Early in Wedding Wars, in a fit of righteous anger, gay wedding/party planner Shel (John Stamos) goes on strike, refusing to finish preparations for his brother Ben’s (Eric Dane) marriage to Maggie (Bonnie Somerville). Shel strikes because Maggie’s father, Maine governor Conrad Welling (James Brolin), has announced he condones a State Constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.
During the lead-up to his brother’s wedding, Shel realizes the importance of what has been denied him, even though until this point, he has been content with his relationship with Ted (Sean Maher). The realization comes in a particularly sugary scene in the Wellings’ kitchen. The final details of the wedding secured, Ben and Maggie tightly embrace, she swooning about the fact that in two weeks they will be married, Mom and Dad Welling beaming. Poor Shel, witness to two generations of happy heterosexual coupling, stands alone in the background, his eyes misty for what he apparently will never have.
The scene represents the generic problem of the romantic comedy Wedding Wars—its mawkishness. It uses such sentiment to promote a very centrist assimilationist argument for “inclusion,” never raising political questions about desirability of gay and lesbian marriage. Neither does it question state-sanctioned, delimited, and recognized intimate relationships can be the basis of any kind of progressive social equality, or whether the institution is even worth “saving” at all, as Lisa Duggan did so astutely in the pages of The Nation way back in 2004.
Rather, Wedding Wars reduces the contentious question of gay and lesbian marriage to one of equal civil rights. The DVD’s only extra, the short (less than 10 minutes) “Gays on Strike: The Truth Behind Wedding Wars,” is a very self-congratulatory exercise. In it, James Brolin opines that gay and lesbian marriage is inevitable. The generation coming up, he asserts, nearly universally supports gay and lesbian marriage, and when they come to occupy positions of influence and power, they will quickly and easily change laws and amend Constitutions for the better.
I’m not as sure as Brolin that such change will be so easy (or, again, even if it is desirable, socially and politically), if the growth in recent years of conservative evangelical and secular youth movements and organizations is any indication. Nonetheless, Brolin’s opinion articulates an ideological fantasy that is surely seductive.
Wedding Wars offers another seductive political fantasy, which arises directly out of Shel’s “Strike for Gay Marriage.” When he first goes on strike, alone, at the end of the long driveway to the Wellings’ mansion, on some remote Maine back road, it seems his civil disobedience has very little chance of effecting any change. Indeed, Ben tells Shel that his “whole Norma Gay routine isn’t going to change the Governor’s mind.”
And it doesn’t. The Governor remains opposed to gay marriage, even if more out of political expediency than overt intolerance; currently embroiled in a tightly contested election, he doesn’t want to alienate the constituency that elected him in the first place. But, the Governor being a Governor, media follow him everywhere, even to the family estate to do a fluff piece on his daughter’s impending nuptials, which provides Shel with a much larger platform.
Shel’s initial foray into media representation is dismal (he can barely get a coherent sentence out), and the interviewer, Casper (Lee Smart), is snide and openly homophobic (at the end of the segment in which he belittles Shel and his protest, Casper asks rhetorically, “If all the world’s florists, hairstylists, and choreographers were to go on strike, could we survive?”). Yet Shel’s appearance has a curious affect. Whether out of political sympathy or in response to the reporter’s open intolerance, Shel’s “Gays on Strike” movement takes off, first locally, then regionally and nationally, as queers of all sorts and their allies refuse to work. It is a bit problematic that Wedding Wars imagines these angry queers in only the most stereotypical of occupations (fulfilling Casper’s description): floral boutiques and antique shops are shuttered, restaurants closed, clients left to finish their haircuts and colors on their own. Still, the fantasy of the collective power of nationally organized queer labor resistance is alluring.
While the strike doesn’t grind the national economy to a halt, it does have wide-ranging effects. Ben and Maggie are forced to hire a replacement wedding planner, the tacky and boozy Mrs. Fairfield (played with fabulous scenery-chewing by Linda Kash), who changes Shel’s simple elegance into baroque excess. She covers everything in gold lamé, crafts centerpieces out of mauve mums, and features a peeing-Cupid champagne fountain. Oh, the horror! Moreover, the local new anchors appear to report on the strike, looking like shit (there’s no one to do their hair and makeup), and are quickly sabotaged by the teleprompter who walks off the job, leaving them fumbling to fill dead air.
The strike ends unsuccessfully. Polls show an increase in support of Governor Welling after the onset of Shel’s campaign, and the Constitutional amendment will presumably go forward. Wedding Wars’ denouement has Shel addressing his national audience with a platitude: though they have lost this battle, they will, he is sure, “win the war.” He also realizes he can’t deny his brother of exactly what he so desires, the wedding of his dreams. And so, strike over, the protestors band together to bring off Shel’s fabulously planned and appointed wedding for Ben and Maggie.
This mobilization of collective queer labor in the reconsolidation of heterosexual privilege and authority feels like a cop-out, if not outright betrayal of the earlier fantasy of queer resistance. Even so, the fact that Wedding Wars raises the possibility of such nationally organized labor is striking, as well as potentially disruptive of centrist political presumptions, gay and straight, about how social and political change is effected.