As Jaclyn Geller, 38-year-old feminist, entered the bridal atelier on the eighth floor of Barneys on Madison Avenue on a recent June Friday, she was breaking out in hives. “Seasonal allergies,” she said, sniffling. The pollen count was indeed high, but it seemed more likely that the store’s racks of sumptuous wedding gowns (one cost $40,000), white candles, rose petals and piped-in Sting songs were the culprits. Against the tide of giddy nuptials that swallows Manhattan each spring, Ms. Geller, a Ph.D. candidate in English literature at New York University, has published a 415-page anti-marriage tract–with footnotes–entitled Here Comes the Bride: Women, Weddings, and the Marriage Mystique.
“I hope to dissuade many would-be wives from draping themselves in white and walking down the aisle,” she writes. “We must stop repeating the absurd mantra ‘It’s O.K. to be single,’ and adopt the more aggressive stance that ‘it’s not O.K. to be married.’”
The book is a persuasively scathing analysis of contemporary wedding practices, from the proposal (“the appropriate response is, ‘Thank you so much for asking, but, no thank you,’” writes Ms. Geller) to the cake (“pure camp”) and the honeymoon (“institutionalized eroticism”). The author hopscotches from the Torah and medieval France to Julia Roberts movies and New York Times wedding announcements. “I always feel like those people are bugs under my microscope,” she said.
It is a timely manifesto. From the mid-1990’s era of the “do-me” feminist–a sort of take-back-the-makeup movement that proclaimed: Why not milk the beauty myth for all it’s worth and land a man in the process?–we seem to have passed into a new phase, perhaps even more troubling: the era of the “I-do” feminist. Women are not only embracing marriage, which in theory could have been obsolete by now, but manicuring to hyper-perfection the very domestic idyll their mothers rallied to escape. Consider Martha Stewart and Oprah Winfrey (whom Ms. Geller calls, respectively, “a professional housewife” and “a marriage coach”); the resurgence of knitting; Diane von Furstenberg’s City Hall wedding to Barry Diller; our blatantly unambitious first lady; the constant procession of freshly betrothed showbiz celebrities through the pages of InStyle. Consider that one of the most popular books with the Manhattan literati last year was Home Comforts, an encyclopedia of housekeeping written by Cheryl Mendelsohn, an Upper West Sider with a Harvard law degree. How deeply feminism has been co-opted by domesticity could be seen by the big “so what?” which greeted the news last fall that Gloria Steinem–whose 1972 debut issue of Ms. magazine featured a satirical article called “I Want a Wife”–had wed the father of American Psycho actor Christian Bale.
“There’s an era of real backlash,” said Ms. Geller, approvingly borrowing the term popularized by writer Susan Faludi to describe the culture’s rejection of feminist ideals and values. Girding herself for the trip to Barneys, Ms. Geller was sitting on a white couch in her studio apartment in a Brooklyn Heights high-rise. A tall, substantively built woman with spiky hair, she was wearing a sleeveless black turtleneck, black pants, black slides, silver hoop earrings, blusher, lipstick and a generous spritzing of Elizabeth Arden’s Red Door perfume. A copy of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey sat by the computer. After months spent deconstructing self-help books such as How to Get Married After Thirty-Five: A Game Plan for Love, Ms. Geller was eager to get back to her doctoral dissertation on formal verse satire and the rise of the English novel.
The room was sparsely furnished. Ms. Geller believes that marriage, with its registries and showers, creates a bias against unwed people like herself, who must fend for goods on their own.
“Getting married–it’s like the trap door opens, and all the cash and stuff comes down on your head,” she said. “When my grad-student friends get married, in the short term they have all this ease all of a sudden, and that just seems kind of unfair. I mean, don’t we all deserve that? Like whether you’re in a couple or not? There is this sense that couples need stuff; that when you become an official couple, you need a poaching dish for your fish, and you really should have a good rug. It’s ridiculous. I mean, I think it’s really nice that the older generation wants to support the younger generation. But to only give to couples? Horrifying.”
Asked if she boycotts weddings, she said, “I’d rather not support the institution, though as a middle-class person I’m always asked to. I’m always put in that position, and usually I do, because I don’t want to be a complete bitch. You have to support your friends even in their moments of insanity, and also you can’t be sanctimonious, you can’t go through life on a high horse, so of course I do buy wedding gifts and I go to weddings when I’m invited, but maybe one day I’ll summon the courage to say, ‘This is where my money is going to: not to your soup tureen, sor-ry , but so that some woman in Arkansas who lives in a trailer park can afford to get an abortion!’“
The phone rang. It was Ms. Geller’s mother, Marcia, a family therapist. Ms. Geller let the machine get it.
“I think that my mother is proud that I have written the book, but I think she finds the content a little extremist,” she said. “She thinks I’m, as she once put it, ‘way out there.’ The whole mental-health industry is reflexively pro-couple. It’s a sad thing.”
A few days later, Dr. Marcia Geller called and said, “I don’t think Jackie and I are so far off in terms of our vision of the illusion of love being romantic and the illusion of love being the be-all end-all. The way she chooses to approach it is, ‘Don’t get married.’ The way I choose to approach it is to teach people to lower their expectations, or they are going to get set up …. My sense is to teach people how to unromanticize and not set them up for disappointment.”
