queerness, performativity and bridal showers

Patty and I were recently invited to a bridal shower for one of her friends. I’ve never been to a bridal shower before, and while this seems like a lovely affair (tasteful invitation, a request only for recipes as gifts), I’ve heard things about them.

The things I’ve heard were swiftly confirmed by the wisdom of my online social network. Yes, there are generally games. Yes, they involve things like making bouquets out of present bows or styling wedding dresses out of toilet paper or gag gifts and slightly off-color jokes about the wedding night (but the really tacky stuff gets saved, apparently, for the bachelorette party).

I’ve been a little rattled by that confirmation ever since. Not because I’m dreading the event; I’m not. But because how much of the tone of the discussion has been Well, of course, it’s like this. Like it’s just what’s done. Like I should have known. As much as I can be that way about my own subjects of concern (and hey, good reminder of why that is maybe not cool and I should chill) — seriously, does no one know the rules about wearing white anymore? — it seriously discomforted me.

I’m queer, and sometimes it is like living in another country. And I’ve always been queer. Even in my relationships with men (which have not been insignificant in import or share of my personal history), I was always extraordinarily explicit about the fact that I was queer. Sure, I often had some sort of straight privilege in those interactions (a tremendous amount in certain cases — I have a particular ex with whom we performed public, expected gender exceptionally well. In retrospect I know it sort of freaked him out, but I had mostly thought it was fun and hilarious, a game like any other, wow do I fail at communication. Anyway….), but I still wasn’t living in a kingdom that understood things like these rituals.

It took me a long time to realize this was true. I was engaged once, after all, and like many women, viewed that engagement as evidence of my success (to get back to a previous theme around here, I was chosen) and adulthood. I certainly bought wedding magazines then, thought about dresses, the whole nine yards, because that’s what you do when you’re engaged. But it was, for me, a ritual firmly about adulthood. There was no moment of wanting every little girl’s dream wedding because I had never actually had that dream.

Weird thing to realize, that. That one of the most common things held up as an obvious subject for collective, gendered fantasy, just completely never pinged on my radar as a kid. Not once. Not ever. That makes a lot of my 20s more inexplicable to me, but what can you do? My point is, while wedding fantasies I may have harbored at various points in my life were certainly jejune, they didn’t come out of childhood. And, as such, the games of some of those rituals (e.g., the bridal shower), which speak to me of the reenactment of childhood fantasies, completely boggle me.

I don’t know what they are for. Or why they are done. I don’t understand their appeal. And I find descriptions of them nothing but infantilizing. More than that, I’m positively disturbed by the tone of discourse as I perceive it — that of course these things are normal and pleasurable and why is this even a question. It’s not a moment of feminism or politics. It’s really a much more basic sense of huh?

Because I really and truly don’t get it, since in terms of societal positioning, I come from somewhere else. I’m not trying to be stubborn or obtuse. I lack the receptor sites for the activity, and I have not been trained to it. I find myself wishing people would be more sensitive to this fact — that I am not like them in either my desires or my experiences and, certainly, should not be expected to be — but am also fairly certain that that’s nearly impossible. It’s like the impulse to speak louder to someone who doesn’t know your language. It’s obnoxious and it doesn’t work, but most of us do it anyway. I know I do.

None of this means I’m going to be sitting at the shower with my arms crossed huffing at the what the shit is this? feeling I may have if we really do have to break up into teams and design wedding dresses for each other out of toilet paper. No. As a constant, unavoidable visitor to the world not mine (remember, straight people, visiting the world of queer people remains an option for you; but being immersed in your culture isn’t actually an option for me, but a sea about which I have no choice), I am always planning my strategy for passing as if I at least half belong or am safe to have in the room. And so I am strategizing both my wit for the occasion and the drape of this design already.

