By Sheila Gibbons
Wednesday, June 4, 2003
It's June. Wedding bells ring. Dewey-eyed brides float down the aisles in strapless gowns. Hovering over it all, meanwhile, is a pushy bridal media, focused on the union of mating to materialism, not wife to husband.
(WOMENSENEWS)--It's June, a peak month for weddings. As the announcements and photos of smiling couples begin to crowd into the newspaper, it's useful to visit the spot where, for better or worse, many of these events begin to take shape: the magazine rack.
I stopped to peruse the titles targeting wives-to-be--Bride's, Modern Bride, Bridal Guide, Martha Stewart Weddings. When the cashier scanned the hefty 604-page Bride's, itregistered on my receipt as Self magazine. And that's about right. The bridal magazine category is all about the self--the bridal self approaching the biggest day of her life, one that has to be perfect. Message: Look fabulous and throw the perfect party! Pamper yourself on the honeymoon! What say, marriage? The groom? You can focus on that later.
It's debatable whether this will actually be the biggest day of a woman's life, but if she follows the endless checklists and urgent tips the magazines and wedding Web sites contain, it will certainly be the biggest merchandising day of her life.
These magazines are little more than wish books in fashion and home furnishings supplemented by Web sites linked to advertisers. Several also have cross-promotional alliances with Internet wedding sites built around purchasing opportunities. Behind the layouts of young, dewy-eyed women in strapless wedding gowns is a tough-as-nails business in which "for richer or poorer" really means choosing between the $5,000 designer gown or the off-the-rack model for $500.
Television is in on the act in a big way, too, encouraging mating and materialism with such tawdry "reality" coupling shows as "The Bachelor," "Who Wants to Marry A Millionaire," and Monica Lewinsky's role as a romance advisor on "Mr. Personality." More mainstream TV treatments include NBC's "Today," which stages weddings for couples who agree to allow viewers to vote on apparel and honeymoon destinations and The Learning Channel's "A Wedding Story," which profiles selected couples who volunteer to have the wedding preparation and the ceremony taped for the program.
The bridal media are complicit in all this, revving up the expectations, and consequently, the complexity and cost of the event. The annual business of the bridal industry is estimated at between $50 billion to $70 billion, with a-weddingday.com putting the cost of an average wedding at $20,000. The market is huge: Nearly 2.4 million marriages are performed annually, and by age 30, three-quarters of U.S. women have been married, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
But there's just a little problem with this till-death-us-do-part data: the high divorce rate. Eager to make lemonade out of lemons, the bridal media look for repeat business with special publications, such as Bride Again, geared toward women who are planning "encore weddings." (Pay attention, J. Lo!). This is a large potential market, with 54 percent of divorced women remarrying within five years, although that percentage has been declining since the 1950s.
In evidence of even further wedding media segmentation, gay couples also can surf the Internet for ceremony formats, celebration ideas and merchandise, beginning with gaymart.com or gayweddingplanners.com.
The bridal media communicate a one-sided message to the brides who consult their magazines, TV programs and Web sites, a message that really isn't in sync with the marriage partnership that is supposed to follow.
In an analysis of "A Wedding Story" on the Learning Channel, Erika Engstrom, associate professor of communication at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, observes: "The show itself repeatedly conveys that for women, the wedding day serves as the high point of their lives. The day revolves around (the bride) and her feminine appearance . . . In contrast, although it may be an important day for the groom, his wedding day is not his most important day. "Indeed, the recurring message depicted in the majority of episodes of 'A Wedding Story' analyzed here reaffirms that the expectation for him is that he simply show up."
Engstrom also found that most of the weddings depicted on "A Wedding Story" are white weddings--white dress, white veil, white people. Of the 100 couples in her sample, 68 percent were both Caucasian and 13 percent were both African American, and the rest were of other races or ethnicities or racial combinations. Diversity is scant in the magazines as well, as is variation in body type. Brides featured in articles and ads are mostly white and willowy.
Before prospective brides squander precious time scrolling through the 20,000 images of wedding gowns, rings and table settings advertised on The Knot Web site, or plunk down a week's salary on a veil they saw in Bride's, they should explore what they, as women, want from their marriage and the person they'll share it with.
The day they take their vows should bespeak personal significance and joy, not be an exercise in conspicuous consumption. Would-be brides would be well advised to plan not just for a day, but for a life. And they won't find the 10 tips for that in the bridal media so eager to woo them.
Sheila Gibbons is editor of Media Report to Women, a quarterly news journal of news, research and commentary about women and media. She is also co-author of "Taking Their Place: A Documentary History of Women and Journalism," Strata Publishing, Inc.
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