The Bride Paradox Of "Four Weddings"

On shows like Four Weddings, all of the culturally determined notions of what a wedding "should" be land on one woman's shoulders: the bride's. But many of them literally cannot win.

I love weddings. I’ve never been one for religion, or for mindless adherence to tradition, but when two people decide to dress a little over the top, say things a little too sappy to each other, and throw the kind of party people of most classes can only throw once in a lifetime, I’m all for it. It naturally follows that, since I cannot go to weddings most weekends of my life, I enjoy watching wedding shows.

Well, perhaps “enjoy” isn’t the right word. I don’t quite hate-watch them, but all too often I find myself yelling at the screen. There’s no show that does this to me more than TLC’s popular show Four Weddings, based on a British show of the same name. The American edition has broadcast nine seasons, and there are now versions of the show in Australia, Finland, Canada, Germany, France, and Romania. For the blissfully uninitiated, the premise of the American show is that four women agree to attend each other’s weddings, where they will judge the dress, the venue, the food, and the “overall experience.” They are given a score out of 120 points, and there’s some sort of rating system that the show ensures no bride can rig. The winner gets a free honeymoon.

Brides are told that their wedding day should be all about them (to the point where fiancés can seem like afterthoughts). But even that notion is fraught with peril for women. When it comes to weddings, women walk a perpetually fine and uneasy line regarding what is appropriate for women to want in the first place. Too much and a woman is labeled a bridezilla; too little and a woman is deemed uncaring. And so Four Weddings — and shows of its ilk, like Say Yes to the Dress, Bridezilla, and My Fair Wedding — serve both to reify and amplify these notions, setting women up for the impossible task of satisfying everyone else’s expectations while also meeting their own.

These shows also help in setting those expectations by peeking into someone else’s life. Like Pinterest or wedding magazines, they show us what others are doing, and suggest what we should do as well. But Four Weddings also shows us, ostensibly, why we should be doing those things, why we should want them. It says if you are tasteful and pretty you are also a winner, and, conversely, if you do it wrong you will lose. It suggests that in the ever-shifting landscape of etiquette, tradition, and modernity, it is even possible to “win.” Even if you’re not planning a wedding, it’s enticing to watch. We all love a healthy competition.

“I think the modern woman knows that we’re not princesses, but there is an obsession with the modern wedding and making it perfect,” Colleen Curran, editor of Altared: Bridezillas, Bewilderment, Big Love, Breakups, and What Women Really Think About Contemporary Weddings, told me. “We’re receiving so many images and messages about what the perfect wedding can be, that it can be overwhelming.” The messages come from wedding magazines, websites, Pinterest, and Instagram, but television still serves as a center for spectacle — when it’s on TV, it just feels more official. Just a few years ago we watched Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding the same way we watch the Super Bowl.

Wedding media and industry rely on the idea that it’s the bride’s “most important day” in order to stay in business. It’s hard to justify hand-calligraphed invitations, elaborate orchid centerpieces, and $10,000 dresses (not to mention $10,000 reception dresses), even if it’s a special occasion. It has to be the most special occasion of all. Televised royal weddings make it look that way, and so do shows where the goal is saying yes to a dress, or where your reception-planning choices can get you a trip to the Bahamas.

Four Weddings and the rest of wedding media reinforce the idea that any wedding choices are the bride’s alone, conveniently forgetting to mention the personal, historical, and societal pressures that all tradition and ceremony exist under. That’s another part of what the wedding industry relies on — assuming all brides want the same things, kicking them a few touches so they feel like it’s “personal,” but reminding them of the disappointment they’ll be if they don’t stick to the script. On Four Weddings, the bride-judges use words like "traditional," "unique," and "simple" to describe weddings that are "good," while "bad" weddings are "cookie-cutter," "tacky," and "selfish." All these adjectives reflect the culturally determined expectations of what a wedding should and shouldn’t be.

