In the early years of this decade a new word, and a new stereotype, entered the public discourse: the Bridezilla. The creature characterized by this disparaging term was immediately recognizable. She was a young woman who, upon becoming engaged, had been transformed from a person of reason and moderation into a self-absorbed monster, obsessed with her plans to stage the perfect wedding, an event of spectacular production values and flawless execution, with herself as the star of the show. In her quest to pull off this goal she was blithely willing to wreck friendships, offend parents, harass caterers well past the point of patience, and burn through money more rapidly than a fire consumes forest in a dry August.
The alleged phenomenon of the Bridezilla spawned numerous newspaper articles that recounted her exploits with gleeful censure. The New York Times told of one bride who had demanded that her attendants all color their hair the same shade of blond; another who had procured a swatch of the purple wallpaper from the hotel suite in which she would be spending her wedding night so that her florist could find blooms that were an exact match; and another who insisted, before a barefoot beach wedding, that her husband's groomsmen all endure a pedicure. Inevitably, there was a reality television show: In its first season “Bridezillas” followed the wedding preparations of nine overwrought and hysterical brides, one of whom was so concerned that her dress remain unwrinkled and her makeup unsmudged that she refused to let her new husband near her all night.
The notion of the Bridezilla gained common currency, and it was easy to understand why. Just about everyone knows someone, or knows of someone, whose wedding plans have taken on the proportions of a military operation, whose wedding costs have ballooned beyond economic prudence, and whose attention to wedding day production values would put a Broadway set designer to shame. The term was applicable to brides whose resources permitted the casting aside of a three thousand dollar wedding dress a week before the ceremony in favor of an alternative model, as well as to those budget brides who spent every evening scouring eBay for cut-price wedding favors or who prided themselves on hand-threading ribbon into a hundred and fifty wedding-information booklets for their guests.
But it seemed to me, as I witnessed the urgency with which the Bridezilla term was embraced, that there was more to the phenomenon than the identification of a particularly unpleasant breed of bride. When a stereotype is so swiftly absorbed into the popular culture it is a sure sign that something larger is at stake; and what appeared to be expressed in the vilification of the Bridezilla was a much wider ambivalence among the general public over the direction weddings in America were taking. Blaming the bride, while making for colorful feature stories and cruelly riveting television programming, wasn't an adequate explanation for what seemed to be underlying the concept of the Bridezilla: that weddings themselves were out of control, and that a sense of proportion had been lost, not just individually but in the culture at large.
This isn't to suggest that people all over the country were wringing their hands at the weddings they attended—though those who were could probably be found everywhere. The majority, though, were throwing up those hands in puzzled bemusement or, at the most, dumbfounded exasperation, while at the same time throwing themselves wholeheartedly into the increasingly elaborate celebrations to which they had been invited. (“When did the softball game become part of a wedding?” one older acquaintance asked me, having recently married off two daughters in weekend-long festivities and found himself swinging a bat on both occasions.) No one wants to find fault with anything so cheering, and so emotionally significant, as a wedding. But at the same time, weddings often prompt a sense of disquiet—all this, just for one day?—among the guests, and, when they will admit it, the couple at the altar. So the pillorying of the Bridezilla figure (who has come to seem to me hardly less fictional than her Japanese monster ancestor, Godzilla) provides a way to separate off, into safe quarantine, the disconcerting sense that the way we conduct weddings has somehow gone wrong; that priorities have changed, and purpose has gone awry. The Bridezilla caricature is a stand-in representing a much larger anxiety: that we are all living in a Bridezilla culture.
How did this happen? What are the forces that are contributing to this increase in wedding pressure, not just among so-called Bridezillas, but among all American brides and grooms? And what is the significance—beyond the impact on the purses and personalities of marrying couples, their friends, and their families—of the escalation of the American wedding? What, in other words, does the American wedding tell us about the rest of American life? It was questions such as these that propelled the writing of this book, as well as a hunch that some answers might be found not by looking at the grotesque behavior of a handful of individuals, from whose excesses an amusing but ultimately trivial tale might be wrought, but by looking at the larger context—at the wedding culture in which those individuals were immersed.
If the state of the American wedding strikes the bride, groom, family member, and guest as troubled (as appeared to me to be the case while researching and writing this book, given the way in which almost everyone to whom I mentioned its subject immediately rolled his or her eyes in recognition, and then insisted on telling me about a niece's, or sister's, or best friend's wedding plans gone wild), then who, I wondered, was happy about the way in which Americans were getting married? In whose interest is it that weddings should be this way? Who, or what, begat Bridezilla?