The hobo wedding: why romanticizing certain wedding themes is problematic

August 4 | Guest post by Little Red Lupine
Georgetown relief depot, 1932
HOBO WEDDING: Is this the line for the buffet? From Seattle Municipal Archives, used by Creative Commons Licensing.

Two weddings have been causing a stir on the internet lately: the Colonial African wedding (original post removed by photographers) and the Depression-Era Hobo wedding. They got me thinking about weddings, romance, and romanticizing, and I wanted to explore the issue here. This isn't a post ragging on these two weddings but, rather, a chance to consider what got everyone's knickers in a twist.

Okay, let's start with two words: "romance" and "wedding." What could go together more perfectly than romance and a wedding? Isn't that the same thing, even if we have different definitions of what is romantic? It could be hearts and roses, it could be candlelight, it could be a fairy grotto, the 1980s, Han Solo and Leia. For many people, their wedding is about pulling together those things that (re)create an ideal mood, place, or time that, for them, stands for romance.

In some cases it means a theme wedding. When we talk about weddings, though, it's not just about being romantic, it's also about romanticizing something. I'm talking about seeing something through rose-coloured glasses, viewing it as ideal and perfect, shiny and wonderful. Renaissance weddings are an obvious example. Yup, dressing up like a princess and a knight sounds pretty romantic, right? I wouldn't tell that to a medieval scholar, though — the Middle Ages weren't exactly all they're shined up to be. But we've generally accepted that pretty versions of medieval weddings are relatively ok.

This glorifying of the past isn't a new thing. Humans seem to like to look back and say that times were good way back when. The Greeks did it in their legends, looking back to the Golden Age. The Hindus did it, glorying in a past when the world was new and perfect, not yet degraded and ready for destruction. Artists and poets have done it for years (Romanticism, anyone?). Romance novels too have pulled on this with the sub-genre of historical romances. It is obviously sexier to get swept off your feet wearing a bodice than when wearing jeans and a t-shirt.

The dark side

There is, however, a darker side to this. Some things are a lot harder to get away with romanticizing and maybe we should think more about what we do romanticize or at least how we do it. Some things are going to be a problem and while some of them are obvious, like the Black Death, others may not be quite so obvious. The Colonial Africa wedding and the Depression-Era Hobo wedding are prime examples of this. They have both been attacked not because of whether they were romantic (because those couples look pretty happy and romantic to me), but because of the particular theme they chose to romanticize, and the way it was presented. Commentors frequently objected to the romanticization of these particular themes matched up with a wedding.

With the Colonial African wedding, the issue at stake is that the photos of the wedding that were displayed and the title of the original blog post easily worked together to suggest a glorification of British colonization of Africa and the negative things that came with it such as slavery, white-privilege, and the bitter history that followed. A storm erupted on the internet after the initial post was seen with most responses being pretty negative.

The couple had based the aesthetic on the movie Out of Africa, appreciating the look and feel of that movie without necessarily condoning the historical period during which it took place. They loved a particular look and feeling. The original bloggers were partially to blame as they admit they "were naive not to consider the negative implications of using the word 'colonial' in the blog title" and didn't consider which pictures they chose to juxtapose with that title, ending up with pictures that all had black servers dressed in clothing that slaves would have worn (despite that the servers were not all black).

Jezebel was one of the main sites to pick up the story and focus specifically on the pictures, drawing conclusions from them and fanning the flames. They also later printed an update after the photographers took down their post.

The Depression-Era Hobo wedding was written up by the couple themselves and they too made some grave word-choice errors that led to some very heavy criticism. Foremost among them was referring to their garb as "hobo-chic" which juxtaposed extreme poverty with high fashion. The wedding itself seems sweet and the romantic ideal they were going for came from memories of the Depression-era wedding of the groom's grandmother.

We need to think carefully not only about our own cultural context — but also that of those around us.

Now, lots of readers would agree that a wedding that could be described as "unfussy, honest, beautiful, fun and, most importantly, from the heart" sounds ideal. Again, it's the problem of how they described it and the way they put it into practice that got them such bad press. Regretsy criticized them for romanticizing hobos — homeless migrants who had no money and were forced to travel seeking work. Now, if the bride and groom had chosen different words to describe the wedding, likely few would have raised a fuss at their choice of fashion or decor. But they didn't. They wanted to romanticize hobos specifically.

So, what got everyone's knickers in a twist? Some things just do not romanticize well in this day and age of trying to be conscious of the past. The racism that gave justification to colonization is still alive and well and is still being fought today. The poverty that resulted from the Great Depression is still a keen memory for quite a few people, and the memory has been revived by recent economic conditions that have left many people in a difficult situation money-wise. Just because we like a particular aesthetic doesn't mean that we should use it for our wedding without considering the implications.

Think outside your own privilege

Sipho Hlongwane's opinion piece in The Daily Maverick brought up a good point in regard to the Colonial African wedding: The couple just did not think about whether their wedding might be offensive, especially to people like their serving staff. Therein lies the problem. They themselves pictured a lovely wedding of vintage decor and clothing for everyone, including the waitstaff — but it never occurred to them that not everyone would be okay with that romanticization.

If we want to question the wedding industry's ideals and traditions about the romanticization of a wedding and all that it is supposed to be, opening our eyes to meanings and roots of aspects of it (like being "given away," diamond rings, the budget, or etiquette), we need to keep our eyes open when we plan our own weddings. We need to think carefully not only about our own cultural context — but also that of those around us.

Now, while I don't think we should plan weddings solely based on the fear of offending someone, I do think we should be keeping it in mind, especially when it comes to larger cultural issues. We should be aware of whether or not our wedding will offend someone and consider thoroughly whether or not that is an issue. We should consider our guests, the people we hired to be present, and the world around us. And yes, unfortunately just having a gay marriage or an interracial marriage would be offensive to certain kinds of people — but obviously that's something they will have to live with. Just make sure your wedding is something that you can live with.

This goes doubly if you ever intend to put anything about your wedding on the internet. If you put it on the internet, someone will get offended. Be prepared. Be aware. Consider your words and images. Consider how much you are willing to share with the world at large. Because trust me, they are reading and they are watching.

Related post: how to deal if your wedding goes viral and everyone hates it.