Jack White and Karen Elson are getting a divorce - and you're invited. Well, not you specifically, because you're not a famous rock star, supermodel or friend thereof. But the hipster parents did send out invitations to cooler people announcing a "party to celebrate their sixth anniversary and their upcoming divorce with a positive swing band humdinger." In May, New York socialites Charles and Bonnie Bronfman also ended their three-year union by throwing a cocktail party for a hundred people. Charles Bronfman told The New York Times: "We thought [our]differences could mesh, but we found out the opposite. So we thought, why not tell our friends and thank them for helping us out?"
The divorce party is more typically an occasion for a wounded party to launch his or her single status. When reality-TV star Shanna Moakler and Travis Barker from Blink-182 split, for instance, Moakler celebrated at a Vegas nightclub with a cake topped by a bride figurine brandishing a knife. The marzipan groom tumbled down the tiers, covered in blood. I'll take the pie.
But the White party is a different modern ritual, hopefully blood-free. This divorce humdinger may be a moving, sincere effort to root a difficult occasion in compassion, breaking the silence around divorce. It may also be a pretentious celebrity PR stunt, yet another narcissistic fake tradition to join the ranks of similar indulgences.
Carolyn Ellis, a Toronto divorce coach and the author of the book The Seven Pitfalls of Single Parenting, says that many divorcing couples are now seeking less acrimonious ways to end their relationships, via mediation or a collaborative divorce process. The friendly divorce party rests on a continuum with this attitudinal shift. "It puts in place a new dream, replacing the happily-ever-after dream with positive, respectful co-parenting," Ellis says. "It announces: We're moving forward, but apart."
In anthropological terms, the divorce party is a rite of passage, publicly ushering the Whites from one status (married) to another (divorced). Freud called rituals "neurotic ceremonials," small, repetitive actions that assuage our psychic anxieties. Religious or secular, rituals soothe and order our worlds.
But are we in a ritual glut? How many new traditions, rites of passages and transitional markers can one culture - and one social calendar - sustain? The Huffington Post recently reported on the "dadelor party" trend, which involves men who are about to become fathers going out with their buddies for one last drunken hurrah (framing fatherhood as something akin to house arrest in the process). I'm fairly certain this tradition didn't exist five years ago because I don't remember mocking my husband for it.
As a rule, rites of passage should be few and far between, rare symbols of profound change. But now, four year-olds attend pre-school graduations and the Sweet 16 is predated by the Sweet Six. The wedding used to be a singular event, but has bloated into a many-tentacled beast of bachelor parties and rehearsal dinners, reaching over weeks. Soon after the post-wedding breakfast comes the invite to the baby shower and the "baby gender reveal" party. Wish the party-loving couple well on their babymoon.
Traditions that start small and grassroots quickly gain an economic aspect; my little ritual is someone else's big profit. On YouTube, type "baby gender reveal party" (for some reason, no one uses the more accurate name "baby sex party") and observe a recent boon to cakemakers: A couple finds out the sex of their baby at an ultrasound and seals the unseen results, handing the envelope to a baker who bakes a cake with either pink or blue filling. With friends, family and a few uncomfortable co-workers gathered, the parents then cut the cake and the child's sex is disclosed like the master bath reveal on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.
These videos are both oddly touching and way too intimate, a little like the divorce party. But the rise of random ritual suggests the compulsion to gather those we love is more imperative now, when the Internet gives a mechanical cast to intimacy, than ever. As religious ritual wanes, coming together for a higher meaning is being replaced by the constant song of the self. The need to mark one's life, to locate the significant moments in the swirl of existence, is deep.
Not every private event, however, deserves to be public: Please don't post your pregnancy pee stick on Facebook. Demanding the attention of those you know to celebrate every personal victory seems a touch self-centred. It also has a strange leveling effect, making it difficult to measure exactly what rituals matter most.
I think the word we're looking for is "party." When were you last invited to a regular, non-commemorative party-party for no particular reason? Now that the White-Elson party is over, let this be the season's hot invitation: "Please come to our occasion-less, uncommercial celebration beyond the self. It's our First Annual No Particular Reason Party!"