“I actually think we overestimate the importance of social approval and belonging but underestimate its effects on those excluded from or denied that social approval. And I think that gap in understanding is incredibly dangerous.”
Demystifying Wedding Ritual One Cross-Stitch at a Time
A SIN/GIN Dialogue
Chiseche Salome Mibenge and Katrina Majkut
I believe that I read every issue of British Vogue from 1989 – 1999. I could spot an Azzedine Alaïa dress in a quick glance and was (it seemed) on first name basis with Claudia, Naomi, Tatyana, Nadja, Paulina, Yasmeen, Christy, Cindy, and Linda. Vogue is a master mistress at tapping into the anxieties of modern women and freeze framing them through the lenses of the most astounding art and cultural icons. I didn’t want to be iconic a la Kate Moss, I wanted to create iconic a la Herb Ritts or Mario Testino.
Over the Thanksgiving break, I picked up a bundle of past editions from the shelves of my public library. The October edition of Vogue profiled two weddings (The Trip to Italy) and one Oscar de la Renta wedding dress, worn by Princess Bride Amal Alamuddin. This seemed rather excessive to me. I’m not dreaming of a white wedding, and these weddings seemed to bear all the trappings of the romantic heteropatriarchal marriage. Could it be that other women are still deeply invested in this imagery of a consummation of love through the lavish wedding ceremony? I felt rather unsettled by the spectacle. Bumping into Katrina Majkut’s art and commentary on weddings, ritual, feminism and power returned me to a more grounded space for reflection. Her responses in this dialogue really required me to consider my capacity for empathy in my relationships, particularly with loved ones who are inside while I am outside, or outside when I am inside the sanctioned (but not always safer) spaces that grant citizenship.
SIN/GIN: In the October issue of Vogue, Oscar de la Renta explains that the wedding dress is ‘the most important dress in the life of a woman. Any girl from any walk of life dreams of that special dress, and I try to make that dream a reality for her.’
Was Mr. de la Renta speaking about you? What has been the most important Dress in your life so far, what was that moment and what did that special Dress signify to you in that moment?
The Feminist Bride: I definitely grew up in a culture that asserted certain fashion symbols as pertinent to a woman’s experience and identity – first bra, prom dress, and first bikini. If Mr. de la Renta and many others before him emphasized the wedding dress as ‘the most important dress in the life of a woman,’ this is setting a deeply rooted precedent and idea of what women should find important and then creating a strong desire to achieve it. It’s no wonder then that the wedding dress has become this so-called dream.
At one point in time, I was one of those women Mr. de la Renta was referring to. This fashionable idea of feminine achievement starts when most of us are too young to understand the body and identity politics of the fashion world and the pressure it puts on women. For me, it probably started with a satin princess Halloween costume my mom hand sewed for me as a child (I begged her for it and wore it proudly for years); it’s the type of costume that helps fantasy come alive. The concept of the white wedding dress works very similarly, most have been trained to see it as a visual signifier in order to understand that this person is one, a bride; two, is important; and three, about to get married (achieving a special status). It’s the perfect example of the wedding industrial complex – “if I can buy a wedding dress than I can buy the experience and perks of being a bride.” What’s hidden from these visual queues is how seeped the wedding dress is in gender-bias, sexual discrimination and class and consumerist issues.
Now as The Feminist Bride though, the custom of the wedding dress has different meaning. I don’t use feminism to try to eradicate the wedding dress though; because last time I checked most feminists are not nudists so we, too, need to wear something down the aisle… I use feminism to find positive solutions between the customs that have been handed down to us and properly honoring women with respect and equality. A lot of this has to do with demystifying the wedding dress and increasing people’s education on its history and symbolism because at the end of the day feeling like a bride has nothing to do with what one is wearing. A bride is identifiable by her unconditional love and her willingness to share her life intimately with someone.
SIN/GIN: In one of my favorite moments in SITC, Carrie and Miranda visit a tacky bridal shop and amuse themselves by trying on monstrous wedding dresses. It’s hilarious but then Carrie begins to hyperventilate, falls to her knees and then breaks out in hives. Miranda is forced to literally rip her out of the dress. In the post-mortem of this meltdown, Carrie realizes that this is bigger than some anxiety about weddings, she doesn’t have the ‘bride gene’ and she needs to call her wedding to Aidan off. Charlotte, ever the romantic tries to reassure her: ‘Everyone has anxieties about weddings’
What, in your experience, are the anxieties that heterosexual college educated professional women entering into their first marriages are harboring, and how might these anxieties differ from anxieties their mothers harbored as they approached marriage?
