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Barbara Risman

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The Wedding Industrial Complex

Posted: 06/29/2012 11:20 am

Where do our dreams for the perfect wedding come from? I found some answers to that tricky question recently, listening to a really smart undergraduate, Gillian Gualtera, defend her Sociology Honor's thesis at Kenyon College. She presented some fascinating, and disturbing, answers after hundreds of hours of research.

What did she learn after watching 203 episodes of reality wedding shows, analyzing every Disney movie with a princess theme, reading promotional materials from Disney wedding venues, and interviewing 30 newlywed brides?

She learned that women don't simply imagine their dream weddings idiosyncratically, at least not many of them. Instead, we've been fed that cookie cutter "dream" event from the moment we first watched a Disney movie where a princess is saved by a big powerful prince. Gualtiera calls this the "wedding industry" complex. Disney starts young, shaping little girls' dreams of being princesses who then dream of being brides. TV shows and magazines pound home the same princess message. I was amazed to learn that there are Disney venues one can go to and pretend to be a princess while being a bride, literally starting married life in a fantasy world.

The wedding industry starts with little girls but it doesn't let up, with bridal magazines and TV shows that encourage conspicuous consumption. Dreams become so elaborate they sometimes require debt, and often mean foregoing the down payment on a home.

But who cares that a "wedding industry" put those dreams a little girl's head? Once a woman has a dream, shouldn't she go for it on her wedding day?

A wedding is a big party, it's a statement to the world that two individuals are now a couple, and their families are now family. It used to mean forever, and it still means that a couple hopes to be together forever. It's a joyous cause for celebration. After a decade of single motherhood, my celebration went for the whole weekend. I'm all for weddings.

And yet, I worry about the not-very-hidden meaning in the princess complex sold by the "wedding industry." If the grown-up woman is a princess, what message is she giving her groom about the form and content of their marriage? That she needs to be saved, to be pampered, to be the star of the show? If that's the kind of marriage a woman wants, the wedding industry's princess fantasy is a perfect ceremony. But if a woman wants a marriage with a partner who respects her as an equal, the "wedding industry" dream walks her down the wrong aisle. And those Disney movies we show little girls just may start them on their road to a dream wedding that leaves them in debt, and a princess rather than a partner.

I think brides and grooms ought to disappoint the "wedding industry" more often and thoughtfully make a celebratory ritual that expresses their own uniqueness, rather than become mere props in someone else's play.

 
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