Love, Inc

The intersections of emotion and capitalism.

Love for Sale

The romance business starts its season

For many Americans, President Obama's innauguration yesteray marks a time of renewed hopefulness. For others, it is just one more sign of the hopelessness of our times. Given the quagmire that is the American political system, the majority of us are looking for hope elsewhere. And what better place to imagine a brighter future than at a wedding?

Indeed, this privatizing of our hopes and dreams for the future, moving from "we the people" to "we the couple" has increased dramatically over the past few decades. Rather than saving for the future, we Americans have been investing more and more of our wealth in our weddings, a ritual enacted in the hopes that one perfect day will lead us to a brighter tomorrow. The average couple will spend $27,000 on their wedding and that does not include the honeymoon. Of course that's an average. About 20% of couples spend more than $30,000 and about 11 percent spend more than $40,000. Although there was a slight dip in wedding spending with the Great Recession, it is going up again and now exceeds the median annual income of an American worker. 

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The numbers really do not add up. Most people having weddings are between 25 and 34 and this is the group of Americans who have graduated from college with record debt only to face an abysmal job market. But rituals like weddings are about much more than being a rational economic actor, what the economists call homo economicus. Indeed, weddings are about an entirely different species, homo romanticus, who believes with all his or her heart that love is magic and the perfect wedding will usher in a bright and enchanted future. 

This past weekend I went to study the species homo romanticus at a wedding exp. Wedding expos, for those of you who have never been to one, are generally held in hotel ball rooms and like any other expo allow vendors and consumers to find one another. Want the perfect cake for your day? You'll find it there. How about a perfect body? You can go to bridal bootcamp for ten weeks for about a $1000 or you could go over to the cosmetic procedures booth and find out how to melt fat away with lasers. Maybe you want a limo or a balloon ride or the perfect wedding band or a song written for your beloved. You'll find that and more at a bridal expo. Not that you couldn't have found all this online, but there's something exciting about going to an expo and receiving a "Very Important Bride" sticker and having everyone make a fuss over you and give you free things and act like you and your wedding are special even though you are in a room with hundreds of other people who are more or less doing the exact same thing as you.

I had a chance to speak with fifteen prospective brides and grooms and was struck at how increadibly aware they all were that they were spending an awful lot of money on a single day, that this was most certainly not a rational economic choice given their student loans or other debts, and that it was also completely worth it to them to do so. Most of the respondents were like the rest of Americans getting married: in their twenties, white, college educated, and had been with their partners for at least two years. The youngest person I interviewed was 21; the oldest 31. Two of them were lesbians marrying each other.  All were white except for two. All had some post-secondary education except for one. And they were all spending about $20,000 on the event. 

When asked why, they said "to bring our family and friends together" or "for our families" or even "this is the most important day of my life." But they also said they had friends who had spent more, much more, on their weddings and they couldn't understand it since it was just one day and, as one respondent said, "it doesn't matter whether you spend $3000 or $50,000 on your wedding, it won't affect your marriage." They also seemed to shy away from words like "perfect" since "perfect" was what they saw on TV, on the various wedding shows they watch, and perfect was not something they could afford. Instead, they used words like "fun" and "celebration" to describe their dream day.

And yet they still were spending a lot of money (usually theirs; in a few cases their parents') on a single day rather than a downpayment on a house or getting rid of student debt. And they still couldn't really tell me why. One bride-to-be suggested maybe it had something to do with all those wedding shows on TV. A groom-to-be said it was the wedding industry pushing it on us. But they all agreed that it was something they had to buy into because of the very real love they already had for free.

Laurie Essig, Ph.D., is a professor of sociology and women and gender studies at Middlebury College.

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