All of which leads us back a bit to what I wrote about performativity and my childhood the other day. You want stereotypes about queer people in the arts? Is it because the arts are more accepting? (puh-leaze and no.) Or is it because we became skilled at them growing up, rehearsing and performing, in order to survive? If there’s any truth to that, it’s certainly absurd that I’ve pointed it out to both you and me through wedding dresses made out of toilet tissue. What is an act of reliving childhood dreams of an adult future for one person, is, for me, a performance, not just of exclusion from heteronormative adulthood, but of my ferociously clever childhood of survival.

31 thoughts on “queerness, performativity and bridal showers”

  1. If I upset you by seeming to have a tone of “this is how it is, you should have known” in my answer, I apologize! What it felt like I was doing, when I wrote it, was reporting from a region where *I* spent a lot of time, once, and where naturally not everyone lived, nor could they be expected to know the local customs.

    Given that I’ve been called upon to explain what I experience as perfectly normal Jewish customs to well-meaning, uninformed, and curious Gentiles since I was, oh, five or six, that matter-of-fact tone has become sheer habit to me, along with the assumptions that my customs aren’t likely to be everyone’s customs.

    1. No no no no no. It’s all good. Like, humans talk and react because of their own experiences most of which seem normalized to the person that has them. So this was me being all “wow, why did this bother me so much, because again, normal people talking about normal things” and then I got to write an essay about dresses made out of toilet paper. All good.

  2. It’s like the impulse to speak louder to someone who doesn’t know your language. It’s obnoxious and it doesn’t work, but most of us do it anyway. I know I do.

    I always thought it was a reaction to the reverse–I know a bunch of bits and pieces of other languages, but I’m much, much better reading than hearing. It’smuch easier to understand if people are speaking louder and slower and enunciating more clearly. Granted, this is pointless if they don’t know your language at all, but might be helpful–it certainly would be to me–if they’re struggling.

  3. Not to point out another way in which you are different, but something that I’ve been noticing recently (as suddenly ALL my friends are getting married,which freaks me out but is a discussion for another day) is a class thing too. I was brought up in a strange, artsy version (my mother was an opera director and then visual artist, but the rest of the family was respectable) of English/New York upper class and I remember things like bridal showers – both going to them and hearing them discussed – from my childhood as very tasteful things in the houses in the Hamptons, or at Claridge’s, or at the country estates, where you mingled and wore pretty dresses and tried to tastefully one up each other at every point. There were certainly gifts (very often lavish ones) but the idea of off-colour jokes or silly games is entirely foreign to me from that standpoint. Particularly because there were invariably a lot of powerful, scary older women there. So it’s different and weird to me from that angle as well as the queer angle.

    Communities of women can be so strange. I remember them from my childhood in so many ways. The amazing, warm, welcoming one of the female – often queer – artists my mother worked with are quite sharply contrasted with the “high society” one.

    Anyway, having just gotten a bridal shower invite two nights ago, these thoughts are on my mind too:)

    1. Oh yes, and I’m keenly aware of and, for lack of a better word, interested in the class thing. But it’s also something I trip over a lot — I have the experience of a class I’m not a part of; and also I’m learning, in a sort of totally inorganic way that it’s a Bad Thing To Talk About Private School Like it Was a Good Thing or that Having Been Required To Study Latin Is A Moral Failing (see: DW fandom Caecillius wank). So I sort of tried to write this without going there, but you’re absolutely right that a lot of these rituals do differ based on both class and regional differences and trying to sift those things apart is somewhat absurd.

      1. I think you’re right that region and class are also a large component, because I’ve attended and orchestrated several totally heteronormative and highly scripted/ritualized bridal showers, and I was boggling at some of the things you mentioned. Toilet paper dresses? Dear Gods, who thought that up?

        Not that there aren’t other, equally bogglesome, things that are considered de rigeur around here. My personal unfavorite is the superstition that the number of ribbons you break equals the number of children you’ll have, and so people rig the ribbons to break all over the place so everyone can laugh about the insanely large brood you’re doomed to have. At my own shower, this nearly reduced me to tears, as I’d already decided not to have children for several reasons.

