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One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding
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FOR the sake of a fairy-tale wedding, engaged American couples will take on inordinate debt or forgo buying a house. With the average American wedding costing nearly $28,000, enter the “bridezilla” phenomenon. This refers to the sort of tyrannical bride who seethes over details like her bridesmaids' pumps and her tiara's height, terrorising everyone in her path. In an entertaining book, Rebecca Mead, a staff writer at the New Yorker, considers the social conditions that gave birth to this bridal monster.
She finds an answer in the $161 billion American wedding industry and its message: a perfect wedding means a perfect marriage. At one time, a bride's background dictated how she got married, but nowadays she seldom feels constrained by religious or cultural traditions. The wedding has shifted from a rite of passage to a vehicle for self-expression. However, even an independent woman will still seek some voice of authority when it comes to marriage. Here the wedding industry swoops in, loudly appointing itself official counsellor. “If a bride buys into the wedding industry”, writes Ms Mead, “she is promised the happily-ever-after that she, in her big white dress and tiara, deserves.”
In the vein of Jessica Mitford's exposé of the funeral industry, Ms Mead reveals the unromantic underbelly of the wedding industry. Companies are intent on peddling a constant stream of new products and services but, perversely, the concept of tradition still drives the business. To handle this contradiction, they employ specialists to convince couples to create new “traditions”, such as “heirloom ornaments” for members of the bridal party.
Ms Mead takes special pleasure in “traditionalesque”; commerce disguised as tradition. An example of the traditionalesque would be the “Apache wedding prayer”, read by a freelance multi-faith wedding minister called Joyce Gioia, when neither the bride nor the groom nor the prayer itself has anything to do with Apache culture (the prayer was invented for a Hollywood movie called “Broken Arrow”). Ms Gioia's inspired services (which cost about $1,000 for 18 minutes) often include candle and honey ceremonies, and other invented or bastardised rituals that Ms Mead dismisses as pretty hollow.
In her epilogue the author suggests that independent-minded women should accept the loss of old traditions and make their peace with the new situation. This rather sweeping opinion seems out of tone with the rest of the book which, with wit and style, condemns the industry for crudely colonising an event that many still consider sacred.
The late, great writer Marjorie Williams once confessed that reading “Fast Food Nation,” Eric Schlosser’s investigation into the fast-food industry, left her craving a Burger King fix. I had a similar reaction to “One Perfect Day,” Rebecca Mead’s dour tour of the American wedding business, which made me suddenly long for a frilly Saturday night nuptial blowout.
But wait. I already had one, four years ago. The whole thing turned out pretty great — but not according to Mead. For her, the American wedding is an exercise in cheap sentiment and pricey self-indulgence, orchestrated by an industry that cunningly plays on the romantic delusions of the betrothed. She has the darkest possible view of its preparatory rituals: by flipping dreamily through Modern Bride and Martha Stewart Weddings, a bride is trying to create a new self “whose skin always glows with happiness, whose life is one of such grace that the fine china will always be in use.” Registering — for water glasses, an ice-cream maker, the usual tchotchkes — is an exercise in “licensed covetousness.” By her analysis, the betrothed throw themselves into wedding planning because they know married life will ultimately be a letdown. Au contraire, Rebecca — come over some night for homemade ice cream and see!
Though she speaks of the entire wedding industry, Mead actually doesn’t seem interested in celebrations like mine — which was on the tasteful side, if I do say so myself. Mead is so outraged by the gilded picture presented by bridal magazines that she overcorrects and gives us a book full of tawdry, tacky affairs, where the dresses are ill-fitting, the officiant is a hired gun and the couple flushes away more than they can afford. These weddings take place mostly in Las Vegas, at Disney World, on an overcrowded stretch of beach in Aruba or in Gatlinburg, Tenn., home to kitschy wedding chapels and a round-the-clock “marry-thon.” In other words, Mead has reduced the American wedding to its cheesiest and most venal elements, and then written a book about how cheesy and venal American weddings are.
