Many observers point to the Supreme Court’s scuttling of the Defense of Marriage Act last week as a signal of a dramatic shift in American attitudes toward gay rights. As important as this ruling may be, the most consequential shift may already have come when mass marketers embraced gay marriage, acknowledging the influence and potential profit that can be reaped from gay consumers. Beyond granting legal rights to same-sex partners (or confirming a couple’s commitment), a wedding is an institution of normativity that places straight and same-sex couples alike squarely within consumer culture, a normativity that comes with literal costs (by one count, the average American wedding costs $25,656, but The Knot puts that figure at $28,427) and does not necessarily deliver civil privileges to same-sex couples. Yet gay weddings threaten many ideologues because they erode homophobic stereotypes and simultaneously illuminate the fallacy of a white wedding. Our collective values are often most clearly articulated in mass consumer space, so marketers’ interest in reaching gay consumers—and their willingness to risk the wrath of moral ideologues–may quietly signal that deep-seated discriminatory stereotypes are eroding in the face of potential profit if not moral clarity.
The first US state recognition of gay unions was made by Massachusetts in 2003, and 13 nations have now extended legal marriage rights to same-sex couples. In the 13 states (as well as the District of Columbia and five native American tribes) that now recognize same-sex marriage an industry rapidly emerged extending relatively typical consumer goods to the legally beloved. Many gay weddings and commitment ceremonies outside those 13 states deploy all the material symbols of conventional straight wedding ceremonies—formal invitations, wedding cakes, stylish formal wear, rings, floral decorations—in ways that imply immersion in consumer culture and, by extension, mainstream values. For some gay observers, that material ceremony is symptomatic of a troubling accommodation to dominant ideological measures of the heterosexual family that risks undermining queer distinction; likewise, the commercial acceptance of LGBT spending certainly does not signal an embrace of difference. The material trappings of a wedding cannot be utterly distinguished from the political privileges and citizen rights implied by the ceremony and marriage, so it is worth thinking reflectively about the symbolism of some seemingly prosaic wedding materiality in the context of gay marriage.
One of the consumer goods that now adorn gay weddings are cake toppers, the terminal ornament on a wedding cake. Introduced in the 1950’s, cake toppers provide the aesthetic focus for much of a wedding ceremony, and they often function throughout a couple’s life as a material heirloom and vessel of memory. The conventional cake topper was a blunt confirmation of the normative ideological dimensions of weddings and marriage, since toppers were nearly universally White male and female couples wearing a tuxedo and wedding gown and facing the wedding party in a stiffly disciplined pose. The traditional cake topper of two staid individuals have now been replaced by an army of toppers that cater to nearly ever couple’s personal construction of themselves as gamers, zombies, cell phone users, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, redneck, manga fans, zombie Spiderman couples, or Star Wars fans, with options including African-American couples, African-American gamers, interracial couples (or couples with distinct skin colors), and a universe of personalized toppers crafted to mirror an individual couple’s likeness.
These toppers deliver notice that a couple fancies themselves as distinctive and are bending conventional wedding rituals even as they accept the normative ideological dimensions of wedded monogamy. Many gay cake toppers, though, are not at all unlike conventional toppers, featuring restrained, sappy, idiosyncratic, or even conservative aesthetics that we might find at nearly any wedding. Many same-sex toppers, for instance, display classically dressed men in tuxedos or women in gowns; some cake decorations appear to have been assembled by creative planners who took two men or women from a pair of standard toppers sets to make a single same-sex topper. The commonplace motif of a husband carrying his wife has likewise found its way onto some gay cakes, or one spouse dragging the other into marriage.
The most distinctive cake topper style may well be Ernie and Bert. Like popular cultural male couples such as Fred and Barney or Kirk and Spock, Ernie and Bert have often been rumored to be gay, and last week they appeared on The New Yorker cover supporting gay marriage. Sesame Street announced in 2011 that the lifelong roommates were simply “best friends” without “a sexual orientation,” but a sufficient number of gay fans have embraced the muppets to install them on a series of wedding cakes. For instance, Mike Leavitt’s models of Ernie and Bert feature the muppets with their arms around each other and holding a rubber duck, with Ernie’s open palm on Bert’s back pocket. One distinctive cake topper couple of Ernie and Bert places Ernie in drag wearing a white wedding gown.
Nevertheless, there is relatively little about gay wedding cake toppers that stylistically stakes a claim to radical and essential distinction that observers seem to expect across lines of difference. Increasingly more DIY artists and firms are making same-sex couple toppers, but the general styles are not especially distinct from the broader tendency to see the topper as an expression of a couple’s distinctiveness. LGBT subcultures are often assumed to be stylistically and aesthetically distinctive, but many gay cake toppers are stylistically circumspect and dodge the spectacular consumption often associated with subcultural materiality. A commentator on OffBeat Bride argued that the “traditional” gay wedding borrowing conventional style and ritual likely reflects a desire of some couples to “prove to their parents, friends, themselves, and society at large that this is a real wedding.” At least some gay weddings aspire to stake a claim to “legitimacy” by reproducing prosaic material details like cake toppers and mainstream rituals. That material similarity to mainstream styles may spark more apprehension among moral ideologues than the radical stereotypical distinction those ideologues expect.
The anxieties sparked by gay wedding run exceptionally deep, but much of it revolves around the way same-sex unions deliver yet another blow to the idealized wedding. The traditional white wedding was always a fiction, now replaced by themed weddings like lesbian Portal fans’ ceremony. For all the normative effects of gay weddings, same-sex marriage secures genuine legal rights. Reducing same-sex weddings simply to contrived consumer rituals or ideology risks ignoring the that even the most apparently conservative same-sex wedding has political impact and literal visibility, undoing the ideology that everybody present at a wedding is straight.
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2009 wedding topper image from ashleighb77
Bert and Ernie topper images from Mike Leavitt
Carrying the Bride cake topper image from bobblegr.am
Women with dog image from darcyandkat