The ‘bridezilla’ prob­lem

Why can’t we let women have the wed­dings they want?

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - Twit­ter: @bet­syan­npa­per Liz Moor­head is an ad­vice colum­nist for A Prac­ti­cal Wed­ding and owner of Betsy Ann Pa­per cus­tom sta­tionery. She lives out­side of Philadel­phia.

Plan­ning a wed­ding, as any­one who has had one knows, is among life’s more stress­ful ex­pe­ri­ences — and the bur­den falls dis­pro­por­tion­ately on the bride. As a wed­ding ad­vice colum­nist, I get a peek into those stresses; con­cerns and doubts fill my in­box, as women fret over whether they are cop­ing in the proper way. “Am I be­ing a crazy bridezilla?” asks one, writ­ing be­cause she’s frus­trated that a guest is bring­ing un­in­vited friends; “I swear I’m a laid-back bride,” says an­other, who sus­pects that her friends would pre­fer she just elope and save them the has­sle. One correspondent whose mother in­sists on a wel­come party, over her own wishes, asks: “Am I be­ing as hor­ri­ble as she says?” (She signed “Crazy Lazy Bride.”) Even when fear of be­ing la­beled a bridezilla isn’t so ex­plicit, it’s tucked into the de­tails. “Will my guests be mad that we’re hav­ing a des­ti­na­tion wed­ding?” (Maybe, but they’re not ob­li­gated to come.) “Will peo­ple be up­set if we don’t serve meat?” (They’ll eat what you serve.) There is, in th­ese queries, an over­rid­ing con­cern: not want­ing to put any­one out, not want­ing to up­set guests by re­quest­ing too much of them.

It’s com­mon now for a writer to as­sure me that she’s a “laid-back bride.” From what I can gather, a “laid-back bride” doesn’t ask much of guests, but that’s be­cause she doesn’t have any

opin­ions and doesn’t re­ally care that much about her wed­ding. The whole en­deavor is ef­fort­less to her! She’s the mat­ri­mo­nial ver­sion of Gil­lian Flynn’s Cool Girl, who un­der­stands that car­ing about things that other women care about is silly and stupid, and who def­i­nitely has not been dreaming of her wed­ding since child­hood. And while this pres­sure to shrug off girl­ish in­ter­ests has al­ways been around, it was never so point­edly di­rected at wed­dings un­til the word “bridezilla” popped onto the scene. Now brides face an im­pos­si­ble, sex­ist dou­ble stan­dard: You can want a mem­o­rable day, but don’t you dare show how much you care.

“Bridezilla” was first used in 1995 by Bos­ton Globe writer Diane White, in an ar­ti­cle about tacky brides and the hor­rors they in­flict. The term caught on in 2004, thanks to re­al­ity shows fea­tur­ing brides as ridicu­lous car­i­ca­tures, stomp­ing around and mak­ing de­mands, ac­com­pa­nied by car­toon­ish sound ef­fects. In one episode of “Bridezil­las,” a woman is de­scribed as “melt­ing down” over a miss­ing wed­ding dress (which, come to think about it, is a per­fectly rea­son­able thing to melt down over); an­other “strug­gles with rage” over ab­sen­tee brides­maids. Plenty of movies rely on the trope, too, in­clud­ing “Bride Wars,” in which Anne Hath­away and Kate Hud­son throw away a life­long friend­ship be­cause their wed­dings are ac­ci­den­tally booked on the same day at the Plaza Ho­tel.

Women’s mag­a­zines have the topic cov­ered (Brides mag­a­zine: “How to Rein In Your In­ner Bridezilla and Chill the F Out”; Glam­our: “Af­ter a Close Friend Goes Bridezilla, Can You Save the Friend­ship? Would You Want To?”). Real-life sto­ries reg­u­larly go vi­ral, from one bride re­quest­ing that guests pay a $1,500 en­trance fee (and then can­cel­ing not just the wed­ding but the mar­riage when they re­fused), to an­other who de­moted a brides­maid and asked that she pass on her match­ing jump­suit to her re­place­ment. An un­hinged, en­ti­tled bride makes for ir­re­sistible sto­ry­telling, which is why “Bridezil­las” is still air­ing, 11 sea­sons later, with more than 900,000 view­ers per season.

But what makes a bride into a mon­ster wor­thy of a one-hour tele­vi­sion spot? The word has been ap­plied so broadly, it no longer just means be­ing self­ish, de­mand­ing, ob­ses­sive or dif­fi­cult. Now a woman who has opin­ions or ex­pec­ta­tions (of­ten mis­taken for de­mands), gets up­set or an­gry or oth­er­wise emo­tional, and in­con­ve­niences any­one — her guests, the bridal party, the guy who’s fit­ting her veil — in any way might earn the ti­tle. Martha Ste­wart Wed­dings mag­a­zine, for in­stance, iden­ti­fies “signs that you might be a bor­der­line bridezilla,” in­clud­ing call­ing your wed­ding plan­ner too much and hav­ing ex­pen­sive items on your gift registry. (“A registry should never make your guests feel un­com­fort­able.”)