        Your comments about the relationship between queerness and performance have really gotten me thinking about how that has played out in my own life. Very differently, not least because I was so slow to even figure myself out, but yet I can see something of that influence going way back nevertheless, and that’s prompting some very interesting reflections, so thank you for that.

  4. I have been planning my wedding since a young age, in bits and pieces of fanciful daydream, but primarily (always primarily) to establish to myself that if(when?) I do this, it will be on entirely my terms.

    This is _heavily_ influenced also by the weddings I attended as a child. My first set of dice, all eight of them, came from a wedding in 2001, to which I wore a black velvet dress and a black and gold cape. I remember being told I could wear “absolutely whatever I wanted” to a wedding in which the bride and the groom were helped into a tree by their wedding party, so they could properly be kay-eye-ess-ess-eye-enn-gee. My mother’s college roommate was married in a library, my aunt and uncle on the back porch and sprawling backyard of my grandparents farm, family friends in the ballroom of the house they’d just bought. The next wedding I attend, I will be the maid of honour, and I believe it is my job to hold the bride’s bouquet, and ensure that she has either a ballpit or a bouncy castle.

    Sometime last semester, it occurred to me that because marriage is (currently) not a viable option in my life1, I will never get to have a wedding. This deterred me for very little time at all before I decided to have a wedding *anyways*, one where the vows will be a commitment to myself, and the reception will have legos on all the tables and a mind boggling amount of dancing. Some days I think I will get various of my affections to stand in at various parts of the ceremony –I think it’d be quite amusing to watch them tag in and out like a wrestling match– and some days I think I’d prefer to be the sole center of attention. Considering it’ll be another seven years before I host it, I’ve got time to figure that out.

    You’re invited. And I’m absolutely not going to have any sort of bridal shower whatsoever.


    1: Because I am queer, because I am poly, because I don’t know that I’ll ever find the time or inclination to settle down and raise children. This may change, of course. Twenty-one is terribly young to be thinking of such things (YES I AM TALKING ABOUT YOU BEST FRIEND AND ALSO OTHER BEST FRIEND).

  5. I really love all your essays, because I both do and don’t identify with a lot of your experiences, and it always makes me think. I’ve had one friend get married ever, and the two of us WERE her bridal shower. It was the sex toy equivalent of a tupperware party. I was her Maid of Honor, and again, I was the entire non-family wedding party. I wore a suit. Bridal showers are really a mystery to me, and what’s described doesn’t sound like much fun.

    I’m asexual and cissexual. I’m not genderqueer, but I am very BAD at being a girl, from society’s point of view. Luckily for me, aside from school, the people around me have always been very accepting that I am who I am. Aspergers, female, and utterly pants at performing femininity in any of the accepted ways.

    So again, thank you for all your essays, I really like reading them.

  6. 1: Because I am queer, because I am poly, because I don’t know that I’ll ever find the time or inclination to settle down and raise children. This may change, of course. Twenty-one is terribly young to be thinking of such things (YES I AM TALKING ABOUT YOU BEST FRIEND AND ALSO OTHER BEST FRIEND).

    As long as you’re not talking about the rest of us, I’m okay with that comment, though I’m not sure if you’re talking about people deciding not to have children, or people deciding that they want them.

    Either way, though, I have never in my life wanted children. I’m going on 24 in a couple of months people still treat me like I’m an unformed person whose preference for childbearing still has room to change. This is because they don’t understand WHY I don’t want children, which has more to do with things they don’t even bother to comprehend even when I attempt to explain. It’s a long laundry list, so I’ll spare you – the point is, it is possible to be young and to be set in at least one of your ways.

    1. Oh, that was terribly unclear of me, I’m sorry. I meant that 21 year olds shouldn’t be thinking about getting *married* yet –children weren’t factoring into it at all.

      (Whether or not that’s problematic is up for debate –I’m sure there are many people who get happily married fresh out of college and live Happily Ever After– but one of the things that society has trained into me is the idea that marriage is IMPORTANT, dammit, and not something to go into lightly. I’m a fan of long engagements and longer courtships –when a friend starts talking about how she hopes the boy she’s been dating for six months will propose, it weirds me out.)

