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1Since the 1970s, there have been many fewer marriages in France and people marry later in life. [1] Marriage, which used to constitute a fundamental step in the transition to adulthood, has now also been disconnected from living with an intimate partner in that it is preceded by sexual debut and cohabitation. However, from the 1990s, the wedding ceremony itself has been massively reinvested in France. Its forms have been diversified, and couples now celebrate their union as opulently as possible with the understanding that it is a moment for impressing wedding guests with their singularity and the force of the partners’ commitment to each other. [2] Florence Maillochon here analyses a qualitative study of 49 young married couples [3], reconstituting the different stages of their wedding celebration, the intertwining of those stages, their conjugal meaning, and effects due to the roles associated with each sex.

2The book explores the different components in the celebration sequence: the wedding announcement, wedding preparations and, finally, the wedding party. Maillochon’s study of couples’ discussions and choices during these different stages reveals the presumed individualization of the rite to be in fact “a regulating norm and constraint” that standardizes practices as couples comply with a “model of romantic luxury” (p. 346). Because wedding culture and the wedding industry [4] determine representations, most notably through film and marketing, partners ultimately make their choices within a precise and relatively circumscribed framework.

3To begin with, the wedding announcement moment has been reorganized. While the notion of engagement refers in collective representations to age-old practices, despite the fact that their form has changed, [5] a new conjugal sequence known as the proposal has now emerged in France. In the first section of the book, Maillochon observes that marriage proposals seem to involve the staging of a “surprise” (p. 22). While in most cases, the couple’s decision to marry is made jointly, it is important to recreate a feeling of surprise with the help of a special and, if possible, luxurious setting in which each partner performs a highly gender-specific role. The man organizes this event, which is supposed to surprise his future wife while being tailored to his own personality. And in the rare cases where the woman takes the initiative, her future spouse makes a second proposal, considered from then on the only “true” one. For the proposal to be well made, it must take a special rather than banal form as it is supposed to attest to the depth of the man’s commitment in front of friends and/or family. The second characteristic of the new type of wedding celebration in France is that the engagement has been “diffracted” into a series of events: the proposal, the announcement to the family, and increasingly, the announcement to the couple’s circle of friends. Here again, the dominant way of proceeding is to stage a surprise: the couple organizes a meal and/or an evening party in a festive setting, seeking thereby to ensure their families’ support for and participation in their future union. But in France, family responses often seem cooler than expected: a generation gap may be observed between parents, who may be critical of marriage as a model and who “reason above all in terms of an institution”, and the younger generation, who “think mostly in terms of an event” (p. 85).

4In the second section, the author analyses how wedding preparations are handled, notably by comparing couples’ pre-wedding aspirations to how fully those aspirations were realized. She observes that the pre-event organization period has grown longer, amounting today to at least a year – a length of time that would have been considered excessive twenty years ago. The point of the organization period is to find ways to personalize or customize every stage of the ceremony and party, an observation that suggests “form is more important than substance” (p. 138). To ensure the event goes off well, a couple has to perform a considerable number of tasks (finding a venue, caterers, clothes, flowers, etc.), though some of them are outsourced to service providers and assistance from internet sources. In couples’ discourse, organizing the wedding ceremony seems almost a full-time job, a “major undertaking” that must be executed “just so” in order to achieve agreed objectives. Speaking in retrospect, couples often focus on the difficulties and exhaustion involved in bringing off the event, as well as the tensions that may have developed during the preparation period. However, they also stress their “ability to develop and execute a project together”. Meanwhile, the quantity of work involved weighs more lightly on men than women. Many women report not only taking practical responsibility for a greater number of aspects of the event than their male partner but also supporting a “mental workload” that, as they see it, he assumes none of. For their part, male respondents seek to legitimate this asymmetry, which runs counter to the current egalitarian norm, by reporting that their partner prefers to carry out these activities herself and wishes to maintain “control” over the event (pp. 195-206). Fairy tale-fuelled representations of weddings wherein the bride-to-be is the main actor thus create conditions for “twofold servitude of women: social and gender-based” (pp. 220-221). In order to have and experience the wedding they want, women are willing to assume much of the organization work, a fact that Maillochon interprets as a way of entering into their wifely role as “woman of the house”.

5In the last section the author analyses ceremony and party options and couples’ choices, showing that event personalization, a feature highlighted by couples in interviews, actually leads to homogeneous, “normalized” choices (p. 251). The vast majority of venues chosen are outside the home (halls, manors, restaurants). The amounts of money spent on decoration have also been rising as decoration “fulfills the function of expressing the couple” (p. 282). Moreover, clothing works to reinforce gender asymmetry because “the model of the long, white princess-like dress seems to hold across social and geographic borders in France”. Conversely, the groom’s suit is secondary and adapted to the bride’s wedding dress or the decoration, as the idea is to shine the spotlight on the bride. The aesthetic labour involved is thus concentrated on the woman’s body: brides are supposed to look as if they are on stage and to stage their physical appearance. Moreover, the importance attached to form implies the use of a considerable number of visual supports. A complete set of photographs of all the details of the ceremony and party, taken either by professional photographers or family members, is meant to “immortalize” the event and enable the couple to “relive” it as often as they like.

6The strength of this book lies in its detailed description of how gender roles are reinforced by the practices involved in organizing a wedding, an event represented asymmetrically in the collective mind and as such similar to the gender inequalities that are reinforced upon the birth of a child. [6] Nonetheless, the author grants social class its rightful place, showing that because this new notion of the romantic wedding involves luxurious settings it necessarily excludes underprivileged segments of the population, who may go so far as to renounce getting married because they lack the resources for the ceremony or to postpone marriage to save money.


  • [1]
    Prioux France, 2005, “Mariage, vie en couple et rupture d’union”, Informations sociales 122(2), pp. 38-50.
  • [2]
    Segalen Martine, 2005, “L’invention d’une nouvelle séquence rituelle du marriage”, Hermès, 43, pp. 159-168.
  • [3]
    Respondent couples were French and got married between 2001 and 2012. They were contacted in a variety of circumstances (through municipal wedding announcements, at wedding and bridal shows, boutiques, forums) and questioned together twice: before and after the wedding.
  • [4]
    Ingraham Chrys, 2008, White Weddings: Romancing Heterosexuality in Popular Culture, 2nd ed., New York, Routledge, 304 p.
  • [5]
    Pugeault Catherine, 2010, “Les fiançailles: affaires conjugales, affaires familiales”, in conference proceedings of Les transformations de la conjugalité: Configurations et parcours, pp. 11-21.
  • [6]
    Régnier-Loilier Arnaud, 2009, “Does the birth of a child change the division of household tasks between partners?” Population & Societies, 461, 4 p.
Gaëlle Meslay
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Uploaded on on 26/06/2018
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