Last week, Happiness as a Second Language author Valerie Alexander wrote a piece for the Huffington Post calling for a ban on weddings and baby showers. The celebration of these milestones, Alexander argues, has become ridiculously over-the-top, taking away from our ability to honor female accomplishments other than becoming a wife and a mother.
Referencing a recent engagement photo gone viral, she writes that she "feels sorry for these girls," questioning their ability to assess whether they are ready to be wives and not merely brides.
While many of Alexander’s points are valid, her dismissive tone, casual teen parent shaming, and narrow, liberal white feminism left a bad taste in my mouth.
Sure, the wedding industry upholds a lot of archaic and patriarchal notions of what it means to be valued as a woman. Yes, wedding reality TV shows full of "crazy" bridezillas throwing tantrums about their five-tier rose encrusted cake are gross. Absolutely, let’s educate teens about the challenges of parenthood. But to me, the issue here is not banning weddings or baby showers, but the cultural attitudes that prevent women from feeling empowered in their choices, whatever those choices may be.
Unfortunately, Alexander's well-intentioned "ban" is just another way to police young women's behavior.
Firstly, Alexander's arguments, like those of many prominent white feminists, overlook the role that race has to play in the way women think about marriage, motherhood, and social validation. The historic "ideal femininity" — the woman who is maternal, beautiful, and demure — is a white femininity.
In contrast, American constructions of, say, black femaleness in the media are overwhelmingly negative: baby mama, jezebel, sexually promiscuous, unmarriageable. When we talk about the successful, liberated woman, the woman in question is almost always white. Knowing this, we must acknowledge that there are times when women of color may not want or need to distance themselves from the "traditions" of ideal femininity or maternity.
Take, for instance, the backlash Michelle Obama received last year when she announced at last year’s DNC that her most important job was as "mom-in-chief."
White feminists like Jessica Valenti were critical of the First Lady’s "downplaying" of her own achievements, a critique which failed to rcognize that the American public's embrace of Obama as a self-declared "mom-in-chief" was a celebration of black motherhood, and a challenge to dominant constructions of black femininity, as writer Tami Winfrey Harris pointed out.
Many white feminists have long denounced weddings and marriage as "outdated" (unless they're updated to be "feminist"), but as feminist blogger Danielle Mertina recently pointed out, women don't all approach marriage the same way.
Mertina writes, "Black women use marriage to access rights and privileges that white women have automatically on account of whiteness. Like the ability to be viewed as a good woman/desirable. Because if a white woman is unmarried it’s her personal choice but if a black woman is not married it must be because nobody wants her because she’s loud, assertive, domineering/other racist & sexist stereotypes."
In turn, marriage means something different for queer women than it does for straight, white women. For many in the queer community (though not all!), weddings can represent inclusion in a previously inaccessible institution; along with a fancy party, a wedding means the social recognition of a relationship. To some people, this is really important. It has to be acknowledged, by white feminists in particular, that depending on who you are and how you are seen by society as a woman, motherhood, weddings, and marriage mean different things.
As if her erasure of queer women and women of color weren't enough, Alexander’s comments on teen parents and the communities who support them are laden with privilege-based assumptions.
On baby showers, Alexander writes that most of them are "lovely" but calls for an end to these celebrations for teen moms in particular —an upsetting measure for mothers who are already told repeatedly from all sides of our media that they won’t succeed as parents, and are generally doomed to unhappy lives. She erroneously claims that these festivities ignore "the fact that the endeavor she is embarking on will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and stunt her career opportunities for the rest of her life."
Many teen parents in the United States live in poverty or struggle financially. God forbid someone throws a young mom a party where she gets some free shit for her baby to make her life a little easier, or that her friends and family openly support her in a difficult endeavor.
Teen parents are already largely seen as "deviants" in our society, held up as a warning to dissuade other youth from following in their footsteps. Rather than continuing to shame them, what if we focused on how to send the message that they can succeed, be happy, and have fulfilling lives?
Hearing yet another woman (particularly a white woman) tell other women that the only way to be happy and successful is by doing exactly what she’s doing is maddening. Why is it so hard for another woman to believe that there are multiple ways of being valued, empowered, and intelligent as a woman?
I applaud Alexander for calling bullshit on the fact that weddings and grand parties don’t equal validation. Yes, we should be exalting all kinds of female accomplishments. But the fact of the matter is, it doesn’t matter if you do have a wedding or a baby shower, or you don’t have a wedding or a baby shower.
Instead of calling for pointless bans, we should be teaching young women like me that we should do what makes us feel happy and autonomous.