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Maggie Flynn

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Our Bridesmaids, Ourselves

Posted: 06/13/11 10:00 AM ET

"Have you chosen your bridesmaids?"

When I got engaged earlier this year, I heard this question over and over, along with queries about dates, locations and wedding colors. While I was happy to commit to a Michigan wedding in the summer of 2012, I demurred from commenting on bridesmaids. I had many (in fact, too many) great female friends whom I could ask, so my reticence wasn't due to lack of choices. Rather, it was the term bridesmaid that gave me pause. I kept contrasting it with groomsmen, which carries an air of nobility and importance; conversely, my female attendants sound as if they will be doomed to following me around the wedding ceremony with a feather duster.

Perhaps I was also worried about the effect that making my friends into bridesmaids would have on our relationships. After all, just about every portrayal of bridesmaids in popular culture shows them working in direct opposition to the bride. Sometimes this is the fault of a bride who inflicts all sorts of psychological torture on her entourage. But more often the bridesmaid's antagonism stems from her jealousy over watching her friend soar off to married life. (While married women can be matrons of honor or bride's attendants, the servile bridesmaid is reserved for single women.) If popular depictions of bridesmaids could be trusted, then my dearest friends would soon try to outshine me or turn my wedding into a disaster zone.

Cinematic bridesmaids are for the most part hopelessly inept. Kristen Wiig's recent hit comedy Bridesmaids centers around a woman come undone by her best friend's engagement. Her maid-of-honor character tries to do the right thing, but her emotional immaturity leads her into thwarting the bachelorette party and decimating a lavish bridal shower display, among other antics. The Judd Apatow-produced film is being touted as a female answer to The Hangover, Knocked Up and the other raunchy bro-mances that have defined the comedy landscape for the past several years. Certainly, Bridesmaids takes its main character on the same trajectory as those other films: We see her transform from a good-hearted, hopeless loser who makes poor life decisions into someone who has learned enough about herself to make slightly better decisions. But the fact that her maid-of-honor status largely triggers her comic downfall -- and unleashes the insecurities and personality quirks of her fellow bridesmaids as well -- suggests that no one escapes from this job with her dignity intact.

In some cases, the bridesmaid's humiliation stems from the fact that she secretly loves her friend's fiancé. This theme played out in the universally-panned Something Borrowed, as well as the 2008 Katherine Heigl vehicle 27 Dresses. In the case of the latter, Heigl's character takes nearly the whole film to stand up to her sister, a bridezilla who stole the man of her dreams. The movie takes the "always a bridesmaid" cliché to an absurd extreme, suggesting that the greater a woman's doormat tendencies, the more times she will face congregations in bland pastels, not white.

If a bridesmaid doesn't bury her jealousy by becoming meek and dutiful, then she will be outright conniving. For the ultimate bad bridesmaid, see Julia Roberts in 1997's My Best Friend's Wedding. She sabotages bride-to-be Cameron Diaz at every turn, cajoling her into singing tone-deaf karaoke and kissing poor Cameron's fiancé. All future brides who watch this movie learn a valuable lesson: Never choose as your bridesmaid someone who looks like Julia Roberts.

In the wake of Prince William and Kate Middleton's royal wedding, pundits breathlessly suggested that Kate didn't get that particular memo. Now that the so-called "Waity Katie" has escaped the always-a-bridesmaid fate and married her prince, the press have turned their attention to her sister and maid of honor, Pippa. Endless commentators have accused Pippa of stealing Kate's wedding day thunder, and they may be on to something: Not only did she wear a sexier dress than the bride, she also ended up with a Facebook fan page called the Pippa Middleton Ass Appreciation Society. Incidentally, Pippa's backside currently claims nearly 230,000 fans.

Few of these outlets celebrate Pippa as a sexy independent woman. Instead, they speculate over her wedding-day flirtation with Prince Harry or insist that she is practically engaged to her own long-term boyfriend. The narrative is clear: No bridesmaid's story is complete until she becomes the bride. That's why 27 Dresses ends with Heigl's long-suffering character in her own white dress, flanked by an army of bride's matrons. This is also why My Best Friend's Wedding ends with Robert's character in limbo. While she has redeemed herself by saving the wedding she nearly ruined, clearly she hasn't earned the right to be the bride just yet.

If a woman stays single much past the age of 30, then she is fair game for scrutiny. We assume she has selfishly put her career ahead of her personal relationships, or she is too incompetent to find a partner. Perhaps this is the real reason why bridesmaids have such a bad reputation. We are told that a wedding is the happy ending that every woman wants, so we don't believe that we can count on one who hasn't found the satisfaction of wedded bliss. Clearly, she will spend the reception slamming tequila shots and making out with the D.J., leading him to play "Y.M.C.A." on repeat.

At least, this is what I gathered from TheKnot.com, where I've read articles called "Dealing With Problem Bridesmaids," "Bridesmaids Gone Wild" and "How Do I Unchoose My Bridesmaid." From reader comments, it's clear that some brides do have less-than-stellar friends. For example, a group of bridesmaids who kept sneaking off to the movies when it was time to tackle wedding chores. It seems that some women are better than others at showing enthusiasm over donning taffeta dresses, planning bridal showers and making origami centerpieces.

I enjoyed a fairly spotless record as a four-time bridesmaid, though I did lose my bridesmaids gloves the day before a wedding. I arrived late for the rehearsal dinner because (unbeknownst to the bride), I'd spent the entire day tracking down another pair. Though the bride rolled her eyes when I slipped into the booth, she didn't look surprised. She had picked me to be her bridesmaid knowing full well I had tendencies toward flightiness and distraction. But she was willing to overlook this because we had been loyal friends since 7th grade. Before she had reached the exalted status of bride, we had seen each other through bad haircuts, braces and an infamous high school summer night involving vodka and grape Kool-aid.

When she got married, we were 22, and I had yet to find a boyfriend who would stick around for more than a few months. In the days leading up to her wedding, I felt the stinging realization that she had found the one, while I would have settled for a cute dance partner. But I hadn't lost my gloves in an act of sabotage, just absentmindedness. The fact that she was a bride and I was a dateless bridesmaid didn't put us on two sides of an impossible-to-cross gulf. It united us. While the point of the day was to celebrate her commitment to her new husband, my fellow bridesmaids and I were also celebrating our status as honored friends. Despite my personal shortcomings, I knew I had done something right if she wanted me to stand beside her as she began her new life.

My fiancé and I ultimately decided that we will have a small wedding party, comprised of family members. The two women that I have asked to stand with me when I say my vows are beloved cousins and lifelong friends. One is married, the other lives with her long-term boyfriend. They each have families, careers, hobbies -- whole lives outside of my wedding. But for the next year, I can count on them to humor me and treat with grave seriousness my debates about guest favors and napkin colors. After my time as a bride has long passed, they will still be there to share in my triumphs and problems. Because of this, I will not call them bridesmaids. Instead, I will call them my best women.