Friday, May 06, 2005

Sympathy for the Runaway Bride

Missing Bride Jennifer Wilbanks is alive and well--let the punishment begin!

In Mojo Mom I encourage women to learn how to express their honest emotions rather than holding them in and stewing in silence. Anyone who wonders why honest expression can be so difficult need look no farther than the story of Jennifer Wilbanks, the so-called Runaway Bride. Wilbanks has been all over the news since her disappearance and resurfacing last week. Today the headlines proclaim "Runaway Bride Apologizes." What is she sorry for? Making a false abduction and sexual assualt report? Yes. Perpetuating stereotypes against Hispanics? We sure hope so. Sending her town into a frenzy of worry? Of course. But Wilkins also makes a point of insisting that her flight was not prompted by cold feet, telling us that "Those who know me know how excited I...was about the spectacular wedding we planned, and how I could not wait to be Mrs. John Mason....I was simply running from myself and from certain fears controlling my life."

It burns me to know that she has to say this in addition to the other apologies she's making. I can understand having a breakdown while planning a huge spectacle with 600 guests and 14 bridesmaids. That would make me positively loopy. Our culture has gotten way out of control with the money, time, and attention lavished on the wedding day, instead of focusing on a lifetime of marriage. How many times have we heard that it's much better to call off a wedding rather than go through with it hesitantly, and face a divorce later? While Jennifer was missing, how many people said they would thank God if it turned out that she had cold feet rather than being abducted or murdered?

Now that she's back, and we found out that she had the nerve to run away just before her impending Bridezilla spectacular that everyone was counting on, slinging mud in Wilbanks' direction has become the new national pastime. Jokes and eBay souveniers abound. The Mommy Wars have morphed into the Bride Wars as the media frenzy takes over with online polls set up to allow all of us to "vote" for John Mason to dump her or for Wilbanks to face criminal prosecution. (Good thing these polls are conducted with online clicks rather than hurled stones.)

Punishing women who have the gall to challenge our romantic ideals of wedding days and "nice girl" behavior is nothing new. Anna Applebaum of the Washington Post has an interesting commentary asking Why Did the Runaway Bride Strike Such a Nerve? that compares Wilkins to Charlotte Bronte's literary heroine Jane Eyre (Jane also experienced a critical backlash in her day).

A wedding is such a powerful symbol in our culture--gender roles, religion, community and family politics wrapped up in one chiffon-garbed pageant. Anna Quindlen, herself a Catholic, was writing about women's assigned roles in Catholicism when she quoted Randall Balmer, a professor at Barnard who is an expert on evangelical Christianity, as saying "There's a sense that the world is out of control and chaotic, and that if we can control our women the world will be a safer place." I believe this is a powerful social force at work, on many unconscious and conscious levels.

We can't control Iraq or Al Qaeda. Thank goodness we can still come down hard on fragile brides.

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