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Last Sunday, I detailed my basic problems with wedding reality television shows (shows to which, let's be clear, I am totally addicted). In short, shows like Say Yes to the Dress, Four Weddings, and My Fair Wedding with David Tutera, among others, push viewers to spend more and more on their own weddings by portraying ever-more-lavish weddings as the norm, regardless of whether the people involved can actually afford said weddings by any reasonable standard. That's the obvious, baseline objection you arrive at after watching one episode of one show. It's also reflected in the channeling of wedding desires into specific channels that the Wedding Industrial Complex is well-equipped to satisfy, at a significant profit. But the more I watch them, the more I'm fascinated, and a little horrified, by the shows' pervasive narrative that the wedding is the one perfect day in a woman's life, the one day when she is the center of attention, feels glamorous, feels loved. Yes, it's about the wedding and the WIC's effort to get people to spend more to make it perfect, but it's also, by implication, about how dreary women's lives are assumed to be.

This week, I want to take a specific look at a few of these shows and see how it all plays out. Now, these are reality shows. The proportion of truly likable people allowed to be on them is low, and then only when they either have a tragic backstory or are accompanied by horrible relatives. Personal judgment is a big part of the pleasure of viewing. But the big question is what are the shows selling?

As I noted last week, uniqueness is a quality highly prized, but within very narrow limits. Uniqueness is a fiction, in other words, but in the language of the shows and the wedding industry, it's something you achieve through intense attention to detail (with no detail coming free) or by spending more so that, yes, it's a strapless white gown, but it's custom made. Or at least something no bridal shop in your hometown carries. So come with me below the fold to learn what, in the language of wedding reality shows, is cookie-cutter, what's unique, what's a fairytale, and what's just not really like a wedding at all.

My Fair Wedding with David Tutera

Celebrity wedding planner David Tutera swoops in to rescue weddings just a couple weeks ahead of time, doing away with the brides' weak attempts to execute their themes, expressing his horror in the kindest way possible while firmly steering them to more acceptable desires, and replacing everything from their dresses to their venues. Tutera's job is to herd the weddings into his mold; the show sometimes defines this as Tutera executing what the bride would have liked to do but was unable to accomplish, and sometimes as Tutera tutoring the bride in the ways of good taste. He, not the bride, is the protagonist (the groom is all but absent), treating the experience of jamming what she wants into his view of what weddings are as his challenge and, more recently, as a personal growth experience. The invaluable A Practical Wedding says frequently that "a wedding is not a surprise party for the groom." On Tutera's show, weddings are a surprise party for both the bride and groom, put together based on the bride's preferences, to the exact extent Tutera can bring himself to accept those preferences.

So, on an episode featuring a goth wedding, Tutera looks at some decorative elements the bride has assembled and says "forget about the stuff in front of me, black roses and skulls and tattoos ... I'm able to understand one very clear detail: the importance of her family. Which is not presented at all on this table." As if other people's centerpieces do present the importance of family. Throughout that episode, he struggles with bride Christina's aversion to white, since "to me, weddings are supposed to be white." The answer he reaches is that "I for myself as a wedding planner had to open my mind to grasp who she is as a woman." Forget marriage equality—and Tutera is himself gay and married—apparently black dresses and roses are the real radical redefinition of marriage. Or weddings, anyway.

Money goes largely unmentioned, but clearly what many of these brides are struggling with is less taste than time and money, and the miracles Tutera accomplishes are less a testament to his skill than to his access to an army of helpers and an array of high-end vendors offering up their best wares in exchange for some heavy-handed product placement. When a bride says she will be getting her bouquets and cake from the grocery store, he is dismayed and appalled. In the context of the show, it comes off as sweet: The bride gets flowers and a cake that would probably cost as much as her entire original wedding budget, and a dress and venue and everything else to match.

But ultimately the show's fairly explicit message is that the wedding you can have on your budget is not good enough, that your decision to DIY the flowers with something from the supermarket is a defeat, that "When [a wedding dress] comes off the rack, it's been worn more than a real bridal dress would have been worn," the implication being that you should for God's sake have more self-respect than to wear something so tawdry. For many women on limited budgets, though, buying a floor model is a way to get the big fancy wedding dress they've been told they need at a reasonable price. Telling them they need the big dress and they need it to be new basically leaves two options: go into debt or somehow get onto David Tutera's show.

Because you? You cannot afford the tablecloths that are three layers of different high-end fabrics. But once you have seen them, it will be hard to unsee the difference between them and the institutional cotton-poly blend you can afford. So while the show itself is a series of expensive giveaways, its core role is to push viewers to want to toss more wheelbarrows of cash onto the bonfires that are their weddings.

Four Weddings

On this TLC show, four brides attend each other's weddings and judge them—in on-screen comments and through a points system—with the winner receiving a honeymoon. The brides are the only commentators beyond a punning voiceover, and many of them are harsh, to each other's venues and food, though determinedly not to each other's bodies—one thing you can say for this show, Say Yes to the Dress, and David Tutera is that none engage in overt fat-shaming.

