The ‘bridezilla’ television trope and the traditional wedding norm

// 18 April 2013

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Marriage equality might be on the way but it seems the fripperies and rituals of the traditional wedding are still coveted as the superior choice. Olivia Rudgard looks at the role of the TV show ‘Bridezilla’ in all this and asks, what about wedding equality?

Weddings are everywhere. Used prominently in countless comedy and drama TV shows, proposals (carried out by men, of course) represent commitment and maturity and are often used to represent the emotional journey of men who lack the maturity needed to commit. Think JD in Scrubs, Chandler in Friends and Barney Stinson in How I Met Your Mother. Even in shows or films not strictly structured around marriage or a relationship, this is often a central plot point, representing a long-suffering, controlling woman exasperated by an immature partner who struggles to commit. (From films I have seen recently, Bruce Almighty, The Hangover and Ted all fit this category. Some, such as Bridesmaids, have managed successfully to turn the clichés on their heads but too often, the same tropes are rolled out again and again.)

These clichés are often even stronger and more harmful in ‘reality’ television. Programmes such as Don’t Tell the Bride, Bridezillas, My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding and Battle of the Brides inevitably perpetuate an exaggerated, extremely harmful and old-fashioned paradigm that presents the female bride in the traditional gendered set-up as a domineering control freak, nag, perfectionist and self-centred bore. The flipside of this (as always) is that the bridegroom is lazy, uninterested, inattentive and often a bit foolish. The programmes inevitably use the phrase “the most important day of her life” to describe the bride’s wedding day, a staggeringly sexist idea suggesting that the most important moment of a woman’s life is when she gives herself to a man. They depict the women obsessing over the venue, reception and guest-list, with the drama often centring around the dress, which has to be ‘perfect’ for the bride in question, horribly expensive, and particularly on My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, bigger, brasher, and shinier than anyone else’s.

The overwhelming impression we get from these shows is that women are obsessed with the appearance, ceremony and impression of the wedding. It’s basically a grown-up version of My Super Sweet Sixteen, where participants are overwhelmingly female and the overriding theme is always to have the biggest and best party and often to specifically overshadow a birthday party thrown by a rival or friend. Many shows, particularly Sky’s new show Battle of the Brides, also pit women directly against each other in a microcosm of the constant societal pressure on women to criticise, belittle and compete with their female counterparts, while apparently calm, sensible men look on in bemusement and then head down to the local for a pint together. The occasional gay and lesbian couples featured tend to include a more ‘feminine’ looking partner (according to traditional stereotypes) taking on the ‘woman’s’ role, while the more ‘masculine’ looking partner is portrayed as the laid-back ‘man’ in the relationship.

So what does this mean for women off-screen? One thing I’ve noticed is that as soon as weddings are mentioned, a load of patriarchal tradition seems to arise out of nowhere. For instance, a feminist friend of mine is planning a very traditional wedding, with a white dress, engagement ring (only for her, not for him) and is taking her partner’s last name. She isn’t concerned about having the biggest and best party; for her it’s about gathering family and friends and celebrating (and rightly so). But she seems to be falling in with patriarchal tradition in so many ways.

In everyday life, it’s harder to be a feminist and stand up and call out the sexism where we see it than it is to fall in with everyone else and receive a pat on the head from society. And it seems that weddings are where many young feminists are allowing themselves that moment of weakness, giving in to the sexism because it’s ‘harmless tradition’. Despite massive changes in attitudes elsewhere in society relating to marriage equality, when it comes to weddings, the traditional is still predominant. For example, if I ever get married, I don’t plan to take my husband’s name and from the way people react when I say this, it is as if I’m being a spoilsport and deliberately ruining the party by being difficult over something that really doesn’t matter.

Recent debates surrounding marriage equality show that people in the UK still have extremely regressive, heteronormative ideas about marriage. Mainstream media only contributes to this through its continued production of programmes that celebrate and promote stereotypes and sexism. Better representation of non-traditional weddings on television would be welcome, partly to help any young feminists who see marriage as an option to feel they could make a possible future wedding their own, but also to encourage a more open, modern attitude to marriage in general and move away from the attention-seeking and overblown ceremony. A wedding is a small part of a marriage but in many ways it represents its public face. Both institutions desperately need to join the 21st century.

