Take any given weekend in early fall or spring in Princeton, one with mid-seventy degree weather and picturesque foliage. Outside of Firestone Library students dot the colorful tables on the concrete courtyard, tourists with large DSLR cameras photograph themselves in front of East Pyne, and a senior Orange Key tour guide slowly walks backwards, discussing with forced enthusiasm the residential college system. What you’ll also notice, though, is a strange addition to this stereotypical college scene, though one not totally out of place: a few women in long, white dresses get married in the Princeton University Chapel and take their wedding photos outside of Nassau Hall.
I’ve run into these wedding parties on many weekends over the past two years, so often that I’m definitely in the background of at least a few wedding albums, acting as the anonymous Princeton student in her natural habitat. This year, though, after seeing yet another wedding photoshoot while I read yet another textbook, I realized that I’ve normalized this backdrop of weddings into my Princeton ecology. A huge group of bridesmaids in tight pink satin would stand out to me in most other contexts, but here, a bridal party feels just as typical as students studying and tourists snapping selfies.
I decided to figure out what it is about Princeton that made so many couples want to get married here. Not just couples, but Princeton couples: the Chapel only hosts two weddings a week during the academic year, so space is tight. Anyone married in the Chapel must have a connection to Princeton University – they must either be students, alumni, current faculty, or the family of these Princetonians.
Princeton’s campus is beautiful; that, coupled with any orange bubble nostalgia, might explain why so many alums want to return to their alma mater to get married. I could have left it at that, but the paragraph-long description about booking on the Chapel’s website didn’t satisfy my curiosity or my desire to waste study time, and so I clicked on the next Google link, an article by Miranda Rehaut in the Daily Princetonian “Street” section from December 2013.
The article opens with a fake wedding announcement graphic—in exaggerated cursive script it reads: “Street cordially invites you to . . . WEDDINGS at PRINCETON,” followed by a series of bolded statistics about Princeton Chapel weddings and a fairly straightforward, uninspired text exploring the bureaucratic channels and personal experiences in Chapel weddings. What struck me most about the article, though, was not its remarkably cheesy design approach, but its odd conviction that a man marrying a woman in the Princeton Chapel is an ideal and central component of the Princeton experience.
Take the opening paragraph of the piece. Rehaut begins by mentioning the apparently pervasive lore of the Princeton wedding wait-list: “As the old Princeton fairy tale goes, a male student comes to Princeton, has a feeling during his freshman year that he will meet his future wife in the next four years and books the Chapel wedding, despite not actually having a girlfriend. That way, when he meets his dream Princeton girl, they can get married without having to wait. Practical and romantic!”
Even if the paragraph was meant ironically, the fact that the Prince published this conservative wedding narrative only two years ago is shocking: the bride (ostensibly female) has very little say over her future and apparently inevitable marital status, most likely because the author presents marriage to another Princeton student right out of college (or even during college) as the obvious ideal.
My immediate, angry reaction was directed as much towards actual Princeton weddings as towards The Daily Princetonian. I felt that the Chapel requirement that couples must be connected to the university was, to a certain degree, tacit encouragement of the Princetonian marriage ideal; I was frustrated also with the very people getting married, since they chose to conform to this conventional narrative.
I was hasty to make blanket judgments, though—few couples have this fairytale in mind when they plan their weddings, and not every ceremony fits so neatly into the white-dress Chapel fairytale. Take Geela and John, a couple that got married in August of 1990 on the top floor of Fine Hall while Geela was getting a Master’s degree at Princeton. The spectacular sunset views were certainly one motivation for getting married on campus, but the bigger draw was the low price of the space: the couple only had to pay for their catering and a cleaning fee. The ceremony challenges any preconceived notion of an elite and traditional Princeton wedding. As Geela describes it, “You could say it was pretty casual considering that the first guests, when they arrived, saw the bride in jeans setting up the tables.”
Maybe the real problem, then, is not why Princetonians get married at their former university, but how we place marriage into a singular and idealized Princeton narrative. Rahaut’s article is not a fluke: Susan Patton, a very vocal supporter of Ivy League unions, is definitely of a similar mind. Patton’s original letter to the editor of The Daily Princetonian from March 2013 and her subsequent book Marry Smart: Advice for Finding the One exaggerate the same problematic narrative of Rahaut’s fairytale: marriage between the elite of the Ivy League is ideal, and prioritizing such a union should be the obvious choice, especially for female students.
I don’t mean to reinvent the wheel: campus already erupted with criticism over Patton’s philosophy two years ago. One could argue that her words were intentionally sensationalized, that their moment in the limelight has long since passed, and that Patton’s version of Princeton, along with Rahaut’s almost unnoticed fairytale anecdote, are exaggerated stories distant from the lives of the average student. However, in deeming her opening vignette a “fairytale”, Rahaut indicates that this tale is a narrative based on common values, ones that might not go away the moment Susan Patton becomes old news.
There are no comments on Rahaut’s article; it passed almost entirely unnoticed through our mainstream newspaper. Susan Patton’s shocking and upfront opinions may have pulled impassioned debate from many Princeton students years ago, but now Patton is more a worn-out joke than a topic of conversation. Those weddings we walk past every weekend on our way to Firestone can be something to aspire to or to reject, but now that Patton has faded from campus discourse, we should be wary when they start to feel too normal.