The ‘bridezilla’ television trope and the traditional wedding norm

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.]