By Katie Beswick
The ubiquity of the image is striking in its absolute sameness. White teeth, white dress, more often than not white woman. Sometimes, it is girls I haven’t seen for fifteen or twenty years; girls who are now women, slimmed down and made-up, covered in white satin or lace or silk. Sometimes it is celebrities, or friends of friends, or royals—made as conventionally beautiful as they possibly can be for the consumption of the camera. These days the spouse is not always a man, although often there is a man in the photo somewhere, dressed in a dark suit that is invariably easier to move in than whatever the women are wearing. Not that you would sense discomfort from the image: in the image, the woman is almost always smiling.
This smile remains, despite what that white dress is doing to her body and what it symbolizes. The corset style of the popular strapless dress, restricting breath as it constricts the ribcage. The heavy skirt of the ballgown type “princess dress” that tugs at the skin where waist meets bodice. The way the fitted, flared mermaid dress that narrows until it spills out at the ankles might cause the bride to trip over and fall flat on her face. The residual expectation of virginity, obedience, and motherhood. The veil that conceals the woman underneath it, rendering her a homogenous bride (fig. 1).
“How does the wedding dress perform violence?” This question is designed as a provocation to students of theatre and performance encountering queer theory for the first time. I have found that using objects as a way into queer theory is a generative method for encouraging performance students to reflect on how cultures of heterosexuality, patriarchy, and shame are sustained. It also offers methods for looking at performance and cultural objects “queerly”—that is, conceptualizing how bodies and objects are “gendered, sexualised and raced” (Ahmed 5) in ways that are normalized and valorized so that they become part of the overarching hegemony through which culture operates.
The white wedding dress is a useful starting point for theatre students because it is at once an object, a costume, and a symbol—it is drenched in meaning, desire, expectation. As the narra- tor in Angela Carter’s novel The Magic Toyshop describes it: “Symbolic and virtuous white. White satin shows every mark, white tulle crumples at the touch of a finger, white roses shower petals at a breath. Virtue is fragile. It was a marvellous wedding dress” (13). Understanding the politics of the symbolism that immerses culture is essential for future artists and creative producers. Most students, from a range of backgrounds, arrive at the university with some familiarity and unexamined existing feelings about white wedding dresses, thanks not only to the trope of marriage as resolution and happy ending in film, theatre, and literature, but also to the dominance of Western (particularly the United States’) culture on much of the world stage.
For many of the students I teach, the goodness of marriage and therefore positive associations with wedding dresses are taken for granted and reinforced everywhere, but especially by the recent successes in the struggle for equal marriage fought by gay rights activists and the widespread acceptance of marriage between gay and lesbian couples in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. My own uneasy feelings about marriage and its attendant cultural symbols are often a site of disorientation for my students. I believe in using one’s own feelings and experiences in the classroom as a means of critically unfastening students from their orientations toward objects and ideas. Feeling differently from the dominant culture serves as a method for “creating a new angle” (Ahmed 4) and inviting students to look from it. Of course, offering students access to any perspective that might unsettle their existing worldviews must be done in a way that creates room for disagreement and (difficult) feelings. It is also important to create space for critical inquiry, and when necessary, distance, by using theory as a scaffolding for thought and discussion.
In this respect, the following texts have proven useful in discussions around violence, patriarchy, sexuality, whiteness, and marriage:
Sarah Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (2006), for introducing the concept of object orientation and connecting queer theory to phenomenology.
Jennifer Doyle’s Hold It Against Me: Difficulty and Emotion in Contemporary Art (2013), for presenting difficult feelings as a generative site for critical inquiry.
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (2003), for a con- ceptual framework for understanding the relationship between our interactions with physical objects and our inner emotional world.
Greta LaFleur’s article “Heterosexuality without Women” (2019), for considering the implications of whiteness in constructing heterosexuality and heterosexual desire.
Michael Warner’s The Trouble with Normal (2000), for a critical position on the role of marriage in upholding inequalities through social and sexual control.
Johan Galtung’s “Violence, Peace, and Peace Research” (1969), for the concept of structural violence, which is useful in offering students a way of thinking about the concept of violence beyond physical acts of aggression.
A question that might structure a seminar, presentation, essay, or portfolio assignment is, “How does the wedding dress perform violence?”
I have found that asking students to use theory to construct an argument that might push against their deeply held feelings is useful not only for honing their critical skills, but also in help- ing them to clarify their own positions. Demanding a critical focus on objects also encourages art-making that is attentive to the relationships between thought and feeling generated through taken-for-granted symbolism.
Marriage is everywhere. In our childhood stories, families, friendship groups, dreams, imagi- nations, and aspirations. As Warner argues, marriage structures a “hierarchy of respectability” that reproduces a “hierarchy of shame”: in this system, the normalization of marriage becomes indelibly tied to dignity, as those who are married are conferred higher status (49). The wedding dress, as a cultural object that performs at the site of marriage, conceals and performs the violence of the mar- riage system: it is often physically uncomfortable, and its whiteness is a canvas for construction of the moral superiority of whiteness more generally, which has structured colonial violence (interest- ingly, the white wedding dress became increasingly popular during the decline of European empires from the late nineteenth through the twenty-first centuries). So also, the wedding dress has come to perform patriarchal expectations around women’s sexuality (that the bride is chaste after marriage if not a virgin beforehand, for example) and behavior, which shore up and conceal violence within marriage and families (almost one-in-three women in the UK will experience domestic violence within their lifetime, according to the UK’s Office for National Statistics). Moreover, cultural rein- forcement of the wedding dress as a rite of passage in popular television shows such as Say Yes to the Dress and Don’t Tell the Bride reinforce marriage as a heterosexual construct, despite the introduction of equal marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples in the UK and elsewhere. As such, marriage and its attendant cultural objects provide a way into concepts such as hegemony, normativity, and heterosexuality for students working through these ideas early in their studies. Meanwhile, the wedding dress becomes a useful object from which to orient one’s perspective to questions of queerness, intersectionality, and culture.
Ahmed, Sarah. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2006. Print.
Carter, Angela. The Magic Toyshop. London: Virago, 1981. Print.
Doyle, Jennifer. Hold It Against Me: Difficulty and Emotion in Contemporary Art. Durham, NC: Duke UP,
Galtung, Johan. “Violence, Peace, and Peace Research.” Journal of Peace Research 6.3 (1969): 167–91. Print.
LaFleur, Greta. “Heterosexuality without Women.” LA Review of Books. 20 May 2019. Web.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2003. Print.
Warner, Michael. The Trouble with Normal. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2000. Print.