But even that book would have been much better if Mead had quoted more than a handful of brides. She’s a gifted writer, mostly for The New Yorker, and she’s written well about romance in the past. “One Perfect Day” has a scattering of vibrant characters — the wedding planner who recreates the imperial-Russia-themed nuptials of Joan Rivers’s daughter Melissa on a $200 budget, the ones who entertain themselves at an industry conference by whacking at a Bridezilla piñata.
But almost none of them are brides. Inexplicably, the book is almost entirely devoid of them. (Don’t even ask about grooms.) Like a tourist observing wildlife, Mead tracks and observes brides — like one trying on a dress in a David’s Bridal store — but instead of interviewing them, just stares and assigns them thoughts. The main bridal character in the book is a kind of imagined one, wearing a “gown in which she can barely move” and a “veil behind which her smile, white teeth bleached to a photogenic whiteness, is temporarily concealed.”
The book’s pages practically curl from this sort of disdain. The courthouse in Las Vegas where wedding licenses are handed out is “one of the most insalubrious places I have ever spent time,” Mead sniffs, as if she were expecting an edifying experience.
Of course, Mead is right about her book’s broadest point: yes, sure, lots of American weddings are overblown confections; and O.K., that probably tells us something about ourselves. But Mead rushes away from her most incisive thoughts — about the way wedding photos, propped up on office and living-room walls, serve as a kind of advertising campaign for the marriage in question, about how weddings became splashier and more expensive just as no-fault divorce made marriage a less secure proposition than ever before.
Besides, the excess of the modern American wedding is precisely what makes it such crazy, memorable fun. In a decade of frequent wedding-going, I have been to one where entire lobes of foie gras were sliced and sautéed to order for guests, another where a dessert table was loaded with more than a thousand cookies home-baked by the bride’s family, and another where an entertainer wearing a giant plastic John Travolta head entered the dance floor to the strains of “Saturday Night Fever.” Was each one of these touches overkill? If you insist. Was each one delightful? You bet.
Perhaps this is why, as a glance at this newspaper’s Vows column will attest, even blue-blooded weddings are now as Trump-like as everyone else’s. Today, even the preppiest country-club bride is likely to write her own goofy vows, wear a $5,000 gown with an immodest neckline and treat herself to a little Botox before the big event. We’re all nouveau riche now. The rise of the big, luxe wedding isn’t ultimately that different from the rise of the big, luxe television; the big, luxe handbag; or other fashionable, unnecessary supersize treats.
The difference is that weddings, unlike most other things we purchase, reliably deliver heart-stopping measures of joy. Do grandmothers cry just as hard when a bride is married, as Mead was, at a courthouse while wearing office clothes? Perhaps. But most of us would rather be out under a tent, enjoying Champagne, slow dances and the company of a plastic John Travolta.
Rebecca Mead’s new book, “One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding” (Penguin Press), grew out of an article about the bridal business which she wrote for The New Yorker in 2003. Here, with Kelly Bare, she talks about the hundred-and-sixty-billion-dollar wedding industry and her theories on why brides and grooms are so eager to buy what it’s selling.
KELLY BARE: I assume you saw the “bridezilla” clip on YouTube.
REBECCA MEAD: The one where the girl cuts off her hair? Of course. A number of people sent it to me, but none of them said, “This is a fake.” I did suspect that it was probably staged. I’m glad that I was right. This is something that I wanted to address in the book: why is this kind of caricature so believable? One hears stories about so-called “bridezillas” going crazy, and they’re entertaining and funny. But what about the social conditions that have created this caricature? There is a culture of weddings that is conspiring to make bridezillas of us all if it possibly could. In a way, it’s a surprise that more people don’t become the bridezilla caricature. There’s so much pressure on them to do so.
It’s not just the wedding industry; it’s other people. When I was getting married, a lot of the people around me seemed to want to conspire to make my wedding a bigger deal than I wanted it to be.