Perhaps no aspect of a wedding bears more of the contestants' scrutiny than the dress. Most of the contestants on Four Weddings have strong opinions that a bride’s gown, no matter the style, must be “traditional” white. Those opinions are usually left unsaid until the rare moment that a nonwhite gown makes an appearance. Sometimes it’s acceptable — like when the show has featured Indian and Taiwanese weddings, though those are still treated as “exotic” and “different” — but one contestant named Tarisha saw the brunt of the rest of the judges’ wrath when she wore a red ball gown. We’re first introduced to Tarisha, a black woman, as she excitedly describes how much tongue she’s going to use in the first kiss, in direct contrast to the previous contestant’s declaration that her kiss will be chaste. We see Tarisha’s tongue ring and tattoos when she describes herself as “complete awesomeness” and talks about going to the club. She seems fun and confident and opinionated, and states that she’s just not the type to wear a white dress.

There’s a lot of cognitive dissonance as the rest of the brides (two white and one black) try to critique her wedding. On one hand, they’ve come expecting a wedding that’s as “over the top” as Tarisha is, and are disappointed when her ceremony space is comparatively subdued, “traditional,” featuring white candles and an aisle strewn with rose petals. “Tarisha’s so wild and crazy, I expected something more,” said one of the contestants. While their disappointment is bad for Tarisha’s honeymoon chances, it would seem to represent better, more progressive ideas in weddings as a whole. The wedding doesn’t have to be traditional; it should represent Tarisha! She shouldn’t be afraid to have fun with it! However, at moments, their calls for a “crazier” wedding seemed racially coded, as if a black woman is inherently untraditional. They didn’t expect the tasteful candles because they assumed she would be “tacky.” Even the show’s stock music subs in a soulful R&B song for her walk down the aisle in lieu of the wedding march soundalike they use for most other brides.

The second Tarisha tries to do something that screams “Tarisha,” it’s too much, and the judges seem at once shocked and to have their biases confirmed. Her tongue-ful kiss is given the side-eye. Her dress is criticized by one bride, who admits, “I’m not a big fan of dresses that aren’t white,” and all of them are concerned the low-cut ball gown was too revealing: “She should have added straps or something to keep those puppies in.” In the end, the brides take off points because the decor didn’t have enough color, but also because they didn’t like the original touches Tarisha did try to put in. She was traditional in the wrong places and unique in the wrong places, and quickly lived up to their implied expectations of being the black woman with no taste.

Dresses are good when they are perceived as fitting the bride’s personality, as long as they could also be described as “elegant” and “tasteful” — aka interesting enough but still white and formal. They are bad when they are too plain, too blingy, “too” anything. Tarisha may have felt beautiful in her red ball gown and bouncing cleavage, but it was judged as too much. Another bride felt elegant in her simple sheath dress, but it had “no personality” — it was not enough. The refrain we hear throughout the show is that it’s the “bride’s day,” but even so, she is always expected to conform to the will of others. Even with the one thing, her outfit, that has only to do with her.

Weddings become an extension of the bride. They can be glamorous, winter wonderland, DIY, as long as it's impeccably done, and as long as they’re still beautiful. To use a possibly tired trope, they are the Cool Girl of cultural milestones. They have to be unique, but not weird, and they have to be traditional, but not boring, and the assumption is always that the bride is in charge. She exists to take the credit, but also the blame. If something goes wrong, it is never because her mother invited 20 people without asking, or because her brother forgot to pick up half the centerpieces, or because she and her spouse agreed they’d rather have a buffet and spend the money they saved on a new house. It is the bride alone who succeeds or fails in giving her guests a good atmosphere and a good time.

In Western culture through the early 20th century, it was traditionally the bride’s parents who were in charge of the wedding, and the couple were the guests of honor. Their preferences would be consulted, but it was understood that they were not the planners. This is where the idea of a wedding being the “bride’s day” comes from — her parents threw this party largely for her before they “gave her away” to her husband. This began to change in the latter part of the 20th century as our ideas of marriage became less financial and more romantic. Now it was about two people in love sharing their lives, and women and men increasingly planned, and paid for, their own weddings.