The Feminist Bride: While I’m not a professional psychiatrist, I have a personal theory that meltdowns like Carrie’s occur not because she lacks the “bride gene” but that’s she’s having this cognitive moment of self discovery that the stereotypical bride mold is indeed suffocating (plus she was marrying the wrong person, not Mr. Big…). It’s the whole concept of the first SITC movie, Carrie falls into this consumerist-wedding trap and then it all falls apart because as a bride she embodies this industry-pushed idea and not herself. She finds happiness and forever after when she throws away the universal bride mold.
For college-educated women getting married, there’s still a strong pressure to ‘have it all’ even if women don’t want to think in those terms. There is research evidence that US women are still trying to be progressive in the workforce while managing a traditionally gendered home life, not realizing that these two ideals conflict with each other or realizing their two worlds function differently. Getting married is still the traditional door to eventually managing a family, pregnancy, a home and a job. (Though this is becoming less and less the case as 41% of births are to unwed parents and fewer Millennials can afford to get married, which is one explanation to its participation decline). Women baring this heavy load are naturally concerned with managing it well, but no one has ever managed to offer a solution that helps reduce the “have it all” anxiety. That’s why I felt so compelled to create The Feminist Bride and my art. There are a million feminist theories as to why the “have it all” mantra doesn’t work, but no one was identifying the social and cultural practices that were maintaining and perpetuating unfair gender issues. For example, the bride’s family paying for most the wedding stems from the wage gap. Making a wedding’s pay structure more egalitarian starts a dialogue about who a wedding is for (i.e. not just for women), engages men more directly and relinquishes financial dependence on outside parties. These are all healthy economic practices for women. Women want to be leaders in the boardroom, but the bridal shower party pushes the idea of traditional domestic gender values by having only women give the bride kitchenware like it’s the 1950s. Incorporating men into the wedding shower starts to show that the kitchen is no longer just for women; men need to share the domestic responsibilities equally.
For the people who want more gender parity and marriage equality, changing the gendered customs in marriage is a great way to incite real positive social change. If women are still harboring “anxieties” going into marriage, there simply needs to be more positive solutions that get to the bottom of the problem, not put a Band-Aid on top of it by simply critiquing whether “having it all” is right or wrong for women. Finding ways to practice what we preach is a great starting point.
SIN/GIN: When I was 27 my best friend had a child, and shortly after she told me ‘It doesn’t make you a better person.’ She explained that during her maternity leave the woman her husband came home to was a far cry from the glowing Madonna pushing a pram everybody smiled at as she walked through the park. And the fuming, tearful thing she became in the privacy of her home was far less human than the version of her that existed before pregnancy and maybe even marriage. This statement has proved to be a precious gift, as I have navigated life as an unmarried and childless. ‘I am not less of a person, and a husband and child will not make me more.’
I was reminded of my best friend’s wisdom as I read Claudia Rankine’s Interlude: The narrator eavesdrops on two friends in a restaurant. Just then the woman at the next table, said her pregnancy made her feel less lonely…the shorter, pregnant woman said again how her pregnancy was a way to put the self she did not like behind her…Everyone loves me now, she whispered, and grinned. She lived for this new self the world loved. Expectant, sacred, she felt special. People smiled at her all the time all times of the day. The pregnancy was like an enormous campaign.
I had this experience when I announced my engagement this year. The announcement did not make me a better person, but it certainly made people treat me as if I was a better person. My friend’s words came back to me, and I was able to remind myself that being engaged did not make me a better person, more specifically, a better person than women who ‘nobody wanted to marry’ (as it is often framed). But the elevation in prestige was real, and it has made me consider whether we underestimate the value of social approval in contemporary life. In as much as I stand by my stance that I don’t care what people think about my personal choices…I know that I was not entirely immune to the accolades that began to flow from friends and perfect strangers when the news of my engagement spread. What are your thoughts on self worth and its connection with status and social conformity?
The Feminist Bride: I actually think we overestimate the importance of social approval and belonging but underestimate its effects on those excluded from or denied that social approval. And I think that gap in understanding is incredibly dangerous. Your friend’s revelation is a profound one but one that many parents would thoroughly disagree with such as in Rankine’s passage. It’s that divide between experiences and opinions that breaks down communication, empathy and understanding.
I took a class at MIT’s Women’s Consortium called American Motherhood and Mothering that examined this gap. For example, it focused on breastfeeding versus formula and attachment parenting versus not. From the classroom discussions to my own friend’s narratives about motherhood, it’s wonderful when someone finds a like-minded group to share experiences and ideas. There’s an intimate bonding and a sense of belonging and naturally people find self worth in that. However, it reinforces the idea that your experience is the “normal one” and thus creates an “unfavorable out group” and a subjective hierarchy of “this way (my way) is right” and “this way (your way) is wrong.”
