I am all for the idea that popular culture both reflects and sets the pace for mass culture. But sometimes, I wonder if our excitement about projects that reflect recent political and social development get awarded undeserved points for leading when they are simply keeping pace with law and custom.
Such is the case with the announcement that the venerable “Father of the Bride” franchise is getting an update, this time with a same-sex couple at the heart of the story. It is very nice that this is happening. But it is not actually a revolutionary moment.
Since the release of the original “Father of the Bride,” which starred Elizabeth Taylor and Spencer Tracy, in 1950 the franchise has always been squarely focused on the father’s feelings and his need to accept that his child is an independent person who is about to form a family of her own.
Generally that means that the father (Steve Martin replaced Tracy in the 1991 remake and its 1995 sequel) comes around to the idea that the expense of the wedding is worth it for the joy of celebrating his child, and that his daughter’s intended is an honorable man. It would be hard for wedding vendors to find a slicker method to justify their exorbitant rates.
In this latest riff on the theme, the father will have to accommodate himself to larger shifts in society. Vulture reports that “The movie will focus on Matty, played by Kieran Culkin in the originals, who is now 29 and engaged to be married to a man (a Navy SEAL’s son). Martin’s character isn’t sure about this whole gay-marriage thing, so Diane Keaton’s character kicks him out of the house.”
But however nice this idea it is, the theme is not precisely new. In Ang Lee’s 1993 feature “The Wedding Banquet,” a retired Chinese army officer proves to be more willing to accept his son’s male partner than his son had anticipated. Two years later on “Roseanne,” the titular main character threw a wedding for a gay couple, going a little too far to incorporate what she understands to be elements of gay culture, and worked on her husband’s discomfort when the couple kissed.
These same discomforts were still with us in this most recent season of “Modern Family,” when Jay (Ed O’Neill) confesses to his son that he is uncomfortable and disconcerted by the way weddings between same-sex couples shake up tradition and convention.
“Why do need to make it into a spectacle?… Invite your family, your friend Pepper, and the flouncy one, what’s his name, LaDavid,” Jay said, digging himself into a giant hole. “Do I walk you down the aisle? Does someone throw a bouquet. I mean, I’m just saying I don’t know how this stuff plays out with my guys from the club.”
All of which is to say that if American dads have not used the preceding two decades to get their heads around the idea of weddings between people of the same gender, it is on them for not using their time wisely.
Instead, it would be nice to have some stories where gay couples are not just vehicles for their parents’ and friends’ educations, but where their own feelings and anxieties about marriage and wedding traditions get to take center stage. What does it mean to adopt an institution previously limited to heterosexuals? Which traditions do you keep, and which do you trash? How do you involve your family when you cannot fall back on old gender roles?
Whatever the flaws of “The New Normal,” which aired on NBC for a season, the show got something right in letting its lead gay couple talk about what their wedding would mean to them. It is true that an older woman’s negative reaction to their nuptials were a part of the story, but rather than being the only important thing at stake, “The New Normal” presented her reaction as of a piece with the ways family complications often surface during wedding planning.
After all, if weddings are about starting new families, shouldn’t we be as interested in the new life the couple plans to build for themselves as we are in the nest that they are leaving? Remaking “Father of the Bride” with a gay couple feels less like a gesture for marriage equality, and more like a play to keep an aging franchise alive.