Penn State professor looks at gender roles, pre-wedding rituals in new book

June 28, 2006

Weddings are a time when a woman and man pledge their unwavering devotion to each other, but the pre-wedding rituals leading up to the big day typically force women to waver in their gender roles, according to Beth Montemurro, assistant professor of sociology at Penn State's Abington Campus in greater Philadelphia area.

In her new book, "Something Old, Something Bold: Bridal Showers and Bachelorette Parties" (Rutgers University Press), Montemurro takes a fresh look at the wedding process, offering a perspective not likely to be found in the slew of planning books and magazines readily available to the modern bride. She focuses on bachelorette parties and bridal showers to show what these events mean to women and what they say about gender roles.

She ultimately finds that bridal showers, especially, contribute to gender inequalities and that even at the turn of twenty-first century, American society is still very much married to tradition and traditional conceptions of masculinity and femininity.

"The bridal shower and the bachelorette party are rehearsals of sorts for the bride-to-be, where she has the opportunity to 'try on' her new role and to bid farewell to her old one. Through these rituals--invented and orchestrated primarily by women--we see how traditional and modern gender roles are negotiated, resisted, transformed, and reinforced," said Montemurro, whose study is based on years of research and interviews.

According to Montemurro, many women tend to hold bridal showers in lukewarm regard as events that reinforce the stereotype of women as homemakers, but they continue to have them because of pressures placed on them by earlier generations of women. These same brides-to-be tend to appreciate bachelorette parties for the freedom of sexual expression and feelings of independence, power, and gender equality they provide.

"The very existence of the bachelorette party is evidence that women have made some real inroads as far as gender equality. Men had bachelor parties because they were about to be trapped in marriage. Prior to the past approximately 30 years, women did not have similar parties because it was believed that they were not giving anything up in marriage," said Montemurro. "As the sexual double standard lost some of its power and as women's rights and freedoms became more pronounced, it has become more socially acceptable for women to acknowledge that they, too, are entitled to a 'last night of freedom'."

While the innovation of the bachelorette party--a celebration of the bride-to-be's premarital sexual identity--and the addition of men to the domestically oriented shower have often been thought to indicate gender convergence and a more progressive attitude toward power relations between men and women, Montemurro suggests there's still a ways to go.

"For example, when men participated in wedding showers, they often mocked the feminine aspects of the showers as a way of demonstrating their masculinity and difference," she said. "And when women held sexually-themed bachelorette parties or engaged in sexualized tasks as part of a scavenger hunt, they often tempered it with laughter, so that it was evident this element was about fun not sex."

In addition to gender equality issues, the book also takes a look at the origins of bridal showers and bachelorette parties, how they differ among cultures, the events as consumptive and materialistic activities, and much more.

"Bachelorette parties and bridal showers are not just women's parties. They are rituals of status, consumption, and materialism; of transition and ambivalence; of friendship and reinforcement of relationships among women; and of transformation. The study of these events can tell us much about the lives of marrying middle class women today," said the Penn State researcher.

Penn State

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