Jackie Geller grew up the eldest of three children in Scarsdale, N.Y., where she attended an alternative high school. When she was at Oberlin College, her parents divorced. Her mother has since remarried.
“Part of what was tough about writing this book was that the preachy married couple was, like, everywhere, “ said Ms. Geller. “Every time I picked up a magazine it was like, ‘Partners in style–we’re one soul in two separate bodies.’ The weird fact is that when famous people get married and they have power, they feel like they have the moral high ground, both because they have sexual allure and because they have a lot of money. And they are immediately deferred to as if they possess wisdom–and these people are ninnies !
“Gloria Steinem has said, ‘Being a feminist is all about choice, and I have chosen marriage’–and I think that is a horrifying misappropriation of the word ‘choice,’” Ms. Geller continued. “What it implies is that this is not a political decision, that to put your sex life under the government’s mandates and controls–to support an institution that originates in the barter of women as property, to align yourself with that history, to re-enact by going up the aisle this drama of male redemption–doesn’t have repercussions. I think, when you get to the point in relativism where even one of the most outspoken feminists is using this kind of ‘to each her own’ language, I think we’ve come to a very sad place indeed.
“Ms. is like a fashion magazine now,” added Ms. Geller. “It’s got pictures of rock stars and glamour girls!”
Ms. Geller has some ideas for female role models: Heloise (12th-century nun), modern-dance pioneer Isadora Duncan (never married), aviatrix Amelia Earhart (reluctantly married) and the actress Susan Sarandon. “I love the fact that he’s so much younger and like this young stud,” she raved of Ms. Sarandon’s “life partner,” actor Tim Robbins. She also likes actor Willem Dafoe, who has been co-habiting with his girlfriend, Elizabeth Decomte, for 23 years. “I met him once and we chatted about it,” she said. “What a doll.”
It was time to go. Ms. Geller went into the bathroom and applied more perfume.
The conversation picked up again in Fred’s, the basement restaurant of Barneys that is slated to become a cosmetics department. Ms. Geller tucked into a cheese plate and a glass of Chardonnay and admired one of the waiters. “He’s so-o cute, don’t you just want to take him home?” she cooed.
She said she was dating a cop. “I met him in a bar; we went home and fucked, and I didn’t think he’d call, but he did and it’s been great.”
Ms. Geller–who, by the way, prefers the term “spinster by choice” to “single”–said that her editor at Four Walls Eight Windows, whom she met at a pro-choice event, was concerned that readers would think Here Comes the Bride was a case of the-lady-doth-protest-too-much; that she was writing it because she was a woman in her late 30’s who couldn’t find a husband. On the contrary, she said, she has turned down marriage proposals.
“I think another way to say it is that I’m not such a couple person,” she said. “This grind of, like, the meals? Checking in with each other? ‘Honey, I’m at the dentist.’ ‘Honey, I’m walking down the street!’ Now, with the cell phone, there’s no privacy at all: ‘Honey, I’m in the bathroom!’”
In her book, Ms. Geller offers a new angle on the stereotype of the male commitment-phobe. “Perhaps American men avoid marriage because it is inherently undesirable,” she writes. “Perhaps they perceive wedlock as a trap, because it is a trap. Perhaps the reluctance to relinquish one’s social independence and physical space is not a disturbance but a healthy response to the claustrophobic ideal of intimacy championed by the human potential movement.”
Ms. Geller said she was nauseated by modern couples’ attempts to customize their weddings to reflect their progressive sensibilities: “I think when people make a legal contract into something personally expressive, what they’re telling themselves is: ‘I’m a total individualist, and this is my way of showing the world my sensitivity and my quirkiness.’ As they’re totally conforming! And it seems very intellectually dishonest to me. But also, I just have to say, I have sat through far too many ceremonies that are prolonged sensitivity exercises, with Navajo blankets and people beating drums and incense and readings from the Psalms and the Koran and E.E. Cummings and The Little Prince, and I just want to bang my head against the wall or just walk into the ocean and take deep gulps of water! I would just rather submit to a Catholic mass, or a Jewish thing in Hebrew that I barely understand. It’s just like, ‘Get it the fuck over with and let us out of here! I just can’t take it. I can’t take it anymore!’”
Nearby the table at Fred’s, a young woman with Raphaelite curls was feeding spaghetti to her date. Ms. Geller was asked what society might look like without marriage.
“It might look a little like the Renaissance or the 17th century, in the sense that homosociality would be where most people discharge their emotional energies,” she said. “Of course, there would be legal equality for women, as we have now–that was the problem with those years, women were chattel , so we don’t want to romanticize them too much–but I think people would naturally gravitate toward monogamy, because some people just like that. I think other people would have multiple sex partners. I think other people would have a few. I think some people would live alone. I think other people would be celibate. I think other people would start households with their friends and raise children that way. I think law and culture would respect each one of these models equally.
“Ultimately, despite the cultural script, I don’t know that the fears are so different among women and men,” she said. “No one wants to die alone. The message from the culture is that you will–if you don’t get that ring on your finger. Of course, men are scared, too. Men are much more antsy and much more confused. But I still feel, bottom line, that a man taken by the culture at large will be taken for what he produces, the resources he controls–his sort of basic worth will be assumed. I think an unmarried woman is still a curiosity.”