly field guide to an alt-grrrl life that was slightly out of my cheesy suburban grasp: Sassy magazine. Equally irritated and enthralled by the former’s endless pages of beauty tips and “is-he-really-into-you” quizzes, I dreamt of reaching my 20s and taking a smart little job at a smart little desk, working for a smart little glossy in New York City. My aspirations didn’t entirely match up with themselves, though: even though I preferred Sassy to the others, in my mind’s eye, the grown-up version of me reported to work every day to tap out womanly advice somewhere less unorthodox, less uncharted. Somewhere safe, proven, patterned on itself. Somewhere (oh, Amy) like Marie Claire or Cosmo.
Now that those first few (or more than a few, really) post-college years have come and gone with nary a magazine byline to speak for them, I’ve thankfully moved beyond my admittedly dorky “13 Going on 30” dream sequence.
Half of me clings to what’s familiar, classic and comforting, while the other half, the wanderer, wonders what’s on the other side of the fence.
And actually, if my college articles and essays are any indication of the kind of stuff I would have been putting out into the universe in the years that followed, let’s just say the universe is lucky I was tucked away in state government offices and PR agencies for as long as I was, tapping out press releases and not giving life advice to anybody. (Seriously, universe: you’re better off this way.)
Much like that kid who couldn’t decide between the teen magazine with a “perfect” model on the cover and the one with Kurt and Courtney, I often end up at odds with myself in any given situation, torn between convention and a more libertine way of looking at things. Half of me clings to what’s familiar, classic and comforting, while the other half, the wanderer, wonders what’s on the other side of the fence. Sometimes, that half wins. That half brought me to Austin, made me a writer, and helped me fall in love in a way that’s actually good for me. That half doesn’t want a heavy white dress, a gift registry and a garter toss. That half just wants joy.
In fact, both halves of me do.
After college, when I lived in a small, conservative town on the Florida-Georgia line, I got strange looks when I told people I lived with a boyfriend.
“Just boyfriend?” people would ask. People my own age, people generations older. People in general. Eyebrows raised for effect.
Much to everyone’s relief, at one point I finally got engaged to that absolutely sinful live-in boyfriend, and all of a sudden, all anyone wanted to talk to me about was wedding planning. I somehow got let into a club I wasn’t sure even wanted me as a member. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be one, either, but I played along a little, just to see.
All anyone wanted to talk to me about was wedding planning. I somehow got let into a club I wasn’t sure even wanted me as a member.
My mom was the consummate get-together-thrower. Not one for big parties, she just loved the simple act of having a few friends or family members over for a meal and maybe some board games. Whenever a holiday or special occasion came around, she and my dad would launch into their lockstep routine of housecleaning and food prep, setting the scene for a comfortable gathering. From her, I picked up a love of perfect place settings, musical backdrops and sentimental traditions. Those things don’t mean anything, but they do. I see both sides. Both halves. She’d been gone for six months by the time I got engaged, but I knew what flowers I’d use, what the bridesmaids would wear, what songs we’d dance to, what sentiments we’d honor. A lot of it would be to honor her. Some of it would be to honor us. Not much of it had to do with what anyone else expected, but then came all the questions.
At the time, one of my closest friends was a guy, and I couldn’t imagine asking other people to be attendants and exclude him just because he was a dude.
This offended the sensibilities of more people than it didn’t. When questioned about the bridal party, I’d mention my “bridesman” and be met with uncomfortable laughter.
“What side is he gonna stand on?” coworkers would ask, wide-eyed.
“Mine, I guess,” I’d say, and they’d look at me like I’d spat in their coffee mugs.
“But… what are you gonna do about the pictures?” they’d press, wondering about the staged group shots I knew we weren’t going to pose for.
“Oh, symmetry isn’t my thing,” I’d coo, or something to that effect. And the conversation would abruptly shift, which was good, since I didn’t keep smelling salts in my office. Off we’d depart into something less sensitive – say, the question of which former slave plantations I was keeping in mind for the wedding venue.
I wonder what those folks think of “gay marriage.”
Country upstart (and Texan!) Kacey Musgraves took the Grammy stage in light-up cowboy boots this year and sang a song that, while classic in sound, has lyrics that could flip over some rocking chairs if people of a certain ilk listened to it hard enough:
I like my life a little weird, and while I don’t mind bending to tradition on someone else’s special occasion, I’d love it if they’d reciprocate the favor on mine. As in, I’m fine with buying you china, for sure, but I don’t want any gifts. I’ll bow my head in prayer for you, but I hope you don’t mind skipping the dogma for me.
It’s okay that I ended up crossing that big day off the calendar before its save-the-date cards went out. (Again, universe: you’re better off this way, and so am I. Sometimes the best plans are the ones we didn’t make.)
Sometimes the best plans are the ones we didn’t make.
And there is, of course, a world of difference between a wedding and a marriage. One is the celebration of the beginning of the other, and either or both can stick as closely to the script or swing as far away from it as we choose. From the cradle to the grave, we’ve all got our choices to make, our dreams to chase and our decisions to live with. Each one is
personal, and nobody gets to wag a finger.
Jia, for one, makes some concessions. Here’s how she closes that oh-so-judgmental essay of hers:
So have a bridesman, or three. Get married, or don’t. Wear a slinky red dress or a big, poufy white one. Wed a man, a woman, a career, or a passion. Serve tacos and ice cream, or prime rib and cake. We’re not long for this world, so why not experience it in as genuine a way as our hearts can handle? Love is love, and joy is joy. We’re Austin, for Leslie’s sake. Let’s be as happy, as strange and as free as we please.
Let’s follow our arrows, wherever they point.
This article originally published in The Admire Issue of Citygram Austin Magazine [February 2014].
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Photography: Erin Woolsey
Writing by: Amy Lynch