      And of course, I would not be so crude as to presume to talk about the rest of you. I don’t know most of you! I have no way of judging your relationships or child decisions.


  7. Ah. You have hit upon one of my pet peeves.

    A couple years ago, a very good friend of mine got married and I was a bridesmaid. And since then, I have told every female friend of mine who got engaged, “I love you, I’m happy for you, but please don’t ask me to be a bridesmaid because I don’t want to have to tell you no.” I have rarely felt so alienated as I did during my bridesmaid experience. I had these moments of outright anger about it, and one of the worst was when the maid of honor tried to put me in charge of bridal shower games. I did five minutes of internet research, called her back, and said, “If I’m put in charge of this, we’re playing Apples to Apples. Just FYI.” The maid of honor, convinced that my friend would *want* the stupid bridal shower games (for no other reason than the fact that we “should”), put me in charge of party favors and did the games herself. It was every bit as awful and alienating as I had expected, and in the end the whole experience made me decide that if I ever get married (to someone of any gender), there will be a tiny civil ceremony and then a very large party. Because the party I can totally get behind, it’s all the stupid rituals leading up to the party that I can’t stand, and which there is no reason for us to want, except that we are expected to want them.

    On the other hand, the Beltane-themed bridal shower I went to over the weekend was very different. The only “game” was the party bow bouquet, which was taken care of by one of the bridesmaids, who is very crafty and did a spectacular job with it. Otherwise it was a lot of food and, yes, slightly off-color jokes (because bridal showers seem to be all about the rather discomfiting experience of opening up lingerie from your friends in front of elderly aunts), and a twenty minute reading by the bride’s mother about eggs and spring and fertlity and the auspiciousness of an April wedding date. MUCH better.

    1. I’m safely past my bridal shower (tasteful afternoon tea, no games and no gifts by request), but should I ever have a baby shower, I want to play Apples to Apples. That sounds like a marvelous idea. (I’ve never been to a baby shower, but I’ve stumbled upon suggestions for games which are horrifying.)

  8. I would love to know where the toilet-paper wedding dress game came from, because of the dichotomy: a traditional wedding dress is this hugely significant — and expensive — garment, or at least the culture says it’s supposed to be (see Bridezillas et al); now we’re going to make one out of the most disposable material around.

  9. I have somehow managed to avoid every wedding I could be invited to, conceivably, but hit every funeral. (This includes missing my cousin’s wedding at 19. I don’t really regret missing that, it sounds like it was a mostly awkward event, unfortunately.) Now, I am at the age where all my friends are starting to get engaged/married, and I’m still managing to have unavoidable conflicts (truely! not even planned!) with every. one. I’m starting to wonder what goes on at these shindigs…

    I’m in the right class and gender to have elaborate wedding fantasies in my childhood, but never did. I have plotted down to the last screw the computer set up I’d have if I had unlimited funds, however.

    (What was the bit about Having Been Required To Study Latin Is A Moral Failing? I studied Latin in my private school; four years required, headed up the Latin club for my last two. It’s totally how I learned English.)

    1. I actually really love going to weddings. They’re fun and absurd and I get to dance to crap music with no shame. It’s just some of the stuff around it that’s weird for me.

      As to the Latin thing, that’s just me being inappropriately snarky about grief I sometimes get on the Internet regarding elitism.

  10. Your commentary on performance reminded me of this quote:

    “There are millions of gay people all over the world who convincingly portray straight people every single day. Some of them are even actors.” – Alan Cummings

    1. Am I remembering correctly that that was in response to that Newsweek debacle about gay actors not convincingly playing straight?

  11. I’ve only been to a very few bridal showers in my life, and I only remember two of them with any clarity. Probably because they were both hideously embarrassing, for different reasons.

    One was my own. It was organized by my fiance’s mother and mostly attended by her friends. Almost every single person there gave me lingerie, most of it completely not to my taste, and all of it mortifying.