Well, I think if you’ve seen your friends doing it—if you’ve gone to ten weddings in which everybody has gone all out and paid for the chair-back ties and the coördinated napkins—then it becomes an expected thing. There is peer pressure. But one’s peers are being influenced by the industry as well. I’m not suggesting that all of this is created by the industry and that it doesn’t speak to some real need in people to want to have a kind of significant experience. I think the reason the wedding industry has been so successful is that it speaks to something very profound.
You could certainly have taken a more cynical tone in your book, but you seem to have been genuinely touched by some of what you saw.
Getting married is an enormous commitment, a terrifying commitment. Of course, it’s moving to see it, and it’s moving to be at weddings even of people I have never met before and am never going to see again. I also found the vow-renewal ceremonies very affecting. There’s something touching about people who are already married saying, “We really believe in this, we really want to be married.” I’m not in the least bit cynical about marriage. And I also don’t want to blame the bride. I don’t think this is just an instance of a whole generation of women losing their minds and being overindulgent. I think there’s a whole structure at work here.
I loved your coinage of the term “traditionalesque.” I have to admit that my husband and I were victims of the “traditionalesque,” in the case of the “Apache Indian Prayer.” Our wedding officiant had it in her stock ceremony. I’m from Nebraska, and the wedding took place in Nebraska, where Native American history is very important. Part of me thought, Maybe I should look this prayer up and see which tribe it’s attributed to, so I can put that in the program. But I’d heard the blessing before—I bet it’s in every single wedding-planning book out there—so I assumed it was legitimate. And it turns out it comes from a nineteen-fifties Hollywood movie, “Broken Arrow.”
As with the bridezilla video, once you start looking more closely, and not as a consumer but as a journalist, of course you ask questions. In researching that wedding prayer, I dug as deep as I could and spoke to historians and went to libraries and looked in books and called Native American chiefs. And what I was able to find was that the blessing seems to have entered the popular consciousness through “Broken Arrow,” which was—except for the wedding scene, the critics say—a very accurate depiction of the Apache people. A version of the blessing was also in the book that the movie was based on. The book was historical fiction, but the prayer was an invented part of the fiction.
You write that there are a number of reasons that people might buy into invented traditions, and also into the idea that a big fancy wedding is a birthright. One reason is that upper-middle-class brides, who are setting trends, have led lives filled with excitement, travel, and educational opportunities, so they need a showstopper wedding to make it anywhere near “the best day of their life.”
I think that’s absolutely right. And that’s something that wedding planners are very aware of. They have to think about ways to make the event a superlative experience for people who have had lives that are already superlative. It’s also been suggested that, because many young women have experienced divorce and family rupture in their lives, they may think that if they have a big wedding they will guarantee that their marriage will last. But common sense doesn’t bear that out. If anything, having a big wedding may simply mean that you’ll be a little bit more embarrassed later about telling people that you’re separating or divorcing.
One of the wedding planners you mention in the book, Mindy Weiss, has said that, essentially, if you’re miserable during the planning and all you want is for it to be over, then that’s what your marriage is going to be like. Does that make any sense to you?
Well, no. What one hears more commonly is, “If we can get through this, we can get through anything. This is the first test of our married life together.” This is what the bride’s saying: “We’ve fought over things, I had to deal with my parents-in-law, and this is sort of a preparation for the stress of married life.” Now, let’s hope that the hardest thing that anybody ever has to do is plan a wedding. But I think that people need the wedding and the planning to be in some way a traumatic experience. It used to be that a wedding was a definitive break in your life, and the new traumas of married life were real. Suddenly, you were waking up next to somebody with whom you’d never spent the night before. We don’t have that anymore—marriage is not the beginning of your independent life, it’s probably not the beginning of your sexual life, and it’s not your entry into adulthood, as it once was. So there’s a sense in which what used to be the trauma of newly married life has been transferred to the trauma of planning a wedding, because we need a wedding to feel momentous, and one way to make it feel momentous is to make the planning of it complicated and difficult and an enormous production.