The idea of a wedding being the bride’s day is an “outmoded concept,” says Curran. “I think that the bridal industry perpetuates this myth to generate money being spent on things that you don’t really need.” And since most people don’t spend their lives planning weddings, how are they to know what’s necessary and what’s not unless a wedding professional tells them? What these wedding professionals say is necessary in a modern wedding has only become “necessary” in recent memory. “Elements are rarely dropped, but frequently added to the set of rituals that make up a wedding celebration,” according to Carol McD. Wallace’s All Dressed in White: The Irresistible Rise of the American Wedding. “We start to see this very clearly in the mid-twentieth century, as what was once optional becomes obligatory,” and as people increasingly realized they could make money off of weddings. Fifty years ago it would not have been uncommon for someone to get married in their parents’ living room, with a short cake and punch reception, but that is no longer the expectation.

The solidification of those obligatory elements — a sit-down dinner instead of punch and cake, an elaborate banquet hall instead of the courthouse, signature cocktails, bridesmaids, a photo booth — became painfully apparent in a Four Weddings episode that pitted a bride with a $75,000 budget against one with $5,000.

In the first corner is Heather, 27, who initially says she has “no budget” — as in, the sky's the limit — for her 350 guests. “We’re doing whatever we want to do,” which eventually involves entering the reception with the help of a smoke machine. “The cocktail hour was massive,” says one of the contestants. It involved a whole roast pig, a sushi bar, carving tables, and enough other options that the brides were slightly confused when they realized that wasn’t even dinner. The comments started to get snide, with eye-rolls at the “diva cake,” the “over-the-top” entrance, the “overwhelming” nature of everything. For a moment, I thought the tide had turned, that the brides were looking for something less orchestrated and formal. I was wrong.

In the other corner was Aretha, 45, who had “no budget” in the sense that she and her husband could not afford a wedding themselves. The community college where she works kindly decided to pitch in for her big day, letting her use the campus gazebo as a ceremony space, getting the horticultural students to make the flower arrangements, and having everyone help make the food. “Without the help of everyone here at the school,” she says, “our wedding wouldn’t happen.” Certainly, the wedding wasn’t flawless, as you would expect from any event put together by college students. The buffet lines were long and there was not enough food, and one bride is disappointed to find plastic place settings. “I felt like I was at a picnic instead of a wedding,” she says. “I expected more of a party,” says another bride, “more food, and less lines.” Heather’s wedding may have been overwhelming, but it still felt like what the other contestants have come to expect from a wedding.

Would you be surprised to hear that Heather won, or that Aretha came in last? We may want intimate touches that remind us of the couple’s personality, but what’s more important is that the bride provide the guests with that “grand formal ritual.” “It didn’t feel personal” doesn’t mean much when there are 11 entrees to choose from. Heather’s wedding, despite being “cookie-cutter,” still presented her as the ultimate bride. She was beautiful and traditional, and most of all, she provided for all of her guests. She had the budget to do so. All the goodwill and community in the world didn’t matter for Aretha, because a wedding that doesn’t give guests that complete experience doesn’t win, even if that experience is something you can’t afford.

What many of these brides ultimately judge is which wedding gives them the most. There are plenty of weddings that take place in smaller settings — courthouses, parks, in the home — but those are rarely the weddings that are featured on Four Weddings. In fact, couples are often penalized for choosing to have their weddings in more “casual” spaces. Weddings are supposed to be an experience for guests, set in grand museums, cool industrial spaces, and elaborate banquet halls. Everyone knows what a “traditional” wedding looks like, and now they want to see something unique, but only as long as it still contains all those traditional trappings.

A bride must be graceful, thankful, elegant, and put-together — but also make it all seem effortless. But mainly, the bride is supposed to care, whether it’s about organizing dinner for everyone or individually wrapping 200 tissue envelopes “for your tears of joy.” Being a “bridezilla” is bad, since she is the woman who is the opposite of effortless, who shows the work that goes into putting on these kinds of spectacles, but what’s worse is appearing to make no effort at all. There is one episode that made this stand out for me.