Four Weddings may be the wedding show where it's most irresistible as a viewer to be judgmental; after all a competition judged by the competitors is an invitation to judge each of them yourself. In a show all about nitpicking, how do you not think "a Michael Jackson impersonator? Really?" Basically what I'm saying is, if I ever doubted I was a snob (I didn't, really), my doubts ended when I started watching wedding-oriented reality television, and Four Weddings really kicks that into gear.

Then, too, such a wide range of their decisions and their responses to each other's decisions are on display. It's not just the dress, it's the condescending piety of the competitor who says of it that "I felt that it was too small for her, but if she felt special in it then that's all I care about." No, dear, it's clearly not. Apply that to the venue, the vows, the line at the bar during cocktail hour, the food, the DJ, and anything else you can possibly imagine at a wedding (and some things you can't—a mechanical bull, for instance), and Four Weddings provides you a long and detailed checklist of all the components of a proper WIC wedding, with competitive commentary.

This show is where that tiny distance between unique and cookie-cutter that I described last week rears its head most obviously. In brief, unique means the wedding had a theme that was consistently executed, while cookie-cutter means the theme was inconsistent or weakly executed. The theme that makes a wedding unique could be an ethnic tradition or an era (generally as seen in the movies) or it could simply be a color. So on one episode, one of the brides criticized a wedding as not living up to its purple theme because it didn't actually look like a giant had vomited grape popsicles over the walls. But at the same time as uniqueness is allegedly prized, judgment for stepping outside the bounds of acceptable uniqueness or wedding elegance is swift and harsh.

Buffet meals are common, for instance, but the bride-judges frequently deem them not sufficiently wedding-like, often invoking elegance and formality to make their point. This on a show where the weddings often include people donning tacky accessories to have their pictures taken in a photo booth (apparently 27 percent of weddings now include something like a photo booth or caricature artist), never mind the many brides shrieking with laughter as their grooms delve up their skirts dramatically and at some length for the garter removal and toss. Elegant? I do not think that word means what you think it means.

Quality of food is intensely discussed, but food that goes outside the model of one or two lumps of meat on a plate with vegetables and potatoes on the side tends to be frowned upon. Every form of narrow eating taste is on display; the women shocked at chicken being served with peanut sauce (AKA Thai chicken satay) was a classic. And don't get me started on the women who are outraged at being expected to eat one single vegetarian meal at the wedding of someone who is vegetarian for religious reasons. Screw your faith, a couple of guests you met for the purposes of a reality show will not be denied their mediocre steak. As food is discussed, the very same bride who says that she will be limiting the food at her own wedding because "I don't like wasteful food" may end up saying of another's buffet that "There wasn't a big variety in terms of what I was offered. We had four choices. Five if I'm being kind of generous." Oh, well, only four or five choices. It's a wonder you didn't starve.

Every so often, the cheapest wedding wins, and it's not uncommon for the bride who talked big about the lavishness of her wedding to be penalized by her fellow competitors for not living up to her promises. But in general, the pressure is always toward more. More theme, more purple, more uplighting and wall-washers, more flowers, more beading on the dress, more cocktail hour food stations, more entree choices, more photo booths and Michael Jackson impersonators and caricature artists. The pressure isn't just to the idea that these things are possible but that they're expected.

Say Yes to the Dress

As the title suggests, Say Yes to the Dress and its spin-off Say Yes to the Dress: Atlanta focus on the dress. The almost inevitably white, strapless, pricey dress. Set at New York's Kleinfeld, the original SYTTD features a cast of saleswomen ("consultants") and, as its coyly snarky star, fashion director Randy Fenoli, selling dresses ranging from around $1,500 up to tens of thousands of dollars. SYTTD: Atlanta attempts to capture the Randy magic with a weak imitator, Monte Durham, who delivers one rehearsed, southern-sassy catchphrase after another.

While Four Weddings shows, in theory, the entire wedding, whereas SYTTD shows only the dress, the latter actually gives the brides a little more backstory; the entourages of parents, grandparents, siblings, children, and friends that accompany them to find The Dress put more interpersonal dynamics on display than we see in Four Weddings' choreographed view of the wedding as a whole, and we see the decision-making process laid bare, in theory, as opposed to glimpses of the final outcomes as judged by others. So we get the bride who wants a dress that will work with fairy wings (her groom wears armor to the wedding!); the lesbian couple who are trying on dresses at the same time but can't decide if they want to see each other in The Dress; daughters who only want their mothers' approval; daughters who gleefully clash with their mothers; mothers who want their daughters' approval; a mother who was there as her daughter bought the tattered floor model of a seriously low-cut dress with a see-through bodice, then when it comes time for alterations has second thoughts both about the fact that the bodice looks like lingerie and that the dress has been tried on by who knows how many people, and shows the abuse; a mother who says "I'm her mother, I know what looks well on her, I want her to look classy ... but that's not her. That's not my daughter." SYTTD also gives us its Big Bliss episodes, featuring plus-size brides, some embracing their bodies, some fearful after bad experiences shopping elsewhere.