[Image description: Photo of a white wedding cake decorated with lilacs by cpastrychef, shared under a Creative Commons licence.]

Comments From You

Sarahjkl // Posted 18 April 2013 at 11:03 pm

Whilst I agree with your comments about the “Bridezilla” war that tv feels is interesting, it’s a shame that you start complaining about your friend supposedly falling into the traditional trappings. I always felt that feminism was a right to chose what path you take: whether you change your name, merge your name, stay at home or have a house husband- aren’t they choices? Obviously the great shame is that the majority of the women on tv have not thought about their choices deeply and perhaps this would be a better structured piece if you had followed that path of thought.

As a feminist, fellow women bashing isn’t the way to go- education is.

cariadmartin // Posted 19 April 2013 at 10:45 am

I think I maybe take issue with the idea of ‘bridezilla’ being a television trope. I do agree w/ most of the points raised here, but for me the main perpetrator is the shrewd capitalist wedding industry and not TV.

I totally recognise that description of generally rational, nice, laid back women becoming controlling and high-maintenance, I see it so often with many women my age, talking about how their (hypothetical, imaginary) wedding will have to be this and have to be that. The word that crops up again and again is ‘perfect.’ It has to be ‘perfect.’

And who wants you to think that way? Venues who want to charge up to £100 / head for food, cake makers & florists who can double the price when you use the word ‘wedding,’ jewellers who tell men they should be spending 3 months wages on an engagement ring & dressmakers who tell you that the average bride spends about £2000 on a wedding dress.

In case you couldn’t tell, I’m currently planning a wedding, and when I first got engaged I was naive enough to think that there would be companies out there who would be willing to cater for a couple who didn’t have much money but really wanted to be married. I was wrong, the wedding industry is so profitable that they really don’t need you, someone else will come along soon who is willing to spend twice your budget.

I remember a particularly absurd conversation I had with a venue who said that they could possibly reduce costs from £88 / head to £78 / head if we didn’t want a sorbet course. WHAT.

So yeah, to sum up, the wedding industry are pricks and I think bridezillas are real not a trope, but only because the wedding industry puts so much pressure on women in order to get all your money.

(FYI Luckily we found the local windmill do weddings, who are essentially a charity and we’re doing everything else our selves, so there are a *few* places who aren’t greedy bastards, if you look hard enough).

Holly Combe // Posted 19 April 2013 at 2:35 pm

@cariadmartin. As the person who edited this piece, I must hold my hand up and say the ‘trope’ tag was my doing and not Olivia’s. I see what you mean! I guess it goes something like this?…

Patriarchal tradition says a woman’s wedding day is the most important one of her life. The wedding industry agrees wholeheartedly and profits from it. Women experience pressure and stress in the midst of all this and want to ‘get it right’ and then wider society picks up on that and simultaneously mocks and encourages the sometimes extreme behaviour resulting from the stress. TV producers then have a jolly time finding women who fit the stereotype and edit accordingly for good measure. A number of viewers (regardless of gender) take this in and stereotype women even further, while brides-to-be are encouraged to indulge any feelings that could fit the ‘Bridezilla’ stereotype.

@Sarahjkl. I definitely agree feminism should recognise every woman’s right to choose what path to take but I’d also suggest it isn’t “woman-bashing” to analyse some of those choices and be critical of them. Sure, there’s a question of context and if Olivia was naming her friend, I might see it differently but let’s not forget what choices are widely endorsed by convention. If you look at just how widespread traditional wedding/marriage practices are, it becomes clear that alternatives are the path less trodden. This, of course, is no excuse to just turn everything on its head and heap huge amounts of judgement on anyone who follows tradition but I think it’s fine to be openly critical of those practices in a feminist space. Just try that in more mainstream spaces and you’ll see what I mean.