Wedding and marriage are a perfect Petri dish for this type of behavior. Take for instance the bouquet toss, the object of the game is to catch the bouquet so you no longer have to be single (out group) and can be like the bride (in group). It essentially implies that being single is bad or undesirable but marriage is good. Isn’t that unfair to single people who might be perfectly content with their life or those denied marriage due to their sexuality? The whole concept of an engagement ring is to mark, reward and celebrate this type of “in group” behavior, while simultaneously marking those without one too such as singles and historically, LGBTQs.
What I’ve learned through my Feminist Bride research is that there really just needs to be a better balance between where people find self worth and how they get social approval. Wedding and marriage traditions have set up rituals that people have come to believe, if followed, establish a sense of value and belonging. Just look back at Oscar de la Renta’s wedding dress comment or think about the women who proclaim they can’t wait to become “Mrs. John Doe in six months!” on Facebook. Since I study ritual as The Feminist Bride, I can’t help but wonder where less emphasis on a women finding value from her relationships could have been placed and more focus on her character and qualities could be strengthened?
So far all I’ve figured out for sure is that women need more solid congratulations and praise in more substantial areas like strength of character, intelligence and leadership. All relationships are precarious so why place all your sense of self worth in it? Belief, security and value in oneself will provide an unshakeable foundation, one that no one can ever subvert except for him or herself. When I tell a bride who is thinking of taking her husband’s surname that her name has equal importance to her husband’s, you can see this light switch going off – she has never heard anyone speak positively of her surname as an asset worth honoring and holding on to. Most women see adopting his name as a sign of unity, sacrifice and family, not considering that this gesture is completely gendered and one-sided. Men don’t make these changes in the name of family and conformity. They don’t make them at all. Men’s cultural traditions often honor the individual; his lack of name change is a perfect example of this. When I have this interaction it’s an incredibly powerful moment that tells me thinking critically about ritual and response is really important towards women’s health.
SIN/GIN: I have always enjoyed this statement from Ellen Willis about the power, albeit an illusory power, that marriage conveys.
Besides, marriage has given me an illusory sense of power. A married woman can flirt with men, tell them her troubles, presume on their friendship, and by the rules they can’t demand that she follow through. If she wants a man (especially a single man) it is not only acceptable, but almost expected, for her to make the first move. In no other situation does she have so much freedom. Furthermore the status marriage confers insulates her somewhat from rejection and humiliation. Whatever another man might think of her or do to her, at least one man has certified her Class A merchandise. Propped up by marriage, I’ve been dealing with men from a position of (relative) strength. Now that I’m on my own I begin to see the point, for women, of the European system of institutionalized adultery.
But I must say, I like it less when I read it in isolation from its wider tale of getting married against her better judgment, escaping the marriage and then entering the workplace and having her first tentative skirmishes with male colleagues – all pre-feminist enlightenment. As a stand alone paragraph, it does seem to reduce marriage and its benefits to a sexual comfort zone for women: sex is regular, if boring and sexual flirtations are safe because marriage provides a retreat that never offends the man who has been teased. I feel compelled to ask ‘Is that it?’
When I began to plan my wedding this summer I began to interrupt my Sisters when they were talking about their marriages by asking ‘Why can’t you say something nice about your husband, I know he’s not a monster ALL the time.’ I’d say it partly in jest, but they always took it seriously, as I hoped they would. There is joy, empathy, laughter, love and compassion in marriage – I know this because many of my Sisters married in their twenties and for more than a decade now, I have been witness to their married lives. And I wonder at these moments why I have to give women permission to speak about their husbands skills as parents, lovers, mates, without a sardonic or sarcastic twist. Is there an unspoken interdiction against women celebrating their marital status?
The Feminist Bride: Power is a really interesting tool to analyze marriage and women’s issues. In theory today, entering into marriage should not be a social or legal contract that precludes or includes certain powers, though the gender roles assigned within in it imply that there should be. However, because marriage is regulated by the government and has always been an exclusionary system based on class, sexuality, religion and race. It has always been subject to those in power and used to assert power (mostly to those who fit within this “in group” – historically white heterosexuals). These are the parameters that create power dynamics and often misguided ones at that. If what you’re trying to explore is how this idea of power gets filtered down into the personal and social exchanges we have than I think you’re on to something.
