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.
"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.
Trembling with fear and humiliation, Jennifer manages a bright smile.
"Do you mind if I be excused to have a cigarette, please?"
Moments later, on the sidewalk, she croaks, "That was a rough one."
It's a rough one for us, too. Sure, the lucky brides on "My Fair Wedding" are happy to see their dreams realized "right," but there's a glint of shame there, too, as the shabbiness of their original vision is exposed. (The show's tension comes when Tutera's standards conflict with the brides' choices. In one episode, a bride's gown is rejected until she tearfully reveals that she chose it with her mother. She's then allowed to wear it to the ceremony. But not to the reception.)
It's hard to watch the brides hand over control of their day to the expert, and not just because the extravaganzas Tutera creates are so financially out of their reach, or because they eradicate the personal in favor of the professionally stylish. It's hard because he's forever driving home the notion that it's not really his brides' relative poverty that limits them, it's the poverty of their imaginations. As well intentioned and relatively gentle as "My Fair Weddings" is, it's also a fairly harsh reminder that celebrity worship is nothing more than old-fashioned class-consciousness, mass-produced and tabloidized, and that weddings provide just another opportunity for the professional purveyors of style to express themselves.
We're attached to the idea that with enough money and coaching, anyone can rise to the professionally styled rung of the meritocracy where the not-so-well-born rich hang out. We can't talk about class (or the nexus of money, education and privilege) directly, but we can still broach the subject as long as we couch it in purely aesthetic terms. Problem solved!
Obviously, "My Fair Wedding" doesn't reference "My Fair Lady" for nothing. Yet Tutera is about as far away from the Henry Higgins of rabble-rousing social satirist George Bernard Shaw's play "Pygmalion," and the Hollywood musical it inspired, as are his brides from Scarlett Johansson. Shaw's English Pygmalion was an equal-opportunity misanthrope who tried to pass off the cockney Eliza as "a duchess at an ambassador's garden party" (Professor Higgins's disdain for the lower classes being outdone only by his contempt for the upper classes). The friendly and affable Tutera buys into the culture of the lifestyle upgrade so completely that he can't help but degrade his brides in the process of spiffing up their special day.
Shows that elevate the nuptials of the non-famous to A-list levels of showmanship and expense, or that expose the bad behavior of spoiled, entitled, self-centered brides, or that simply submit the average bride to the same homogenizing ministrations now endured by stars before they're allowed to range free on the red carpet, all imply that it is always preferable to emulate the rich and famous than not to. Even if we can only afford to emulate them at their worst.