The reality television bride especially wants her wedding to be "unique," not "cookie-cutter." That may mean that it's "elegant" or "has a wow factor." But there are limits on uniqueness: It still has to "feel like a wedding." And it turns out that there's about half an inch of distance between cookie-cutter and unique, and another half an inch between unique and "not really like a wedding," as we see it on shows like Four Weddings and My Fair Wedding with David Tutera and Say Yes to the Dress.
Part of what's disturbing about wedding reality shows, of course, is the amount of money being spent. It's no secret that wedding costs have soared in the past generation or so even as wages have stagnated, and the couples (or, more often, brides) on these shows are a constant reminder of that. Such class markers as the shows make visible tell us that these are often working-class or lower middle-class couples, and if that's the case they're spending a large percentage of their annual income on their weddings. That's exactly one of the things that makes these shows such an important part of the Wedding Industrial Complex (WIC): They say "see, people like you are spending this much on their weddings. They're saying it's worth it. Saying that it wouldn't have felt like a wedding without the uplighting and the aisle bows and the centerpieces and especially the big white dress." That wedding shows are about upping the ante on how much American should spend at their weddings not a surprise. What I find equally disturbing is the narrative they convey about women's lives.
In many ways you get more diversity on wedding shows than you might expect. You get women of all races and weights, ones barely out of their teens and ones with grown children. Single mothers and women insisting their dresses have to be white, not ivory, to advertise their virginity. You get a smattering of lesbians, occasionally choosing their dresses in adjacent fitting rooms. But they're all funneled through the same narrative.
All that princess and Cinderella and fairy tale stuff is, variously, a command about how women will experience their weddings and a sad commentary on how women's lives either are or are viewed by this industry. The command is that this day will be the most perfect day ever. You will be the most beautiful you have ever been, you will be the center of attention (and enjoy that), the whole thing will be some kind of magic. The commentary is that this one day is so damned important because, let's face it, your everyday life is probably pretty pathetic. The constant Cinderella invocations are probably the clearest example of this: Cinderella is abused and living in ashes until magically transformed for the prince. But more broadly, the assumption is that a woman's wedding is the one time in her life that her desires will come first, the one time she'll feel glamorous and celebrated. If pressed, I'm sure that everyone involved in these shows would claim that they don't really believe that. But it's the story they tell. Importantly, it's the story they tell women to believe as they contemplate their own weddings.
I read somewhere, quite possibly at A Practical Wedding, some version of this: The WIC makes you crazy and then tells you you're crazy. All these expectations and rules about what your wedding will be like and how you'll feel about it and how it fits into your very being as a woman—they make you crazy. And if you respond by trying to fit those expectations, suddenly you're a bridezilla, spoiled and irrational and thoughtless of those around you. There are plenty of women available to be televised living out that role, apparently, like the woman who, shown on Say Yes to the Dress buying a third wedding dress and going over budget on it to boot, said "What baby wants, baby gets." But this is happening in the context of an industry that relentlessly tells women that this is the one time in their lives it's okay to be demanding, okay to expect to be spoiled—with the constant subtext that your life is dreary most of the time and this is your one shot at glory. You're told your wedding is a reflection of you and it has to be unique, but it also has to check all of the official wedding boxes, a double bind that makes spending more money or putting endless hours into personalized DIY projects the only options for those who want to play by the rules. Meanwhile, as soon as Big Data gets wind of the fact that you're planning a wedding, you're inundated with ads for all things wedding.
There's nothing wrong with wanting what currently passes for a traditional wedding. Most of the aspects of it that cost the big money are very recent traditions, of course, but it's still fine to want them. You just have to recognize that you didn't spring from the womb dreaming of white dresses and centerpieces dripping crystals. A culture and an industry taught you to want that, and the pervasive story about how weddings fit into women's lives, and the push for more and more money to be spent on such a narrow range of acceptable options, deserves critique. Join me next Sunday for a discussion of how this all plays out on these televised festivals of ostentation and tulle.