That’s why many of these “in groups” fight to protect “traditional marriage” since they’ve had the exclusive privilege of it, making it more inclusive, to them, dilutes that power, sense of value and belonging. As far as the exchanges with your sisters, consider the phrase “misery loves company.” Perhaps socially, it is more acceptable for them to speak cathartically in order to be perceived as “relatable and part of the group.” Creating an opportunity for your sisters to speak positively about their relationships might just be a sign of how limited our empathy and communication towards different wedding or marriage dynamics is. How much are we really able to be happy for the people who are different from us? If this is true, then social etiquette has a real (and concerning) controlling power on how we accept and interact with each other. Again, that’s why creating a more egalitarian system within weddings and marriage is necessary – so we can learn to appreciate and accommodate diversity in all forms.
SIN/GIN: This Fall, friends invited me to Montclair to see the exhibit From Heart to Hand: African-American Quilts from the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts. This was my introduction to quilting as a rural, southern and Black (woman) craft. The quilts were like nothing I had ever seen before. There was in the story quilts Jackie Robinson larger than life at the plate, the women of the Montgomery bus boycott, the pledge of allegiance, the segregated building, the Mayflower and the Lord’s Prayer. It was impressive to see these bed sized works exhibited with the same curatorial eye as fine arts on canvas would be, and to see women’s work honored for its aesthetic value and also for its production of Knowledge, memory and American historiography. A friend Floor Grootenhuis sent me a link to your cross-stitch images with a quick note ‘you will like this.’ She was right, I loved the delicate ‘women’s work’ of cross stitch which I associate with ‘little women’ of the nineteenth century and its subversive representation of sexual reproductive health and autonomy for the modern woman. I thought of your cross stitch as I took in the work of African American women at the Montclair Art Museum. Can you discuss the texture, narrative and inspiration of your cross-stitch?
The Feminist Bride: My cross-stitch artworks of reproductive products came out of two experiences. The first was a very traditional feminine one, which was being taught how to cross-stitch by my mother at the age of ten. This is how most women learn “feminine traditions” like how to host a wedding; skills are passed down from previous generations. The second one was researching and writing The Feminist Bride. I was discovering how all women’s traditions relate to sex and procreation but in a very indirect, allegorical way. For example, cross-stitch will push the idea of family and motherhood, i.e. procreation but nothing else, but it will never address its actual physical demands or needs of women. As an artist, it dawned on me that it would be incredibly powerful to directly combine the two.
I wanted my cross-stitch to honestly depict modern women when it comes to reproductive freedoms and health. So many people have strong, subjective opinions about the morning after pill or IVF, but have never actually seen the product, let alone experienced it. Regardless of this lack of knowledge, many still feel strongly about what should be legal or free or accessible or judged. When viewers see my artwork, a real shocking moment of clarity and education occurs.
One woman exclaimed how she herself has an IUD, but had no clue what one looked liked. Most male viewers have been really receptive to the work and want to talk about all the medical options. Men hold most the power in terms of women’s reproductive freedom but most male viewers I speak to will admit how little they understand the actual products being debated or even what women’s real needs are. Most viewers are both horrified and fascinated by my “As Far As You Know, I’m Still A Virgin” artwork, which is a real artificial, insertable hymen meant to protect women from honor killings for not being a virgin on their wedding night. Seeing the product and hearing about how strict sexual morals can lead to such horrific and violent acts is really an eye opener as to how women are treated globally today. One artwork that I plan on making that would fit very nicely into this Montclair exhibit is sterilization tools. Most people don’t know that many minority women during the mid-twentieth century were unfairly subjected to sterilization against their will as a result of Eugenics and racial discrimination. It’s an untold narrative and for that reason, an important one to depict. Being confronted with all these objects themselves has a real power especially when presented against such a ‘domestic’ medium.
I think what’s shocked me the most is that for feminist artwork I see mine as incredibly honest and bipartisan. It is not extremely left-winged or weighted with it’s own bias, but regardless it’s still considered incredibly subversive. This just tells me that at the end of the day, how most people reconcile feminine traditions and identity is still at complete odds with our actual daily experiences and narratives. I’m excited to keep developing the works and pushing the objects and narratives that are underrepresented in cross-stitch or domestic mediums.
More about Katrina Majkut
Katrina Majkut (My’kit), located in New York City, is a research-based internationally exhibiting artist dedicated to understanding and exploring feminine narratives in aesthetics, media, history and personal experiences, with a particular focus in marriage and wedding traditions. She was most recently listed as one of four international artist starting a new chapter in feminist art by Mic Media, highlighted as a must-see artist in Gowanus Open Studios by Hyperallergic and a featured artists in the International Museum of Women’s collaboration with the Global Fund for Women #EqualityIs media project. Her 2013 MFA catalogue, Center of Attention just recently joined the library collection at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in D.C.
Majkut uses her research findings to write for a website she founded called, TheFeministBride.com. Selected writings for the website are now represented by Carol Mann Literary Agency in New York City.