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small screen sirens: bridezillas

Going to my sister’s place, I always have to steel myself for what’ll be on her TV when I cross the threshold. Whilst she’s a fan of drama series like Game of Thrones, The Tudors and a slew of other historical and fantastical re-imaginings, her devotion to these doesn’t touch that which she has for the trashiest of reality shows. Growing up, my afterschool diet was dominated by her aggressive control of the remote and her reluctance to ever turn off MTV. From The Hills to the hilarious dating show, Next, I was attuned to all of the hyperactive, schlocky, wanna-be-social commentary on TV. Now that I’ve moved out, this part of my life has come to an end bar the brief instalments I get when at her house. Her affair with Jersey Shore has recently ended, but now, with a steady and serious partner, the onslaught of the bridal reality series has begun.

The popularity of this particular subgenre of reality has been pretty enormous, as seen through the density of shows that populate it and the packaging in which they come. From Bridezilla to Who’s Wedding is it Anyway, Say Yes to the Dress, Four Weddings and Bridalplasty, it’s not hard these days to find a wedding show to suit your interests, whether that be in dresses, décor, baking or competitive bridal antics for plastic surgery prizes. Regardless of the content though, the tropes tend to be the same. Middle class couple prepares for wedding. Get taken in by expensive dresses, fancy cakes, pretty décor. Blow out their budget. Husband-to-be remains grounded-albeit-frustrated, demands they tone back, pretty bride-to-be turns into a shrill, fire-breathing, soul consuming/destroying harpy in tulle. Or, you know, bridezilla, a term that has suddenly entered social vernacular outside of the aptly named series.

The representation of gender in these shows is troubling on a whole bunch of levels, particularly as it seems to re-introduce a lot of class and sex stereotypes. They tend to place the value of a wedding – and sometimes of the marriage too – on the pricetag of a wedding dress, and by association, the woman in it, and the capacity of the husband to lay down the dough to pay for it. Of course, it’s not just that. The wedding industry has surged for decades (you could even argue centuries in certain countries and eras), but the desire to feed off women’s insecurities has dealt the current industry a more superficial hand. You could argue the pure existence of a show like Bridalplasty proves this, a series where brides-to-be compete to win plastic surgery before they walk down the aisle. From dresses to make-up artistry to shoes to hair to plastic surgery, it all reinforces a social ideal that insists you will never be as or more beautiful, valued or important as you are on your wedding day.

This subtext becomes text in Big Fat Gypsy Weddings, a reality series that follows and documents the weddings of Irish and Romani gypsies. The culture here dictates a lifestyle where, to quote the opening header of every episode, ‘boys will be boys and girls know their place’. Each episode is pretty formulaic, following one girl’s journey to her first communion, an important right-of-passage in the culture, and another girl’s journey to her wedding ceremony. Both of these are generally fraught with mishaps that inspire tears and tantrums, aggravated by the fact that the girls receiving their communion or getting married are, well, girls. The young women getting married are generally between the age of 16 and 18 – any older and still unwed and the girl tends to be described (and to describe herself) as someone’s old maiden aunt.

The series on the whole is problematic and the culture represented in it is one that perpetually reinforces the idea that a woman’s identity apart from her husband is nil. It is her role to be homemaker and mother only. Arguably, this is why their weddings turn into such lavish affairs. It’s an outpour of culturally-constructed identity that insists this is both the most important day of their lives and the transition to the identity that they’ll hold for the rest of it – a wife and mother. A lone identity too, given most of them will never work and many will even be unable to see their friends and family post-wedding day if their teenage-boy-spouses don’t want them to, so ingrained is the male-dominated and male-controlled culture that the girls marry into.

There’s a big difference in narrative discourse and social mores when comparing shows like Bridezilla to Big, Fat Gypsy Weddings. From country to culture to class, you’re looking at very different sets of couples, but in some ways the sentiments are the same: that women are bound by gender to crave excess, particularly if it involves cake and tulle. Weddings can be a really beautiful thing and one that illustrates two separate lives creating a third together, but that’s not what’s represented on this slew of reality shows. What it is is a reinstating of stereotypes and outdated gender roles. All that aside, there is a pretty wonderful array of blogs that feature real weddings by people who seem to get the sentiment, from Handmade Weddings to Polka Dot Brides and I wonder when we’ll get to see them on our screens instead or at least as well.

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