Winnie and her husband are slightly nerdy types who care a lot about having great food, and seem pretty relaxed about everything else. She gets married in a simple dress with a simple ceremony, walking down the aisle alone, and returning with her husband about five minutes later. She looks extraordinarily happy — and her ceremony could not have garnered more complaints. “I wish they announced when she came out. It’s her special day and all eyes should have been on her,” says one bride. “The ceremony was too quick,” says another, “It should have been cherished a little bit more.” The third takes points off because she “zoomed” down the aisle. Is it so impossible that she wanted a quick ceremony? That she didn’t want to be the center of attention? A “bridezilla” at least attempts to be bridal. Winnie committed the sin of not wanting it at all.

In the 100 weddings on the 25 episodes I watched, the average first-place wedding cost almost $11,000 more than the average fourth-place wedding, with the couple spending $233 per guest over $157 per guest. The more you spent, the likelier you were to win that honeymoon, the irony of which is that if you had an extra $11,000 to spend you could have afforded it yourself.

There were twice as many white women featured as there were women of color, and yet WOC brides show up disproportionately in the fourth-place spot. In fact, WOC brides spent on average more than white brides for an average lower spot. We see this especially in the battle between third and fourth place. Spend enough money and nobody cares about your race, but often white brides who spent less failed upward to third place, while more expensive WOC weddings landed in fourth. Overall, WOC brides spent $387 per point to the white brides’ $360, even though they spent exactly the same per guest. The WOC brides just had to work harder for the same consideration.

Given that the “traditional” American wedding is based on Christian traditions, anything outside of that is treated as themed or divergent, no matter how traditional it really is. An Iraqi bride had a traditional Assyrian wedding and her entrance was called “nontraditional”; an Indian bride’s Hindu ceremony was side-eyed as “different.” And while, eventually, the women often gush about learning new traditions, their treatment of those traditions as weird and exotic continue to center the white, American wedding experience.

At their best, wedding TV shows are about unfiltered happiness, because that’s what weddings are about. And frankly, they’re fun. You see pretty dresses, gorgeous feasts, beautifully decorated rooms, and people dancing and laughing. We like looking at things like that, and that’s a big part of why we like weddings in the first place--they’re joy and fun and love on a scale you don’t find every day. Add those feelings to a competition, and you have the perfect show. “Producers are also turning the modern wedding into sport, sort of like American Idol or The Voice,” says Curran. “The best wedding gets the prize. This is TV land, but not real life.”

However, that line between TV and reality is being increasingly blurred. Even if we know reality TV is scripted and edited to create drama and plotlines, it’s still labeled “reality.” A recently engaged friend of mine admitted to watching the show for similar reasons, long before her fiancé came into the picture. She just liked weddings, and the show seemed to make a fun game out of them, bringing up different options and ideas, and ending with the requisite comments from the losers that they’re still married, and that’s “what’s most important.” But she also internalized some of the “lessons” the show gave on how to win — no buffets, no weddings on Sunday, no open seating. These seemed like hard and fast rules for success, until she realized that she actually had a great time at a bunch of weddings with buffets.

For most of us it’s difficult to think critically about a wedding, because the ones we go to aren’t for strangers. Our excitement and love will always override the humidity of the outdoor ceremony, the bland chicken, and the best man’s clunky speech. And if you know and care about the bride, you know that #notallbrides are the same. Some women want to wear white, and some red. Some women care about impeccable food, and some just want everyone to eat their free steak and shut up. Some women will fret over every aesthetic detail, some will hire someone to handle it because they don’t care, and some will say “fuck it” and not have a wedding at all. Some women don’t even aspire to marriage.

The women of Four Weddings entered themselves into this contest. Not every bride does, but they are still expected to compete, and it’s a contest that nobody can win.

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