Dee // Posted 19 April 2013 at 7:37 pm

Have to say, I do agree with @Sarahjkl. The comment, ‘to help any young feminists who see marriage as an option to feel they could make a possible future wedding their own, but also to encourage a more open, modern attitude to marriage in general and move away from the attention-seeking and overblown ceremony.’ Does seem to be saying that, as feminists, we must all reject a traditional ceremony in order to demonstrate our ‘feminist values’, and if we don’t we are somehow failing. I’d echo @Sarahjkl, that a woman, or anyone else, should be free to make their own choices about their wedding, and not be looked down on because they choose traditional elements – which may be more about factors such as religious beliefs, personal symbolism etc, rather than just conforming to a patriarchal norm. For instance, my partner and I have had lengthy discussions about whether to keep our surnames, change them to either mine or his, or to use both in a double-barrelled form. We’ve chosen to use his, not because we haven’t reflected on it, not because ‘the man is in charge’ or ‘I belong to him’, but for personal reasons and personal beliefs about family and what the symbolism is for us. An outsider would criticise this as ‘following the norm’ and allowing patriarchal tradition to rule our lives, when I know that it’s far from the case. I do think honing in on a friend’s personal choices about their weeding, and classing them as non-feminist and portraying her as failing her feminist ideals (as it seems) really is taking away her freedom of choice as a woman, after all, maybe she does have her reasons and has chosen to keep them private.

The Goldfish // Posted 19 April 2013 at 11:44 pm

@cariadmartin We’re doing it very differently, parents’ back garden, nothing that has the word “wedding” attached, but even so – and even though we really have very little money indeed – there is a pressure. Every step of the way, every budget decision has been met with “Are you sure?” and despite the fact that my sweetheart and I are very much a team in this and he has as many ideas and opinions as I do, most of it is directed to me, as if it is “My Big Day”. And despite myself, I’ve struggled to shake off the idea that how it goes reflects on me, personally. Rather than us.

When my sister got married, it was much more traditional, and many of her friends married around the same time (within perhaps three summers). And then, there really did seem to be a weird unspoken competition. It wasn’t because they were monstrous narcissists, but because each bride’s wedding had to be at least as “perfect” as the others *and* had to vary in some way, be special in some way, even though they were all following much the same formula.

As Olivia says, it’s because weddings are made all about women, as if men have no stake in things at all – and women, rather than couples, will be judged whatever we do (including, as Sarah points out, by other feminists).

I still want a taste of that £10 sorbet though. I mean, that’s got to be special….

The Goldfish // Posted 20 April 2013 at 11:02 am

I saw this this morning and thought it pertinent:

“Dream day for terminally-ill Herne Bay woman” (BBC News video).

This lass has liver cancer and is likely only to live 3 or 4 years, so her family and friends decided, as she was never going to get married (!), they should give her the wedding she always dreamed of, complete with a rented male model for a groom.

It’s a very unusual story – which is why it is in the news. But it says a lot about the way some women, their families and friends do come to look upon weddings, as if the wedding itself is the single essential yet monumental experience, quite separate from men or marriage. This is not to criticise them – I think it’s very sweet that her people did this for her and I imagine it was a lot of fun (they didn’t seem too earnest about it, which made me feel comfortable giggling about it – it’s not a dream I understand on any level) – but it does demonstrate something quite deep in our culture.

oliviarudgard // Posted 20 April 2013 at 6:50 pm

@Sarahjkl The choices my friend made were actually the reason I wrote this piece- I thought it was interesting that someone who is so non-traditional in other ways is committed to such a traditional ceremony. She’s not the only young, feminist woman I know who has made similar choices. I don’t mean to criticise her- as you say, her choices are her own, and I am totally supportive of her. I may, at some point in the future, make many of the same choices myself. However, I do think that as feminists though we are free to make choices (and that’s great) we should also examine those choices. For example, shaving, wearing makeup and high heels are things that many feminists do. It’s part of being a feminist to acknowledge that the reasons you do those things are often rooted in patriarchy and tradition, which I believe is the case with the wedding industry.

@cariadmartin I totally agree that wedding tradition has MUCH more complex roots than the TV- your insight is really interesting; as someone who has never planned a wedding I had no idea of the financial pressure the companies themselves put on you.

