The Personal and the Political

Dear Millicent,

In regards to our ongoing conversation about the place of personal narrative in abstract ethical argument, as well as our consensus on the trials of weddings, I thought Jessica Valenti’s post today about her recent wedding might be of interest.  In her post “Well, I’m damn sure I’m never getting married again,” she writes about the high profile of her wedding (it was featured in the NYT), and how her public feminism brought a great deal of criticism.  Through various media, people commented on her “self-promotion,” her choice to get married at all, her dress, her caterer. She asserts that she is not a symbol of feminism, speaking for all feminists, and that instead she is an individual deciding to share her own navigations through a tricky wicket.

I think lots of couples, brides especially, deal with this same kind of stress, though on a less grand scale.  While most of us aren’t public figures, couples face a rough road in announcing the choices of their wedding. One of the reasons playing “wedding” as a kid is so fun is because it seems like an adult moment where you have all your glories gathered: this is my dress, my flowers, my bridesmaids, my groom: I am an adult, look at the finished me!  It is a game of the luxury of self, especially attractive in childhood because there we rarely get to control our world.  And then, the cruel joke of a real wedding—-you are supposed to have some adult self to concretely present: an aesthetic, a found beauty, inner grace, humility, and it is supposed to fit everybody else’s wishes and expectations for you.  If you proclaim your self too loudly, you are a bridezilla, lost to the wedding gods.  If you go by the book, you are not authentic enough.  If you ditch it all and go to city hall, there’s a modest twinge of what could have been (“it’s such an important moment, you want it all over in 20 minutes?” and “what kind of pictures will your kids have to look at?” were both questions I heard).  And so, post wedding, the criticisms roll in.  I have never met a bride who didn’t feel a little beat up at the end of it all, and most of the battering came from assuming a defensive gesture.  Defending their dress, their friends, the food, the band, the cost, the wedding date, the travel, and all the other stuff.  We think a wedding is going to be a kind of cotillion, where instead of announcing ourselves as polite “finished” debs, we arrive as welcomed smart adults into the community.  But, debs have strict rules and follow a rigid ideal of ladyhood to be accepted without qualms into the dating pool of cotillionland.  Most of us at our weddings, with our eclectic and fierce assertions of authenticity, announce “hey, this is me!” and then have a lot of explaining to do.

In short, I think it’s damn hard to get married these days, even if your peeps are the best of the best.

But Valenti’s essay brings up more than the post-wedding hindsight of “jeeesh!”  She says:

I’ve always felt that putting yourself out there – even if it means being more vulnerable – was a terrific way to show the nuance and complexity of feminism. And that making yourself more accessible was a way to make the sometimes-dense ideas of feminism more relatable. I knew this would make for a dangerous line to walk – that opening yourself up also means opening yourself up to hatefulness. And over the last five years that I’ve been blogging, that hatefulness has come through. But wonderful, amazing, supportive people have always counteracted it – and that made it worthwhile. But looking back, when I realize that some of the most important and joyful moments in my life have been poisoned by the cruelness of people I don’t even know…well, it just gives me pause.

A wedding is so inherently personal and public, in general, but to have that public critique to continue to other experiences…it sounds brutal.  It’s different here than a case of celebrity, or even of our prevalent public/private twitterblogfaceland, and I admire her perseverance. My question is, is relatability worth the sacrifice? Is relatability the key?

We’ve talked before about how the introduction of the personal often changes the conversation when it comes to broad argument.   This happens a lot, for example, in the comments section of Jezebel, where a post will advocate or critique a particular cause.  The comments section will then fill with people relating stories of people they know, one time events, or personal narratives. On Jezebel, I find it annoying because the larger conversation is lost to single voices proclaiming their own experience, looking backwards and then leaving the conversation. However, I think Valenti presents here the power of these kind of conversations: they can demonstrate and highlight the complexities.  For me, the best use of personal narrative is not when it fragments into every single person’s “I can relate” pitch,  but when the voices together illustrate the importance and power of the issue at hand.

I recently went to a conference on women and power where practically every speaker started their speech with a short anecdote or comment about the difficulties of having a job and a family.  By the end of the conference, about 18 speeches later, the gesture felt hackneyed and a bit predatory: a request for empathy on demand.  Yet, in a keynote speech, Gloria Steinem said that personal narrative was the key to social justice, and that “empathy is the most revolutionary emotion.”

Years ago, I went to another conference where before each speaker spoke, they presented their reproductive history.  The summit’s focus was to bring together pro-choice, reproductive justice, and birthing rights advocates to look beyond the abortion debate and work together. As every person spoke over the three days, the immensity of how deeply reproductive and sexual health policies affect everybody, regardless of race, class, gender or sexuality was strikingly clear. Assumptions were dismantled, and empathy ruled the day (impressive around the abortion debate, no?).  It was one of the best ideas I have ever seen at a conference.

Closing thoughts:

  • Can empathy limit progress?
  • Is it empathy that occurs when people take the mic and  tell their own story? Or is it contingent on the fact that they keep speaking after their story is done?
  • Would modern weddings be better if the conversation didn’t focus on dream dresses, bridezillas, and proclamations of originality (I find these bridal narratives as irritating as the princess wedding version) and more on familial stresses, navigating adulthood, and the other strange beasts that lurk?
  • Did the Houston bride who had her own cakeself worry about any of this, or is she the rare creature—-the satisfied bride? She did get exactly what she wanted, and I’m sure there was somebody trying to talk her out of that cake.

Yours,

CF

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