My musings on the mainstream media and culture.

What I Learned From “Say Yes to the Dress: Bridesmaids Edition”

green dresses

There’s plenty of intelligent programming on my TiVo lineup. PBS Newshour. Jeopardy. The Colbert Report. There’s also an embarrassing amount of mindless, patriarchal jibber-jabber on my TiVo—the kind of stuff that smart people say they watch “because it’s a train wreck” or “for ironic pleasure” or “because I’m looking forward to the apocalypse.”

Quite possibly the most mindless jibber-jabber currently found on my TiVo lineup is called Say Yes to the Dress: Bridesmaids Edition. This is a spinoff of the two versions of TLC’s Say Yes to Dress, where we watch as a bride shops for her ($1500 minimum) wedding gown. The original Say Yes to the Dress takes place in a bridal salon in New York City (the sassy city girl version) and the second takes place in a salon at Atlanta (the sassy country girl version).bridesmaids

The Bridesmaids spinoffs lets us watch as a bride and her “girls” pick out bridesmaids’ dresses. The shop owners let us know at the beginning of each episode how much contempt they have for the bridesmaids’ floor, which apparently is always filled with drama. Like most half-hour, largely-staged reality TV shows, this show is extremely formulaic. Here’s what I learned from Say Yes to Dress: Bridesmaids.

1. Wedding attire is very, very, very important.

These aren’t just dresses. Oh no. Little girls have been dreaming about their weddings all of their lives. Yes, all of their lives. Therefore, it’s of extreme importance that the right shade of green is located, and that if the bride is looking for a sweetheart neckline, that dress better have a sweetheart neckline. Otherwise, the little girl’s most cherished dream is in danger of being squelched. Not finding the right dress is like not getting into law school — if law school were a lifelong dream that TV portrayed as on par with Landing a Man.

Of course, the importance placed on wedding attire centers heavily around gender identity. How the so-called “bridal party” looks is seen as a reflection of the bride, and if the dresses are hideous, she will be Judged. After all, bridesmaids dreses are about both physical appearance and décor, two categories where women are judged brutally against impossible standards.

To illustrate the degree to which wedding attire is tied up in gender identity, imagine the opposite. Can you imagine a show called Say Yes to the Tuxes where the groom battles it out with the groomsmen as he searches for his dream tux? No? Or could you see an episode of Say Yes to the Dress: Bridesmaids where the bride stays home and the groom debates with the bridesmaids what they will wear?

Like many of our culture’s gender-defining traditions, the importance placed on wedding attire also is intricately related to consumption. The bridesmaids dresses on this show run at least $250 apiece, and most probably cost more. As part of their “duty” to the bride, the maids are responsible for purchasing the gowns (and matching shoes and hairpieces and whatever else the bride deems necessary), which they will probably never wear again. Yet I’ve never heard a bride on this show say, “Let’s keep the price of the dress low. I don’t want my bridesmaids to have to pay a fortune for my big day.” The expectation is that this kind of consumption is normal and not the least bit excessive–and that a bride who invites her maids to buy some pretty $40 dresses at the mall is just plain tacky.

Speaking of the bride, the second lesson I learned from this show is:

2. The bride is most important person on Earth.

The narrative of this show usually goes like this: the bride knows what kind of dresses the wants. One member of the bride’s entourage—a jealous sister, the future mother-in-law, or whomever else TLC designates as the villain—doesn’t like the bride’s vision. They fight it out throughout the episode, until the bride sticks up for herself and the villain acquiesces.purple

No matter what the conflict, though, the bride is always right. After all, as the consultants say over and over again, “It’s the bride’s day” (and only the bride’s day, apparently, regardless of that male accessory who’s watching her walk down the aisle). Remember, brides have been dreaming of their wedding days all of their lives, so failure to allow the bride to be the princess/queen/imperial dictator of the wedding planning is destroying a girl’s only worthwhile dream.

Some of the “villains” who oppose the bride’s choices seem truly villainous, like the occasional mother who makes fun of the heavier bridesmaids as they try on dresses.  (See Lesson #3.) Others, however, really do have legitimate points. On one episode, the bride wanted strapless dresses, but one of her bridesmaids didn’t feel comfortable in strapless because she was religious and modest. The bride dug her heels in, and in the end, the religious friend acquiesced to a dress that made her feel uncomfortable because “it’s the bride’s day.” Really? Would it have been such a big deal to go with a more modest dress to honor her friend’s feelings and beliefs?

And even in less extreme cases, why is it always the bride’s decision? These women are being asked to spend hundreds of dollars. Is it too much to ask that they buy a dress they like, and that (gasp!) they might be able to wear again?