@Dee I don’t say (or believe) that anyone’s choices are ‘non-feminist’ or that what anyone does makes them a bad feminist. I just think it’s an interesting trend that young women are making choices that fall in with patriarchal tradition, whilst perhaps being feminist and independent in other arenas of life.

@The Goldfish That article is fascinating. For me it just seems that on these programme it is repeated again and again that this is the biggest day of the woman’s life- which to me seems horribly patriarchal and outdated.

Dee // Posted 20 April 2013 at 10:52 pm

@oliviarudgard ‘making choices that fall in with patriarchal tradition, whilst perhaps being feminist and independent in other arenas of life.’ By definition, this quote here shows that you are saying they are making feminist choices in some areas of life, but non-feminist choices in others. The point I was making is that if it’s your own decision, it IS feminist and independent, irrespective of whether it falls in with the patriarchal tradition or not. I think here you are separating people’s actions into what is feminist and what is not in very basic terms – I think in many ways, it shows a sense of independent and feminist thought to be able to comfortably embrace aspects of what are typically viewed as patriarchal society, (for reasons other than the patriarchal reasons often associated to them by others) rather than just accept and do what is typically feminist. This is truly feminist, by choosing what it right for you as an individual, irrespective of gender, rather than just accepting what is the usual feminist approach to things.

Holly Combe // Posted 20 April 2013 at 11:53 pm

@Dee. Some of the takedowns of so-called ‘choice feminism’ can indeed fall into the trap of replacing one set of rules that restrict and berate women with another. However, I don’t think we can say that any decision a woman makes is somehow feminist and independent provided it’s “her own”. [EDIT: There’s a whole familiar discussion attached to the question of how we come to “our own” decisions, involving the words “choice” and “vacuum”, but it’s too big to do justice in a comment!] I agree that we must ultimately honour each other’s decisions and not automatically assume the reasons for them but it isn’t wrong for us to analyse, explore and question them.

You mention not just “accepting what is the usual feminist approach to things”. But doesn’t the “sense of independent and feminist thought” you define as “truly feminist” actually just give us a new way to accept the usual patriarchal approach to things, while convincing ourselves that our decisions haven’t been constrained in any way? Yes, there will be times when a decision meeting society’s expectations will be the right one for individual women but if we constantly default to this explanation as if it is somehow rude to even suggest otherwise, we stifle feminist analysis and leave patriarchy to do its work uncritiqued.

Laura // Posted 21 April 2013 at 4:11 pm

I really don’t agree with this idea that any decision a woman makes for herself is automatically feminist. A woman may choose to picket outside an abortion clinic, campaign against equal rights for LGBT people or berate her daughter for behaving “like a boy”. All of these choices have a negative impact on the main aim of feminism: women’s liberation. Yes, feminism aims to ensure women can determine the course of their own lives and make their own choices, but in order for this to apply to all women, we need to take responsibility for ensuring that our choices do not limit the freedoms of other women and perpetuate patriarchy.

So I think it’s perfectly legitimate to critique other women’s choices, providing the criticism is framed in the context of gender socialisation and sexism, rather than being a personal attack.

I share Olivia’s disappointment at women choosing to uphold patriarchal marriage traditions that reinforce gender roles and male dominance. I appreciate that some women think through these traditions very carefully and may choose to go with them for a variety of reasons, but it seems plenty of women still perpetuate them just because it’s the done thing, and unless feminists critique these traditions (and, therefore, women’s “choices”), nothing will change. At present, most heterosexual men will freak out at the thought of their fiancée not taking their name: I hardly think this is a sign of an equal society.

LauraB // Posted 21 April 2013 at 5:01 pm

White dresses – why do so many people still wear them? Doesn’t white represent ‘purity’ and the gift of the bride’s virginity, bestowed upon her husband. I find it very strange that so many people still choose to wear white.

The name changing thing. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard/read people talking about the discussions that they had that ended up with them taking their husband’s surname because it was the right decision for them. I haven’t ever heard of the discussion ending with the fella taking his wife’s name.

