TV's Glut of Reality Wedding Shows Is a Lesson in American Class Consciousness

By Carina Chocano
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, December 14, 2008

What's with the sudden oversupply of bridal makeover shows on TV? I'm talking about the glut of real-life wedding stories, freighted sagas of wedding stress, aspirational blueprints for ambitious brides-to-be and flap-jawed gawks at brides-gone-mad. Shows like "Bulging Brides," "Buff Brides," "Rich Bride, Poor Bride," "Platinum Weddings," "Engaged and Underage," and, of course, the irresistible "Bridezillas" have proliferated at such a mad rate (there are now about 18 of them on the air), it would appear that beyond mere entertainment, these shows must be filling some pervasive psychosocial need.

Perhaps they're meant to satisfy a weird collective longing for the kind of social stratification that America was never supposed to be about, and that we Americans can only admit to or channel through our obsession with celebrity. On the one hand, we reject the idea of social differences (a little over half of Americans think of themselves as middle-class). On the other, we're obsessed with celebrities, whose privilege, sense of entitlement, supposed idleness and general separation from reality recalls nothing so much as aristocracy at its most baroque and decadent.

Weddings, Rebecca Mead writes in "One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding," exist in part to "give expression . . . to the values and preoccupations of the society in which they take place." If, in the early part of the last century, less-privileged women looked to the weddings of society brides for what to wear, what to serve, how to behave, etc., at their own nuptials, brides in the early part of this century (society brides included) have instead taken their pointers from celebrities' weddings.

"It has become almost a nuptial commonplace to think of a wedding as a star vehicle," writes Mead, "even when the reality of circumstances is far distant from the world of the rich and famous."

Take a scene from WE's "My Fair Wedding." The latest addition to the bridal canon, it's a wish-granting makeover show hosted by "celebrity wedding planner" David Tutera, who makes the customary cattiness of TV style-rehab look adorable. Tutera's mission is to transform the cheap, tacky social hall weddings of non-privileged brides into celebrity-standard wonder-weddings. He's granted a large budget and total control over the wedding. One of his brides, Jennifer -- the melancholy future wife of a young plumber from Long Island -- may come across as unsophisticated, but she seems sensitive and soulful. She tells Tutera that she has always dreamed of a fairy tale wedding.

"My fantasy wedding, I don't know where it comes from," she says, "but I just wanted everything to be princess . . . a Cinderella love story."

Tutera examines and discards her "princess bride and groom" cake-toppers, her bridesmaids dresses, her venue and her gown. He nods earnestly at Jennifer's ideas and then trashes her choices in private asides for the camera. Mid-makeover, he takes her for a lesson in etiquette to the restaurant Harry Cipriani in New York and schools her in table manners.

"Bread will always be to your left," he says.

"I'm learning a lot already." She looks terrified.

"You okay?"

"Yeah, because I don't know anything about table etiquette." Which she pronounces "etikwet."

The climax comes when a fish course is served and it's tuna tartare.

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