Every time I binge-watch the reality show Say Yes to the Dress! (usually a couple of hours on Saturday afternoon) I wonder why I like it. This is a series which narrates how brides purchase their bridal gown at Kleinfeld’s, a Manhattan store specializing in this kind of fashion (see https://www.tlc.com/tv-shows/say-yes-to-the-dress/). Each episode lasts a little over 20 minutes and is usually based on a topic that links together a few brides. This might be the disagreements with their entourage, or the determination to buy a particular gown, or the body shape of the bride, or the budget limitations… etc. I tell myself that, precisely, what I enjoy is the art of the show writers in making the most of what appears to be, in principle, a very limited story: ‘bride buys gown’.
This justification, however, only satisfies partially the feminist in me. When I had the chance to buy a wedding gown I simply decided not to do so, which means that I’m not watching the show because I wish I were one of the brides. It’s not a personal matter, clearly. I must also clarify that I don’t particularly like weddings: they are, if you think about it, a theatrical sub-genre that should be studied as such but they’re not, on the whole, a spectacle that I appreciate very much. I more or less understand why couples want to display themselves before family and friends in this way but, perhaps because so often a divorce follows a wedding, I find both ceremony and banquet a perplexing performance. Sorry.
Let me, then, acknowledge the foundation of my guilty pleasure in watching Say Yes to the Dress!: it’s the highly emotional moment when the bride finds the perfect gown and can’t help crying. Obvious, isn’t it? This is the moment around which each episode segment is built, and the reason why the brides that leave Kleinfeld’s with no gown are so disappointed (and disappointing). Still, acknowledging that I’m hooked on that kind of emotion does not explain why. I can go here in two completely different directions. One, the academic anthropological argument suggesting that these tears bring back to me an idea of the sacredness of marriage which has been lost with the devaluation of romantic love. The other, the personal melodramatic argument: since all is so bleak in our world, I’m grateful for small mercies and moments of truly felt happiness.
Of course, like any reality show Say Yes to the Dress! is a fake narrative. I fail to understand the many criticisms that the series constantly receives about the falsity of the events narrated. By this I do not mean that the brides and their feelings are fictional; what I mean is that a) they go through a process of casting (publicly acknowledged, no secrets here), and b) their stories are edited to suit the show’s needs. I marvel at how good the montage of faces showing reactions to the brides’ good and bad choices is in very show. The crew films for hours to produce a clear-cut narrative which unfolds in just a few minutes. And this is inevitably the story of how there is always one perfect choice, once the bad ones are discarded.
This dynamic reproduces the romantic plot behind the purchase of the gown: the brides cry because their finding of the perfect dress mirrors their finding of the perfect partner. This is another reason why I’m addicted to the show: the description of the future husbands. Each bride needs to explain briefly how she met her groom and why she loves him, and this provides very rich data to understand what women want: a man who is caring, one’s best friend and gifted with a good sense of humour. The photos of the couples tell a parallel story, showing a variety of romantic pairings, from the classic high school sweethearts to the May/December couples with an obvious financial incentive. Yet, for once, I like being reassured that the world (well, the USA) is full of good men that these brides do want to marry. I wonder, naturally, whether the marriages last for long. Kleinfeld’s welcomes in some episodes second-chance, divorced brides but, on average, the women in the show are new to marriage. And greatly excited by the prospect.
The production company, TLC, has sold the format to British, Irish and Australia. Funnily, I watched five minutes of the UK version and it didn’t work for me; to be honest, a quite tasteless bride with a fixation for a tacky gown completely put me off. This doesn’t mean that the US brides I watch every Saturday have a marvellous taste… and that might be another source of attraction. I do wonder what the Spanish version would be like and I tell myself that the land of Pronovias and Rosa Clarà is much better equipped to offer brides tasty, classy outfits but, then, I might be deluding myself. Whatever the case might be, whereas I am awed by the gowns that some brides choose (my favourite still is a red gown, chosen by a bride who had never met in the flesh her internet lover), I am constantly amused by what some ridiculous brides choose. And totally baffled by the insistence that some show on wearing ultra-sexy gowns to present themselves publicly as trophy wives.
The show, then, has a manifest peeping-tom charm. I find American society quite strange and Say Yes to the Dress! often confirms that it is an alien world, in terms of taste, class configuration, romantic expectations and even bodily shape. I don’t want to check the internet for criticisms of the show’s castings (in fact, I don’t want to check the internet at all to keep the illusion flowing), but I appreciate the variety of brides on display in terms of race and looks, meaning not just thin/fat but also petite/ultra tall, etc. The whole point, as the store staff insists, is that a bride should feel beautiful, which is not the same as being beautiful. Of course, she needs the right budget, though I can say that spending 15000$ as some brides do, does not mean that you get the best gown for you (it’s often the opposite). Still, you need at least 2500$ which, while not an exaggerated amount, is quite a lot for most working-class brides.
Does watching Say Yes to the Dress! affect my feminist credentials? Am I embarrassing myself by acknowledging this guilty pleasure? I don’t think so. I could use here even the feminist argument that the show is a very complete laboratory for Gender Studies. An episode featuring a lesbian couple, for instance, implicitly invited audiences to accept gay marriage (also to ponder why one bride was wearing a gown and the other a tuxedo). The view is partial, for the gay men are missing from the picture, unless you count the show’s only male presence, Kleinfeld’s fashion consultant and gown designer Randy Fenoli, as a major gay presence. All the brides apparently support the heteronormative foundation of marriage and of wedding pageantry and this means that by watching the show and adding to the audience, I am also backing patriarchy, which would certainly affect negatively my feminist credentials. I cannot claim that I get pleasure from watching women make free choices because, for all I know, most of the brides might be totally deluded and/or anti-feminist to boot. Yet, there is something appealing in a woman’s taking centre-stage. Perhaps for the wrong reasons, I know…
In the past (I’m thinking of my mother’s generation and of 1960s marriages), women were allowed to shine on their wedding day in a hypocritical way, as the ceremony usually marked their patriarchal subjection to a husband. Today, we need to assume, things are different and the women who choose to marry and spend thousands of euros on a bridal gown are making a different kind of statement, hopefully turning on its head the traditional meaning of weddings. Happily for all, going through a wedding is now a choice, not an obligation. I would not call a wedding a feminist event but, then, some of my feminist friends have married in that way and even purchased bridal gowns, never mind that they were not necessarily white.
Feminist or no feminist, man or woman, heterosexual or LGTBI+, we all love a promise of happiness. This can be symbolized in many ways and by many objects and in Say Yes to the Dress! the bridal gown is that kind of symbol. Clearly, it also means other things, such as the bride’s pleasure in looking as good as possible, and, yes, of course, the princess dream, which seems to be common to many women in all classes. Although feminism rejects that fantasy as patriarchal, the decision to display yourself looking your best and being as happy as possible because you have found love seems to me perfectly compatible with a feminist mentality.
Still, guilty pleasures are there to celebrate our own contradictions…
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