Money is discussed more bluntly on SYTTD than on other shows, with the bride's budget frequently being a topic of some concern—brides with low price points (where "low" means under maybe $2,500, but $5,000 can be a problem for some sets of specific requirements) are presented as a challenge to the skills of the consultants, while brides with extravagant budgets are discussed with wide, enthralled eyes. And of course, many brides end up outspending their budgets, even doubling them. (This is particularly common for those who end up with consultant Dianne, who specializes in drawing them well outside their budgets then loudly proclaiming that she warned them, they insisted, it's not her fault if they happen to have fallen in love with a budget-buster.) In fact, the show has featured at least a handful of brides who have delayed their weddings until they could afford the right dress, ring, wedding. This may represent the pinnacle of the transformation of the wedding from an event announcing that a couple is being launched into adulthood to one announcing what kind of adults they already are, and what kinds of adult status they have accrued. 

Many of the budgets doubled on SYTTD do so courtesy of Pnina Tornai, the mascot designer of Kleinfeld. Pnina, as she is invariably called, specializes in ridiculously over the top dresses. If it has a low-cut, blinged-out, see-through bodice paired with either an enormous tulle skirt or a narrow ruffled skirt, either contributing to the overall lingerie look, chances are it's a Pnina. If it's shiny ruched satin with pounds of bling encrusting the elevated and framed cleavage, the kind of dress you get implants to fit rather than the reverse, chances are, it's a Pnina. In short, if you look at it and think it was designed for the Prostitute Barbie soon to be released by Mattel, it's probably a Pnina. (And I mean no insult to sex workers here.)

Pnina customers include a surgically altered mother having the vows renewed in her second marriage who, when asked what she wants to look like, bats her eyelashes and says "I want to look like a princess" in a tone that says "like, duh," before announcing that "I've decided to give myself an unlimited budget since I am paying for the dress." She wants a $21,000 Pnina runway show dress. Her breasts in this dress are NSFW and she can barely walk due to the giant hoopskirt; she deems it "elegant" and "not overstated." And yet—and here's the genius of SYTTD—even as she's served up in all her tacky glory for us to roll our eyes at, we're made to feel guilty judging her, because it seems, from the pictures and such timeline as you can discern from the story she tells about herself, that not only is the vow renewal happening as "a new beginning" after the death of her son, but the surgery probably followed that loss as well. And because she's tearfully happy, and her young daughters are enchanted by the sight of her.

Wannabe Pnina customers include the young woman who tells the consultant that her budget is $10,000 when her mother (who is paying) says it is $3,000, and, when asked how much the dress she's fallen in love with costs, says she doesn't know how much it is, but "It's expensive, because it's Pnina." Her own mother says, in front of the cameras, "I think she was almost hoping that her future mother-in-law would pipe up and say 'I'll pay the difference.'" Another woman who has insisted that her budget is above what her mother is willing to pay blows up when her mother balks at the price, shouting "I spend $1,000 for a fucking dress that I wore to Staten Island, to Eric's cousin's wedding. I'm not going to spend the extra money for my own wedding, my own dress? Of course I will." (The kicker is that the dress is genuinely unflattering to her body shape.)

These women are certainly portrayed as spoiled and unreasonable, but the show depicts the Pnina gown as a legitimate pinnacle, something to yearn for and, yes, to go outside your budget for. Because it's your day. Because, even if it shows you're spoiled, it's a kind of strength to be able to say "I get what I want." Because finding the right dress is like finding the right man: you know it when it happens and there's no going back; nothing will satisfy you in the same way. You should love the dress like you love the man.

That right dress is, of course, typically "unique." "Unique" makes a lot of appearances on SYTTD, but nowhere is the veneer more stripped off that word than an episode in season seven in which each of the brides featured in the episode shows up saying she wants something unique ... and each buys the same dress. One has come from Texas "to find something really unique, something that people back home in Texas have not seen." The uniqueness of the dress featured in the episode lies largely in its color, described as "sherbet" (think peach). Otherwise, it's a sweetheart neckline, strapless, tulle skirt dress with beading at the waist. But this bride buys it in white to advertise her virginity, negating the dress's slender claim to uniqueness.

We don't know how much these brides are spending on their weddings, just the dresses. But if the dresses are any guide, we have to ratchet up the competition yet again; the show that defines televised wedding gown shopping has price points starting well above the national average, and the sky's the limit. As viewers, it's hard not to imagine similar for the weddings as a whole.

Originally posted to Daily Kos on Sun Apr 28, 2013 at 04:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Extraterrestrial Anthropologists.

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