October 30, 2014

Weddings: Front Stage Performances

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

Weddings are big productions. They often take months of planning that includes selecting decorations, invitations, food, music, dresses, tuxedoes, color schemes, seating charts, the wedding party and more. Weddings are a heightened example of what sociologist Erving Goffman called front stage behavior.

Goffman viewed social life as something akin to a performance, where we attempt to manage the impressions we make to others. Weddings are clearly social performances: they involve guests, usually seated in the audience, and people involved in the wedding party play roles as well  (bride, groom, best man, mother of the bride, the person performing the ceremony and so forth). Most involve “costumes” that designate the roles of those involved. Photographers and videographers are often hired to document the event too.

Traditionally wedding hosts are presenting more than the start of a marriage. Perhaps they have invited business associates and others who barely know the couple. In many instances this is to confer a sense of inclusion to those extended invitations (who are typically in turn expected to bring a gift). This may also be a way to demonstrate the family’s wealth or prestige if the wedding is a very elaborate affair.

Participants, whether they are guests or the couple getting married, often view a wedding as an opportunity to offer their best front stage performance. They’ll typically wear their nicest clothes and jewelry and will be expected to be on their best behavior. Some even go as far as to choreograph a dance during the ceremony or reception, and many of these performances have gone viral online:



What do you notice about these videos? In both cases, the groom and groomsmen seem to be performing to please both the bride and the guests. What kind of impression might they be attempting to make on others about themselves? Goffman and other micro sociologists suggest that our outward performances have a lot to do with how we want others to see us.

How might these performances be linked to the performance of a wedding ceremony? Perhaps it is a way for the performers to express a sense of individuality during an event that is often choreographed and scripted by others (like the officiant or maybe a wedding planner). It could be a demonstration of love for their new spouse, or an attempt to impress guests during an event where the attention is often focused primarily on the bride.

Guests often play roles as well, often having an emotional experience when the couple says “I do” even if they are not well acquainted with the bride and groom. Gifts are often a front stage act, especially at a shower when a gift may be opened in front of other guests. A stingy gift (or no gift at all) might give off a poor impression of the guest; many guests let concerns about disappointment guide their selection process. A gift registry helps guests avoid this problem in many cases.

The heightened attention to both the wedding party and guests leave many opportunities for failed performances. A drunk relative or family member who fails to attend might damage relationships with more than just the couple, but other family members as well. A problem with decorations, unappetizing food (or not enough food), or a wardrobe malfunction could cause stress for the wedding’s planners.  The wedding could also be seen as a failed performance if guests are not acknowledged and addressed by the “performers.”

I have been to many weddings where peoples’ “performances” yielded many critics. Part of the expected behavior of wedding goers is to celebrate and have a good time, within limits of course. Many people exceed these limits by drinking heavily.

Being—and appearing— happy is also expected to be part of the performance for all involved. I once attended a wedding after visiting a terminally ill family member, and felt very somber at an otherwise happy occasion, as did other family members at my table. We didn’t feel like dancing that day.

Weddings are loaded with sociological meanings about gender, socio-economic status, consumption and of course the meanings of marriage and family. How else can we apply our sociological imaginations to understand this often dramatic social ritual?


I think what is interesting about weddings is that they are such a long event (often over several hours, if not a whole day for some guests) and one which often involves heavy drinking (at least many of the weddings I've been to anyway) and that carefully prepared front-stage behaviour can degrade over time and when lubricated with alcohol and the backstage behaviour can emerge.

If a person gets so drunk that they make a fool of themselves or they become over emotional, then the backstage performance is revealed - which makes others uncomfortable.

Its also an event which is obviously heavily steeped in both individual and group rituals. The happy couple greeting the guests at the door to the reception, the first dance, the cutting of the cake and the best-man's speech. If any one of these rituals is not observed it might seem strange and require explanation.
Being so steeping in tradition, of course some of these rituals are gender loaded, the bride and grooms responsibilities differ of course, as do the father of the bride, the best man and the maids of honour. Men and women are often expected to dress and act a certain way (men in suits and ties, women in dresses, skirts etc) but increasingly we're seeing new ways of approaching the ceremony, particularly with same-sex marriage increasing in acceptance across the western world.

It also quite interesting to see how these rituals can differ greatly when it comes to culture - Hindu weddings, for example, can take place over a number of days and involve a series of different ceremonies.

Weddings and marriage are cultural universals. The wedding can be seen as a form of impression management. The ritual provides a way of defining social status. How many people attended?, where was the venue? how much did it cost? It can become a display of conspicuous consumption. It sanctions the union to the community in a very public way. Weddings define what is determined as a socially acceptable union.
Functionally the wedding can be seen as a form of redistribution, it has an economic function of pooling together resources into one unit. The institution provides for the perpetuation of kinship, and to define lineage. Marriage also provides an environment for the socialization of children.

Im from India, here the wedding has considerable implications from a financial, emotional and gender perspective. Marriage until about 15-20 years ago, was considered a universal institution, remaining unmarried past the age of 25 almost taboo. Majority of marriages are ‘arranged’, by the family of the bride and groom. Traditionally the bride's family must host the wedding ceremonies and rituals which run into several days of feasting and celebration for neighbours, friends, business and work associates, employees and several other vaguely linked groups of people and their families!!!

It is not uncommon for the groom or his family to state expectations and even make demands of the scale of gifts(dowry), food, venue, pomp and grandeur befitting perceived status regarding the wedding ceremonies and rituals. The extent of the financial burden resulting from this practice has lead to several evils such as female infanticide, dowry deaths(murders/suicides because of failure to comply with demands), generational debt, illegal and exorbitant money lending, lowered status of female, forced cohabitation post marriage regardless of compatibility etc.

Among affluent families, status and prestige drive a need to compete and there exists enormous pressure to out perform peers, in a bid to dominate imaginations and create awe and envy. Ostentatious expenditure at weddings, are also now widely considered an acceptable and obvious way to spend unaccounted money as there has historically never been the will and therefore no law, to tax such unbridled expenditure. So the front stage performance continues unfettered and as elaborately over the top as ever.

I love traditional weddings, and some of these comments have some great points :)

Weddings create a room to learn about other people's cultural backgrounds

The Wedding Hangover is so true!!! I’m glad I’m not the only one that feels tired and a little (okay, a lot) beat up the day after a wedding!

Thank you totally agree with you. I wanted to present both the positive side but also the realistic side. I send all my career inquiries to Planner’s Lounge, especially this post.

i love that video clip

traditional marriage is good the cultural diversity of different nationalities is something to admire

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