Planning a wedding, as anyone who has had one knows, is among life’s more stressful experiences — and the burden falls disproportionately on the bride. As a wedding advice columnist, I get a peek into those stresses; concerns and doubts fill my inbox, as women fret over whether they are coping in the proper way. “Am I being a crazy bridezilla?” asks one, writing because she’s frustrated that a guest is bringing uninvited friends; “I swear I’m a laid-back bride,” says another, who suspects that her friends would prefer she just elope and save them the hassle. One correspondent whose mother insists on a welcome party, over her own wishes, asks: “Am I being as horrible as she says?” (She signed “Crazy Lazy Bride.”) Even when fear of being labeled a bridezilla isn’t so explicit, it’s tucked into the details. “Will my guests be mad that we’re having a destination wedding?” (Maybe, but they’re not obligated to come.) “Will people be upset if we don’t serve meat?” (They’ll eat what you serve.) There is, in these queries, an overriding concern: not wanting to put anyone out, not wanting to upset guests by requesting too much of them.
It’s common now for a writer to assure me that she’s a “laid-back bride.” From what I can gather, a “laid-back bride” doesn’t ask much of guests, but that’s because she doesn’t have any opinions and doesn’t really care that much about her wedding. The whole endeavor is effortless to her! She’s the matrimonial version of Gillian Flynn’s Cool Girl, who understands that caring about things that other women care about is silly and stupid, and who definitely has not been dreaming of her wedding since childhood. And while this pressure to shrug off girlish interests has always been around, it was never so pointedly directed at weddings until the word “bridezilla” popped onto the scene. Now brides face an impossible, sexist double standard: You can want a memorable day, but don’t you dare show how much you care.
“Bridezilla” was first used in 1995 by Boston Globe writer Diane White, in an article about tacky brides and the horrors they inflict. The term caught on in 2004, thanks to reality shows featuring brides as ridiculous caricatures, stomping around and making demands, accompanied by cartoonish sound effects. In one episode of “Bridezillas,” a woman is described as “melting down” over a missing wedding dress (which, come to think about it, is a perfectly reasonable thing to melt down over); another “struggles with rage” over absentee bridesmaids. Plenty of movies rely on the trope, too, including “Bride Wars,” in which Anne Hathaway and Kate Hudson throw away a lifelong friendship because their weddings are accidentally booked on the same day at the Plaza Hotel.
Women’s magazines have the topic covered (Brides magazine: “How to Rein In Your Inner Bridezilla and Chill the F Out” Glamour: “After a Close Friend Goes Bridezilla, Can You Save the Friendship? Would You Want To?”). Real-life stories regularly go viral, from one bride requesting that guests pay a $1,500 entrance fee (and then canceling not just the wedding but the marriage when they refused), to another who demoted a bridesmaid and asked that she pass on her matching jumpsuit to her replacement. An unhinged, entitled bride makes for irresistible storytelling, which is why “Bridezillas” is still airing, 11 seasons later, with more than 900,000 viewers per season.
But what makes a bride into a monster worthy of a one-hour television spot? The word has been applied so broadly, it no longer just means being selfish, demanding, obsessive or difficult. Now a woman who has opinions or expectations (often mistaken for demands), gets upset or angry or otherwise emotional, and inconveniences anyone — her guests, the bridal party, the guy who’s fitting her veil — in any way might earn the title. Martha Stewart Weddings magazine, for instance, identifies “signs that you might be a borderline bridezilla,” including calling your wedding planner too much and having expensive items on your gift registry. (“A registry should never make your guests feel uncomfortable.”)
It’s no wonder brides don’t know where the line is between a reasonable expectation and one that calls to mind a giant reptile trampling villages. It’s comically easy to label someone a bridezilla instead of acknowledging that wedding planning is tough. And it’s an impossible charge to defend against: Any opinion, any request that can be cast as a demand fits the stereotype.
In that way, the bridezilla accusation isn’t so different from the day-to-day sexism that follows women everywhere. Opinions and demands are the earmarks of a shrill, bossy bitch. Emotional women have been accused of “hysteria” for ages. And women are expected to martyr themselves for everyone else as mothers, wives and daughters. Bridezilla is all the same stuff we’ve heard before, only in a special-edition wedding package.
As the bridezilla cartoon took hold, I began to notice a sharp difference from the messages I received when I first started writing my wedding advice column six years ago. Letters back then focused on authenticity and originality. Couples wanted to craft unique weddings that reflected their personalities and values. “How can we be sure that we’re only inviting guests who are truly there to support us in our own personal definition of marriage?” “How do I choose a venue that conveys our values?” That’s a far cry from “Will my bridesmaids be upset if I make them wear matching dresses?” We’ve moved away from “What will reflect us best?” to “What will inconvenience everyone least?”
Of course, it’s nearly impossible to avoid having opinions, expectations or emotions when planning an event as complex as a wedding. As the default wedding planner, a bride is responsible for communicating requests to vendors, the bridal party and family members. How do you do that without seeming “demanding”? This is an inherently emotional day. It’s a major milestone, a celebration of affection and commitment to your partner, the honoring of family and friends who’ve lovingly supported you. And those are just the nice emotions. Factor in the stress of a budget, of logistical considerations, of family pressure. Or consider some of the other emails I’ve received, asking questions like, “Should we accept a wedding gift from our convicted child molester uncle?” or “How do we plan a wedding around my mom’s cancer diagnosis?” This work is intense!
A “bridezilla,” often enough, is handling things in a completely normal way. It’s not like the chill, “laid-back bride” has less to shoulder by pretending she doesn’t care or by becoming an emotionless robot. She has all the more pressure in facing those same problems without letting it show: She’s still feeding 150 people, confirming there’s a ramp for Grandma’s wheelchair and making sure all the guests are happy, whether she admits it’s an elaborate production or not. The wedding doesn’t just have to look nice or be meaningful, as it did six years ago. It has to avoid inconveniencing a soul.
Effortlessness takes a lot of work. But we already know this; it’s been an expectation of women since long before “bridezilla.” Have you ever watched a “no-makeup” makeup tutorial? You tediously and carefully apply cosmetics in such a way that it seems you’re not wearing any at all. It can be a time-consuming process, much more complicated than just putting on some lipstick and being honest with the world that you are, in fact, wearing lipstick. Like an “effortless wardrobe” or “aging gracefully,” the trouble of hiding your work requires more energy than the work itself.
The same goes for the laid-back bride. Weddings don’t appear out of thin air. Don’t make the poor woman also hide her sweat and tears, on top of doing everything else.
Liz Moorhead is an advice columnist for A Practical Wedding and owner of Betsy Ann Paper custom stationery. She lives outside of Philadelphia.