LauraB // Posted 21 April 2013 at 5:07 pm

The white thing – equating purity and virginity is oppressive to women, no? Valuing virginity like that is pretty creepy, the idea that sex ‘soils’ us somehow and strips us of our worth. Yuck.

Other wedding things – speeches being almost entirely delivered by men. Dad’s giving their daughters away. Anyone still including ‘honour and obey’ in their vows.

Ellen // Posted 21 April 2013 at 7:17 pm

Laura-TheFWord: A woman or girl being a moderate or conservative doesn’t make them Not a Woman.

Left Wing women make up only a tiny percentage of woman and girl kind, so it’s a bit presumptious for them to try to impose their views on the vast majority who do not share those views.

Holly Combe // Posted 21 April 2013 at 9:17 pm

@Ellen. Laura was talking about whether a woman’s decisions can be considered feminist. At no point did she say being a moderate or conservative makes someone “Not a Woman” so I’m not sure I understand your comment.

Do you have a link to a reference to the “tiny percentage” you mention?

Ellen // Posted 22 April 2013 at 2:41 am

Holly: I was just extrapolating from the small percentage of voters who vote for explicitly left-wing parties in elections. if the pool of left-wing voters is small in the general voting population, the percentage of left-wing women must be even smaller.

The Goldfish // Posted 22 April 2013 at 11:36 am

I think there are three problems with weddings which lead to this argument about feminist choices.

1). Because weddings – and marriages – are about one of our closest, most intimate relationships, but also about our family, a group of friends, a community, religious faith, the decisions individuals are at once very personal (“This is what feels right.”) and not very personal at all (My Gran threatened to boycott my parents’ wedding if my Mum didn’t change her choice of shoes!).

2). From a feminist point of view, this is just one day in a lifetime. So on the one hand, it isn’t all that important, but

3). On the other hand, weddings are very public occasions. People talk a lot about weddings. They are memorable events. Wedding photos are often on display in people’s houses. Weddings feature heavily in television dramas, even in adverts for unrelated products.

So feminist women who marry men really are between a rock and a hard place. There could never be a vacuum in which an individual woman makes decisions about weddings, because a woman doesn’t marry herself and couples rarely get married away from kith, kin and their communities (although that’s what I did the first time). Meanwhile, because marriage is such an important life event in our culture (far much more important than it should be), there’s a huge weight of culture – images and ideas both girls and boys grow up with, expectations that families have, that are not easily shaken off.

For this reason, I strongly feel we should lay off individual women who are part of a couple, a family and community that make particular choices about weddings.

But this doesn’t mean we can’t talk about these choices, these symbols, these weird sexist traditions which are often entirely unexamined. We *need* to talk and keep talking about this stuff so that all women (and men) know they have a choice, that there’s many different ways of doing this (as well as not doing it at all).

However, when we get onto judging individual women, it all gets a bit “My vacuum is better than your vacuum!” My chap and I aren’t planning our more egalitarian wedding in a vacuum either. But, due to all kinds of factors – only some to do with feminism and social justice awareness, also our own sexuality, our family, our spiritual beliefs, our age and past experience – the idea of no white dress, no father’s arm, no “Honour & Obey” etc. doesn’t make us feel like something’s missing.

Does this mean that we’re being rational and other people are not? Does this mean we’re better feminists than other people (some would say it’s not feminist to marry at all)? To me, it just means that we’ve got the freedom, that conversation and experience has shown us what’s possible and that our family and friends are also groovy enough to be cool with what we’re doing.

Other people don’t have these privileges. It’s not their fault and it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t actually *enjoy* the white dress or whatever (a tradition that’s less than 150 years old, and one most people couldn’t afford to observe during this period, since most women couldn’t afford an outfit they’d only wear once. It’s origins are not in purity but fashion – it’s since been warped that way by some religious groups.)

Talking about this stuff in the abstract is incredibly useful – vital – but it’s a lot to ask individual women to swim against the tide of the entire culture on a day of their lives which should be about romantic love, family and (in some cases) faith. Instead, we should address the culture.

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