It’s no won­der brides don’t know where the line is be­tween a rea­son­able ex­pec­ta­tion and one that calls to mind a gi­ant rep­tile tram­pling vil­lages. It’s com­i­cally easy to la­bel some­one a bridezilla in­stead of ac­knowl­edg­ing that wed­ding plan­ning is tough. And it’s an im­pos­si­ble charge to de­fend against: Any opin­ion, any re­quest that can be cast as a de­mand fits the stereo­type.

In that way, the bridezilla ac­cu­sa­tion isn’t so dif­fer­ent from the day-to-day sex­ism that fol­lows women every­where. Opin­ions and de­mands are the ear­marks of a shrill, bossy bitch. Emo­tional women have been ac­cused of “hys­te­ria” for ages. And women are ex­pected to mar­tyr them­selves for ev­ery­one else as moth­ers, wives and daugh­ters. Bridezilla is all the same stuff we’ve heard be­fore, only in a spe­cial-edi­tion wed­ding pack­age.

As the bridezilla car­toon took hold, I be­gan to no­tice a sharp dif­fer­ence from the mes­sages I re­ceived when I first started writ­ing my wed­ding ad­vice col­umn six years ago. Let­ters back then fo­cused on au­then­tic­ity and originality. Cou­ples wanted to craft unique wed­dings that re­flected their per­son­al­i­ties and val­ues. “How can we be sure that we’re only invit­ing guests who are truly there to sup­port us in our own per­sonal def­i­ni­tion of mar­riage?” “How do I choose a venue that con­veys our val­ues?” That’s a far cry from “Will my brides­maids be up­set if I make them wear match­ing dresses?” We’ve moved away from “What will re­flect us best?” to “What will in­con­ve­nience ev­ery­one least?”

Of course, it’s nearly im­pos­si­ble to avoid hav­ing opin­ions, ex­pec­ta­tions or emo­tions when plan­ning an event as com­plex as a wed­ding. As the de­fault wed­ding plan­ner, a bride is re­spon­si­ble for com­mu­ni­cat­ing re­quests to ven­dors, the bridal party and fam­ily mem­bers. How do you do that with­out seem­ing “de­mand­ing”? This is an in­her­ently emo­tional day. It’s a ma­jor mile­stone, a cel­e­bra­tion of af­fec­tion and com­mit­ment to your part­ner, the hon­or­ing of fam­ily and friends who’ve lov­ingly sup­ported you. And those are just the nice emo­tions. Fac­tor in the stress of a bud­get, of lo­gis­ti­cal con­sid­er­a­tions, of fam­ily pres­sure. Or con­sider some of the other emails I’ve re­ceived, ask­ing ques­tions like, “Should we ac­cept a wed­ding gift from our con­victed child mo­lester un­cle?” or “How do we plan a wed­ding around my mom’s can­cer di­ag­no­sis?” This work is in­tense!

A “bridezilla,” of­ten enough, is han­dling things in a com­pletely nor­mal way. It’s not like the chill, “laid-back bride” has less to shoul­der by pre­tend­ing she doesn’t care or by be­com­ing an emo­tion­less ro­bot. She has all the more pres­sure in fac­ing those same prob­lems with­out let­ting it show: She’s still feed­ing 150 peo­ple, con­firm­ing there’s a ramp for Grandma’s wheelchair and mak­ing sure all the guests are happy, whether she ad­mits it’s an elab­o­rate pro­duc­tion or not. The wed­ding doesn’t just have to look nice or be mean­ing­ful, as it did six years ago. It has to avoid in­con­ve­nienc­ing a soul.

Ef­fort­less­ness takes a lot of work. But we al­ready know this; it’s been an ex­pec­ta­tion of women since long be­fore “bridezilla.” Have you ever watched a “no-makeup” makeup tu­to­rial? You te­diously and care­fully ap­ply cos­met­ics in such a way that it seems you’re not wear­ing any at all. It can be a time-con­sum­ing process, much more com­pli­cated than just putting on some lip­stick and be­ing hon­est with the world that you are, in fact, wear­ing lip­stick. Like an “ef­fort­less wardrobe” or “ag­ing grace­fully,” the trouble of hid­ing your work re­quires more en­ergy than the work it­self.

The same goes for the laid-back bride. Wed­dings don’t ap­pear out of thin air. Don’t make the poor woman also hide her sweat and tears, on top of do­ing ev­ery­thing else.

It’s no won­der brides don’t know where the line is be­tween a rea­son­able ex­pec­ta­tion and one that calls to mind a gi­ant rep­tile tram­pling vil­lages.

IL­LUS­TRA­TION BY ELLEN WE­IN­STEIN

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