    Shortly later, I went to a shower for one of my friends. Based on my prior experience, I was convinced that giving lingerie was What One Did, so I went and got her a pretty silk nightie from Lord & Taylor’s (only thing I’ve ever bought there). My nightie was the only piece of lingerie she received, and I felt like an idiot.

  12. I don’t think wedding showers are that big a harbinger of awfulness, mainly because they are frequently thrown by older people or more “established” friends (e.g., those who settle into marriage or straight jobs sooner). So they reflect the types of people who throw them, that is, people who are interested in tradition, continuity, etc.

    I’m not gay, nor are most of my friends. None of us had the kinds of bridal showers you have in your head, though they were much more traditional than I would have planned, as befits events thrown in mixed-age, mixed-friend company. Mine was indistinguishable from a cocktail party.

  13. > that of course these things are normal and pleasurable and why is this even a question.

    Haha, I totally got the opposite impression of this, at least in the lj comments – that everyone thinks it’s awful. But even *that* is strange – like if everyone agrees that they’re horrible at best, then why do we still do them?

    I did have a bridal shower. (It feel so uncool to admit it, though…) 🙂 Hm. I think my mom put it on? I’m clearly repressing it because my thoughts are very fuzzy. And, since I was planning my wedding and dispensing with lots of traditions left & right, I think she must have had the sense to NOT do any of the more mortifying games. And there was no talk of children, THANK GODS, so yes, I think my mom must have prepped everyone to not be too alarming and terrible. Instead of tacky gifts, she had people bring recipes and helpful things they’ve learned throughout the years – that was nice because it made it kind of personal. I definitely went through the whole thing afraid that someone would say something that would make me feel terrible for my various life choices, and I don’t think anyone did, in the end, which is I guess good.

    I think people continue to do it because they want the bride to feel thought of / loved?

    Anyway. May it be more enjoyable than terrifying, and have delicious food you can eat!

    1. But even *that* is strange – like if everyone agrees that they’re horrible at best, then why do we still do them?

      Sample bias? I feel like a conservative, hyperfeminine traditionalist is not so likely to be reading RM’s blog. Safe spaces and echo chambers have a lot in common–we all have a lot of opinions in common, which is not a bad thing at all, but does make it easy to forget there are a lot of demographics not represented. I certainly wouldn’t want someone to stomp in here ranting about how we’re spoilsports and not girly enough or something, obviously. Just pointing out that we’re unlikely to hear from the kinds of people who think that it’s the height of hilarity to write down what the bride says as she opens her presents and declare that that’s what she’s going to say on her wedding night. (“It’s just what I always wanted!” “It’s so shiny!” “It’s bigger than it looked in the pictures…”)

      For that matter, folks who might otherwise not object to such activities might not want to speak up for fear of hurting someone’s feelings. Honestly, I think I would probably have fun making a dress out of toilet paper, because I’m crafty and tend to make stuff (origami, animal sculptures, etc) out of trash while I’m fidgeting anyway. In college, I had a club initiation that included making outfits from newspaper (it was mixed-gender and the definition of “outfit” was pretty loose), which I got a kick out of. But I understand how it isn’t fun for everyone, and how some people would be uncomfortable, which is part of why I didn’t want such activities at my own shower.

  14. We don’t have bridal showers here in the UK, a fact for which I am immensely grateful now I’m approaching my own wedding. I did go to a hen night a while ago, though, in which penis-shaped decorations featured heavily. I threatened my bridesmaids with unnameable fates if they inflicted anything shaped like any kind of genitalia on me. They were wholeheartedly in agreement, which is why I love them.

    I think I’d be a bit intimidated by a bridal shower. It seems like a lot more pressure and focus on the bride than I would be comfortable with.

  15. Deja vu. Once more I have no idea if my agreement is due to my everythingqueerness or the fact that I come from a cultural background far from “white Anglophone USian of European heritage”.

  16. I know the rules about wearing white. I admit, however, to encouraging people to break them (in my professional capacity, no less).