Of course it’s too much to ask. This is the Bride’s Day, and we have to honor her very important accomplishment of Landing a Man.  And while this is never said explicitly, the show implies that it’s the bride’s right to exercise her superiority over these other non-bride women.  Her ability to become a Mrs. Somebody means she’s gaining status in the culture, and what better way to show off that status than to force her single friends to wear chartreuse?

3. Women are horrible people.

As I said above, there’s always a villain on the show, or sometimes multiple villains. Villains come in the form of jealous sisters, angry friends who didn’t get chosen to be maid of honor, modest relatives and friends who object to showing skin, and controlling mothers. Controlling mothers are a constant feature on the Atlanta version his show. According to Say Yes to the Dress; Atlanta, Southern mothers are vicious, terrifying women who are incapable of letting their little girls grow up and who probably belong in horror movies.

green bridesmaid dressesVery few episodes of Say Yes to Dress: Bridesmaids are without a nasty catfight involving years of pent-up baggage between sisters or friends. Perhaps this is not surprising on the network that brought us gems like Hoarders and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. And, one could argue, it would not be very entertaining to watch a typical bridesmaids’ shopping appointment, where a group of women play dress-up for a while, peacefully compromise on a dress, and then celebrate over sushi as they discuss more important matters, like Anything Other than Dresses.

But the fact that TLC has chosen to construct this narrative of catty bridesmaids says something about our gender roles. Women are unreliable and catty, we learn, and therefore Landing a Man and embracing the patriarchal order is even more important.

An interesting but important side note:  this show is narrated by a man.

4. Different is not good.

“Thinking outside the box” is valued in some industries. Not so in the bridal industry. I found this out when I was planning my own wedding. The wedding itself—kind of Jewish humanist ceremony with many personal touches—was unique, but I did cave to the poufy fairy tale images in magazines and bought myself a traditional bridal gown. The gown had rum pink accents, so I ordered a pair of rum pink dyeable shoes to match.

If you’re not familiar with wedding color parlance, rum pink is a subtle color that’s barely distinguishable from light gray. I’m guessing few of my guests even noticed my shoes under my gown. Yet when I went to pick them up at the bridal salon, the consultant said to me, “Wow! Pink shoes. You’re so bold and daring!”goddess dress

This lack of comprehension for anything different is painfully evident on Say Yes to the Dress: Bridesmaid Edition. Over and over again, the brides pick out variations of the same dresses, and inevitable choose whatever’s most trendy. Like off-the-shoulder “goddess” gowns, which probably were unheard of in bridal salons until recently, and suddenly they’re all the rage. And straps with large floral accents (I’ve seen this several times in lavender, which would be a great look for a five-year-old or an Easter egg). Oh, and the biggest trend right now is the “mermaid” dress, which looks good on about 2% of women’s bodies and adds a whole new level of patriarchal mythology to your wedding party.

Say No to Say Yes to the Dress?

I think it may be time to take this show off my TiVo.  Like I said, I enjoy my guilty pleasures (and what would I write about in my blog if I didn’t watch this kind of formulaic displays of cultural silliness)?  But I think the this show is so misogynist that it’s going off my guilty pleasure list.  The contempt that women show each other, and the way that the bride is “honored” by giving her free rein to make expensive demands on her non-bride peon females, has taken away the pleasure of this show.

Also, if I see another lavender dress with floral accented sleeves, I might be frightened away from weddings for the rest of my life.

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3 thoughts on “What I Learned From “Say Yes to the Dress: Bridesmaids Edition”

  1. Wow I am so glad I don’t really watch TV anymore, that sounds awful!! I do enjoy your criticism of the show… definitely some disturbing trends in US culture – particularly relating to the portrayal of women, and the lower classes.

    I shouldn’t talk too much as I do adore fashion but still… Weddings in the USA these days seem a little out of control (shouldn’t the marriage be more important than the actual wedding?). Kiwis, on the other hand, eventually get around to getting married sometime in their late 20s or early 30s, after they’ve been together for a millennia and may or may not already have kids.

  2. After reading this, I am so proud of myself for my bridesmaids’ dresses. Sorta. Actually, my “stance.” I went along and gave the three girls a general color: wine. They were to find something they all agreed upon. They found it. “It” cost $250. It was beautiful, but I told them, unequivocally, “I am morally opposed.” They got them anyway and my poor mother footed the bill for TWO dresses because both of my minor sisters were standing up with me. To this day, I don’t know what they were thinking or if I should have just said “NO!” (Side note: My dress cost $60.)

  3. “Say Yes to the Tuxedo” would make a good Saturday Night Live skit, but I don’t think enough of the the SNL target audience has seen the show to get it.

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