You call these “invented traumas.” There are therapists who would argue that these “invented traumas”—agonizing about, say, having a sit-down dinner versus a buffet, or a destination wedding versus a wedding in your church at home—are stand-ins for larger issues. You think that you and your mom are fighting about the color of the flowers, but it’s really that she’s sad about losing you. Would you agree?
I think that’s a very suggestive idea, and it makes sense that you would play out some of those attentions in the wedding planning. People in the wedding industry pay little attention to that dimension of the very event that they’re engaged in. If you ask wedding planners for their success rates, occasionally you’ll find somebody who’ll brag, “None of my couples get divorced.” But mostly it’s “I don’t know.”
Or “I don’t care.” Or maybe “Good, because then they’ll come back.” One anecdote in your book just killed me—the woman who cried through every planning session, got divorced, and then said to her planner, “I want to use you next time.”
I think there’s a quote from Vows magazine, the trade magazine for bridal retailers and wedding professionals, which suggests to people in bridal stores that they cultivate the future remarriage market by satisfying the present brides-to-be. It’s hilarious and terrifying and horrifying. If you talk to wedding planners, they’ll say, “It’s not my job.” And it’s not. It’s not their job to tell somebody that maybe the reason she’s having a meltdown over the flowers is that she’s incompatible with her husband.
In the book, you mention young couples in China preferring Western-style events. Do you see our wedding obsession becoming a worldwide phenomenon, in the way of so many other aspects of American culture?
I think it’s bound to, because that’s the way culture and popular culture and American culture work. I’m English, although I haven’t lived in Britain for a long time, but I see that there’s a growing wedding culture there and things have really changed. But everybody knows that there’s something that’s sort of out of control about this. One of the things that was very gratifying to me while I was working on the book was the amount of people who said, “I’m so glad you’re writing about that, because I’ve been to so many weddings that are just out of control,” or “Why do I have to go to the engagement party or the bachelorette party, the rehearsal dinner, and the brunch afterward?” Why has it become this overblown, incredibly elaborate production? And it may be that there’s a kind of feeling that too much is too much. We’ll see.
Do you consider yourself British or American? Were you writing from inside American culture, or outside it, or somewhere in between?
I’ve lived in the United States nineteen years, with only a brief and misguided return to Britain many years ago, so I’m very much transplanted, and at this point I’m much more familiar with this culture. I didn’t feel like I was a Martian landing on an alien planet and saying, “Wow, these people drive on the wrong side of the road and eat really big hamburgers.” I think that, certainly, I am British—I lived the first twenty-two years of my life in England and I absorbed that sensibility, whatever that is—but I have a skepticism that would be the same wherever I was. I didn’t look at the culture of weddings from the perspective of a consumer or a bride.
You mention in the epilogue that you got married during the process of writing this book, and that working on the book made you think differently about your own wedding. How?
I wouldn’t say it changed what I wanted to do, but it made me concentrate on what I would do, and one of the things that I was forced to confront was that I didn’t really have anything to turn to, because I don’t come from a religious family and I don’t have a strong cultural tradition to follow. If I wasn’t going to turn to the commercial wedding industry, which I didn’t want to do, then it was actually quite hard to know what to do and how to get married. There’s something deserving of sorrow in that, in the realization that one doesn’t have the props that one wants. Getting married is a very big deal, and we all want it to feel like a big deal. But I don’t buy the wedding industry’s suggestion that the individualization of weddings is what it’s all about now—that you should create it for yourself.
Then you’re an island, and that’s not what marriage is really about. Marriage is a conformist act, and you might as well take some comfort in the fact that you’re entering a community.
It’s the modern condition. We live in a culture that is absolutely invested in the new and the novel and the up-to-date. One of the things that’s lost in that is what to do in these big, transitional moments. It’s tricky. It seems to me that the authority that is most aggressively supplying the rules is the wedding industry. My purpose in the book was to point out the ways in which that industry is not necessarily serving the best interests of its target audience. And, in a way, I was using weddings as a way of looking at American culture, and for me, certainly, weddings were a very illuminating entry point into thinking about what our priorities are as a culture. The way we marry is the way we are.
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