Updated: Apr 26
Heteronormativity is the assumption that heterosexuality is the default sexual orientation. It also assumes that gender is binary and that traditional gender roles are natural and applicable to everyone. For example: the idea that every man wants to go to a strip club on their stag do (or bachelor party) and every woman wants to have a spa day on her hen do (or bachelorette party) is heteronormative.
In fact, there are hundreds of heteronormative ideas surrounding weddings and marriage in general. But as our society progresses and becomes more inclusive, it’s time to rethink all that.
Marriage, in its roots, was a way for families to create strategic alliances. It had little to do with the actual couple and whether they loved each other. As awful as this may sound, there is something to take from it. Marriage should be seen as an alliance, not amongst the families of the couple, but between the couple itself. Marriage and civil partnerships make a couple family; two people who were strangers are now each other’s closest relative.
I know this doesn’t sound very romantic, but take off your heteronormative glasses, and you may well find this much more romantic than diamond rings and sunset proposals. Not that there’s anything wrong with them, but without love and partnership these actions are meaningless. While love and partnership can survive without them.
In the west, our idea of what a wedding should look like is essentially a marriage ceremony followed by a party. Given that a marriage is a legal contract, there are of course some requirements that need to be met, for example some declaratory words cannot be altered and both partners need to see the register (or religious officiant) separately to ensure they are both entering into the marriage willingly. Yet there are so many aspects of the day and everything leading up to it that we take for granted, which have nothing to do with legalities or meaningful traditions and everything to do with cultural expectations rooted in outdated perceptions.
Here are some of them:
The man asking permission from the father (or parents) of the woman to propose marriage to her.
This tradition stems from the time when marriage was indeed a business transaction between the groom and the parents of the bride (the father specifically).
The bride walking down the aisle, accompanied by her father
This is perhaps the most common tradition that we still uphold today. And it is puzzling how much people don’t question it. Why is it the bride that walks down the aisle? Why is it her father that accompanies her? Of course, modern couples may have many good reasons why they want to incorporate this tradition into their wedding, but we cannot ignore its roots. When this tradition first started it was to indicate the moment the father would pass ownership of his daughter to the husband.
The bride wearing a veil
A tradition which dates back to the time of arranged, or rather forced, marriages (which unfortunately are not completely a thing of the past). The bride’s face would be covered up until the moment they were married, so that the groom couldn’t oppose to marrying her based on her looks. Yikes.
The argument most people will make in defence of these traditions is the very fact that they are traditions. An argument that as you can see doesn’t make much sense. Other popular arguments include “no one thinks of it like that” and “no one forces you to include them in your wedding”.
But these last two arguments are lies. We are so used to seeing everything from a heteronormative perspective we don’t even realise what’s wrong. Take a same-sex couple for example, under our perception of how a wedding should be, we are immediately expecting one to take the role of the groom and the other the role of the bride. Because the difference between the two is fundamental to a western wedding. But if marriage is the free union of two (or more) partners why do we force such different roles on them?
Heteronormativity is fooling us and we don’t even realise. We think it’s normal that the partners have separate roles based on their gender, but only when we look at a same-sex couple do we realise that this perception in its core is straight up sexist.
But the biggest lie is that no one forces us to follow these traditions, and it just so happens that most people want to follow them. But the fact that no one points a gun to your head and tells you to buy a diamond ring or wear a white dress, doesn’t lift the pressure entirely. Most of us will have pressure from family, friends, even work colleagues to abide by the norms when planning a wedding. Even people who have broken the rules in their own wedding will still assume you’re not until told otherwise. The wedding industry itself is capable of making us feel guilty if we don’t have a minimum three-tier cake.
There is such a lack of representation of couples choosing non-traditional options that unless we are willing to put up with everyone being shocked that we want to break our heteronormative tinted glasses and wed under our own terms, we feel like we can’t do it. So we go along with at least most of the traditions, abiding by an outdated set of rules that no one really remembers where it came from. We uphold patriarchal stereotypes and binary gender roles that we may not agree with, only because “it’s tradition”.
But marriage isn’t a spectacle, it’s partnership. And weddings are the day couples make their partnership official. It is a day for the couple to celebrate their love in any way that makes them and only them happy.