    I’m still trying to figure out the purpose of a bridal shower, really. Why does the bride need a separate event, with presents? I can guess how such a thing came to be, but the institution still puzzles me.

    1. It’s a gift grab. A bloody shameless gift grab. And all of the “tee hee hee, lingerie, PENIS PENIS PENIS” bullshit is a useless, hymen-esque remnant of a time when people were virgins on their wedding night.

      I find the whole thing appalling (obviously) because such gatherings make me want to snarl “what, one present isn’t enough for you? Oh and by the way we all know you haven’t been a virgin since high school, and you’re shacked up with him now, so can we please stop pretending you’re some kind of blushing innocent?”

      I can’t actually compose myself enough to attend them. And this, when I was raised fully immersed in a culture that sanctioned this type of ritual, and largely saw my trajectory as a heterosexual one well past the age of my first marriage (which did NOT involve a shower) even though I had ID’ed as queer since college.

  17. Bridal shower games? Now I’m lost. None of the bridal showers I’ve been to have had games. Maybe this is a Northern thing? I will admit that here in Texas (Bible Belt) I’m surrounded by “modest dress” Catholics, Protestants, and Pentecostals. I know a few Pagans. Most of the bridal showers were very conservative family oriented affairs. Sort of a dinner/supper affair, with the guests bringing their kids. And of course the kids give the bride and groom to be gifts, usually a drawing they’ve done or something they made. (Of course, the kids’ presents always gets lots of applause.)

    But I’ve honestly never known anyone who did a toilet paper dress game.

    And the white dress; that’s an old wealthy Victorian thing.

    It used to be that the dress a woman made for her wedding was the dress she wore after her marriage. It’s why Laura Ingalls had a black wedding dress, because every married woman had to have a basic black dress. The only brides who had white dresses were ones who could afford to have a second dress made only for the wedding which they would probably never wear again. It was a ‘wasteful’ extravagance done to show that you had money.

    Oh, on the Antiques Roadshow, someone brought in a dress that one of their ancestors had made for her wedding. She dyed the fibers, spun the yarn and wove the dress. Later she gained some weight and had to add a strip of extra cloth to the back of the dress. (I think the family ended up sending to a museum.) But it was charming to see the dress that she wore often after her wedding. And just to know how much work she put into it was amazing. (Another note on the wealthy bit; that ancestor probably couldn’t spend so much time on making a dress to be worn only once.)

  18. Oof, different worlds. I’m sorry this investigative process has pushed your outsider buttons.

    Something I haven’t seen raised as a reason for the games is the sheer *awkwardness* of mixing friends and family. The bachelorette party is, as I understand it, for hanging out with the people you actually want to make dirty jokes with.

    The bridal shower (I’ve only attended one, for a religiously conservative friend, and everyone was very shy about the whole thing) has this sense of “hey, we’re supposed to do this, and your mom and the bridesmaids and ALL THE WOMEN are supposed to show up,” and that collection of people doesn’t actually have anything in common except your acquaintance. At which point dumb games and uncomfortable innuendo might be a significant improvement over the possibility of someone bringing up politics. If you stick with the script, you’re safe.

    Which leads right back to point 1, living in a world where there are safe scripts.

    My friends who have owned their showers have done things like a Quake LAN party with wedding skins on the sprites, and haven’t invited family. Or possibly they had a family one and made a point of not crossing the streams.

  19. I am so glad I didn’t have a bridal shower and have mostly avoided these events by being out of the country when my friends got married (I sent regrets and presents). I just… don’t like these kinds of parties.

    They honestly do feel like gift grabs to me. What, you want a wedding present and a shower present? You’re going to make a bonnet out of ribbons stapled to a paper plate? Or is that a baby shower thing? The games sound like the forced kind of thing you do at corporate retreats. TRUST FALL!

    Absolutely nothing wrong with doing this stuff if you think it’s fun, but if you’re not in the wedding party, I think you can get away with “Oh, I’m sorry I can’t make it – here’sagiftbye!”

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