Welcome to Wedding Guest Wednesday, an occasional feature in which Solo-ish explores the joys and woes of attending other people’s weddings. Because it’s not all about the happy couple — it’s a big day for guests as well.
Phew! I just finished two back-to-back weekends of bridesmaiding, and I’m exhausted. It’s lots of fun celebrating your friends’ big days, but it’s also a lot of work: There are bachelorette parties to plan, dresses to buy, toasts to write, and lots of emotional support to give.
When chatting with Alyssa Rosenberg (who runs The Post’s Act Four blog about politics and culture) about her own recent wedding, we got to talking about the depictions of bridesmaids in pop culture. Here’s a lightly edited transcript of our e-mail exchange.
Lisa Bonos: Hey, Alyssa. Congrats on your wedding! I hope it was as amazing as the photos look on Facebook.
Alyssa Rosenberg: This is a total cliché, but it was in fact completely awesome. I feel like I’m still in a floaty post-wedding bubble.
Bonos: Ah, that sounds nice.
When friends or co-workers heard that I was going to be in bridal parties two weekends in a row, “27 Dresses” – that Katherine Heigl rom-com where her character is a perpetual bridesmaid — came up a lot. But I’m nowhere near that number; I’ve been a bridesmaid three times.
When I got back from my second wedding last weekend, I vegged out by watching a “Bridesmaids” and “Bachelorette.” Which made me think: TOO SOON! And also: Thank God that real-life bridesmaiding is nowhere near as chaotic as it looks in the movies (among my friends anyway).
When thinking about these movies, what stands out to you as far as how they portray the experience of being a bridesmaid or getting married yourself?
Rosenberg: Having been a bridesmaid, groomslady and now as relatively newly married lady, one of the things I appreciate about “Bachelorette” and “Bridesmaids” is that they acknowledge that weddings are big, complicated emotional events for everyone — not just the two people who are tying the knot. And while it might be obvious that getting married means that each member of the couple is moving away from the family where they grew up and preparing to start a new family with their spouse, the ways marriage either takes us away from our friends or sisters — or catches us up to the life stage they’ve reached before us — is something that’s discussed much less frequently, even though it’s very important.
One of the things I like best about “Bridesmaids” is the way it explores every dimension of that process. When Lillian (Maya Rudolph) gets engaged, the news forces her best friend and maid of honor Annie (Kristen Wiig) to confront a bunch of things in her life that haven’t turned out as she expected: her business has failed; a long-term relationship has ended; in general, Annie isn’t where she thought she’d be in life — and that disconnect makes it hard for her to get out of her own head and recognize the stresses that accompany Lillian’s joys.
It’s not just the fact that Lillian’s getting married that makes Annie feel profound self-doubt; it’s that Lillian’s acquired a new friend, Helen (Rose Byrne) who is married, and who seems to have a natural talent for planning magazine picture-perfect weddings. (The whole shower sequence is one of my favorite things in the movie, and a great critique of the wedding-industrial complex run amok.)
Bonos: It certainly is; what a hilarious scene! I feel enormously lucky that the weddings I’ve been in never felt like competitions among friends — with bridesmaids trying to one-up each other in their affection for the bride, like that dueling toast scene in “Bridesmaids” — but there’s definitely potential for that in real life.
Another thing that struck me in re-watching “Bridesmaids” after my recent bridesmaiding marathon was the way that the most important relationship in that rom-com is the Annie-Lillian friendship. Sure, there’s Annie’s own doomed and then successful romances, but they seem much less important than the platonic love triangle between Annie, Lillian and Helen. After all, a lot of these female friendships have been around longer than the relationships these weddings are celebrating.
Rosenberg: It would have been really easy for “Bridesmaids” director Paul Feig and writers Annie Mumolo and Wiig to fall into the trap of treating Annie like a failure for all the reasons she’s unhappy about her life — she went through a horrible breakup, she’s sleeping with a non-committal jerk, her cake shop was a flop — and to set up a simple and nasty dichotomy between women who are married and those who aren’t. Instead, though, it goes to more complicated places.
Helen’s perfectionism turns out to be a way that she overcompensates for the fact that she doesn’t have a good relationship with her stepsons and her husband travels constantly. Lillian ends up wishing she’d gone with some of the lower-key ideas Annie had for bridesmaid dresses, the bachelorette party and Lillian’s own gown. And Annie gets her life together without having to get married. Marriage turns out to be a stage of life with its own terrors and adventures rather than some sort of cure-all, or proof that a woman’s made it in life.
Bonos: As a single woman, I appreciated that message! Now what about “Bachelorette”? The female friendships are quite different in that movie.
Rosenberg: In a similar way, “Bachelorette” looks at the ways in which a friend’s engagement can shake up friendships that have become stale or even quietly poisonous. Regan (Kirsten Dunst) has to deal with her resentments toward her friend Becky (Rebel Wilson) when Becky gets engaged. And while Becky’s achieved conventional successes in ways her friends haven’t — she’s got a good job, she’s getting married — the way she was bullied about her weight still stays with her. It’s awful to watch her friends deal with their own insecurities by calling her old names and accusing her of bulimia during her own wedding weekend.
While the two of them have fallen into a pattern of behavior that may have worked in the past — going to polite lunches and avoiding difficult subjects — Becky’s wedding is a context in which that light friendship doesn’t really work anymore. Regan’s cruelty gets revealed for what it is. For the friendship to continue, they have to figure out a different way to relate to each other.
Bonos: And what about “27 Dresses”? Because of the sheer volume of weddings, we don’t see as much of the depth of Katherine Heigl’s friendships with the women she’s bridesmaiding for.
Rosenberg: “27 Dresses” isn’t nearly as introspective as “Bridesmaids” or “Bachelorette,” but to a certain extent, it does get at the same idea: Being a bridesmaid is a state where all of the anxieties that plague female friendship (or sisterhood) get exacerbated, whether it’s feeling out of sync with your closest friends; worrying about losing a friend to her spouse; dealing with in-laws and the new friendships people form when they get married; or feeling the weight of a friend’s sudden need for an unusual amount of support.
It’s a role that can push both bride and bridesmaid to live up to impossible expectations, while simultaneously discouraging the honest conversations about what brides are asking and what bridesmaids can reasonably be expected to do. It can be an opportunity for a bride and bridesmaid to renegotiate their relationship, or it can force them into a confrontation that’s been a long time coming.
Relationships between women don’t have to be fraught, and bridesmaiding doesn’t have to be stressful. But it can be. As both a bridesmaid and a bride, I appreciated having a set of movies that recognized this complexity. These movies also treat the relationships between brides and their closest relatives and friends as if they are just as important — and just as worthy of hard work — as the relationships between women and their husbands.