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In a television obsessed society, contemporary Americans have the freedom to watch over 1500 different television channels that include hundreds of various reality television shows - 20% of which are wedding themed. Such titles include A Wedding Story, Bridezillas, Bulging Brides, Platinum Weddings, My Big Fat Fabulous Wedding, Rich Bride Poor Bride, Get Married, My Big Redneck Wedding, Whose Wedding Is It Anyway, The Bachelor/The Bachelorette, and Married Away. Wedding reality shows such as these provide a close and personal look at what a bride should anticipate in preparation for her wedding day. The majority of the shows exhibit elaborate wedding dress styles, ornate banquet halls, posh decoration themes, and the entire expensive process of preparation for the proposed day. 

The purpose of this research is to conduct an audience study of viewers who regularly watch wedding reality shows. Why do women watch them? What is the encoded message being produced? In what ways have viewers decoded them? Who is the intended audience? Why in recent years has the wedding reality show theme prevailed?

Through questionnaires and one-on-one conversations with peers, colleagues, and relatives, I have analyzed what I believe is really at work in these wedding reality shows.  According to my analysis, within these popular wedding reality shows are two messages. The first is the overt message - the process of becoming a bride - what is inclusive and expected of a bride’s appearance from head to toe and how much money is spent on the wedding. The second message is not as obvious as the first but fundamentally just as significant and that is what is expected of American women - for them to flourish in the domestic realm.

Women are expected to be wives, mothers, nurturers, beautiful, thin, sexy, chaste, and of course supportive of men. In American culture, women are taught to behave in a particular manner. According to Susan Bordo author of Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body, the female body is a socially shaped and historically “colonized” territory, not a site of individual self-determination. Wedding reality shows do not present women as independent individuals, but as girls dependent on men to create/purchase their happiness. Both of these messages are neatly bundled into the content of the unscripted reality show; the sensational novelty of reality television has stimulated the entire television watching nation’s attention within the past decade.

At the turn of the twenty-first century, the United States saw the growth of intelligent, independent, and empowered women like Hillary Rodham Clinton, Janet Reno, and Toni Morrison. All of the hard work of the first-wave, second-wave, and third-wave feminists was at last taking shape. Hollywood was also beginning to portray women in film in a more assertive and heroic manner; the days of old-fashioned westerns, in which John Wayne rescued the helpless damsel in distress from the savage Indian were slowly deteriorating. Films like Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Erin Brockovich, and Frida were small samples of what roles television and film executives were greenlighting - to cast women as strong, independent heroines that were not in need of a cowboy for rescuing.

Throughout the fall of 2001, the media ventured to situate the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon as a reprise of Pearl Harbor, or as the author of The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America Susan Faludi stated, a new “day of infamy” would, at long last, be forged into the twenty-first century’s stoic army of the latest Greatest Generation. However, the new generation of Americans did not react like the generation before; there are no records of dramatic increases in military enlistment, nor were there any change in civic responsibility nationally. There were, however, numerous Americans volunteering to help by donating blood and offering money to the victims of the World Trade Center families. But when they were told that blood was not needed, that there was an overflow of blood donations, and that there was nothing anyone could do but observe, the country went on with its daily business as usual. 

The Bush Administration simply instructed Americans to go along with their daily lives, in other words continue to spend money. Americans were slowly realizing that control was not in the hands of the “people” any longer, but in the hands of the wealthy elite and the complex systems of government. Due to chaotic events such as the 2000 presidential campaign in which the candidate who received the most votes did not serve as president of the country and the helpless feeling that was generated because no one was able to help or control the aftermath of the fall of the twin towers, most Americans found a sense of comfort and security in their protected homes watching television and using their remote controls to at least control what they viewed.

Simultaneously with the technical advances of TiVo and ReplayTV, consumer video devices that capture television programming to hard disk storage for later viewing, television was indeed changing. People were watching more television and could now control when they wanted to watch whatever program; these advances came at the same time “reality” was becoming a highly rated network category. This aspect of technology seemingly places power or control in the hands of the viewer, but in actuality the power remains in the hands of the corporations who are now able to monitor what viewers watch and gain personal information about them through these sophisticated digital devices. In other words, TiVo and ReplayTV offer people the ability to watch television shows they want, when they want which provided some Americans a false sense of control. 

Reality television is a type of television programming that features unscripted dramatic or humorous scenarios, and features ordinary people instead of professional actors. Reality television or “real TV” frequently portrays a modified and highly influenced form of reality, with participants put in exotic locations or abnormal situations while events on screen are sometimes manipulated through editing.  According to Mark Andrejevic, author of Reality TV: The Work of Being Watched, reality TV is essentially propaganda for a new business model that only pretends to give consumers more control while in fact subjecting them to increasingly sophisticated forms of monitoring and manipulation. Through the use of reality television, marketers are able to gain specific insight into the routine aspects of ordinary peoples’ daily lives, similar to the material that shows like The Real World capture on television.  Marketers, advertisers, and corporate executives aren’t interested in what happens on the screen, but rather what they are able to promote and influence while they have the attention of the viewers. 

The reality television phenomenon took burgeoning flight after the enormously popular success of Survivor on CBS in the summer of 2000.  Many reality shows swiftly began production; titles such as American Idol, Big Brother, and The Bachelor took center-stage on the millions of television screens across American homes.  According to a 2001 survey conducted by American Demographics, 45% of all Americans watch reality television programs. Of those, 37% prefer to watch real people on television than scripted characters. But why has contemporary American society, specifically women, become so obsessed with watching ordinary people’s daily lives?  According to David S. Escoffery editor of How Real Is Reality TV? Essays on Representation and Truth, viewers of reality television are attracted to what they see as its non-scripted, unpredictable freshness. Although the episodes may not be scripted, the shows are constructed within a deliberately designed framework, reflecting societal values. Overall, the political, economic, and personal issues of reality television are in several ways an amplified adaptation of everyday life that most people can identify with. 

WEtv’s viewing schedule is dominated by popular wedding reality shows like Platinum Weddings, Bulging Brides, My Big Fat Fabulous Wedding, and Rich Bride Poor Bride. The women’s network not only offers wedding reality shows but also scripted shows like Wedding Central, Culture Clash Weddings, Beach Weddings, Wedding Gown Secrets Revealed, Unforgettable Celebrity Wedding Gowns, and Dharma & Greg (a sitcom about a newly-wed couple); WEtv regularly shows films such as Peggy Sue Got Married, The Wedding Planner, and The Wedding Date. After reviewing the television schedule for the network, I began to wonder why WEtv wasn’t an acronym for “Wedding” Entertainment instead of Women’s Entertainment. With the abundance of wedding themed shows on the network, it is hard not to notice the obvious correlation between women and weddings - and that women are literally being pushed through reality television to get married. I am convinced that wedding reality shows are specifically aimed at entertaining young, female audiences by showcasing the materialistic and self-centered side of marriage in an attempt to promote marriage and domesticity. Weddings are billion dollar industries - by broadcasting visual images on television in which women are spotlighted, celebrated, assertive, and beautiful, women will be convinced that this is something to aspire for.

But why, what investment do media producers, executives, marketers, and advertisers have in women becoming wives? Other than creating loyal consumers in their respective markets? I am arguing that there is an unconscious need both in the minds of producers, executives, etc. and in the minds of the audience to re-establish traditional gender roles. After reading The Terror Dream, it became clear to me that gender roles were being reasserted in American society; thus, the women’s movement was to be set back fifty years, and men were once again in charge of the outside domain. In the aftermath of 9/11, the United States needed to reassert traditional masculinity or “manliness” against the savage terrorist forces.

WEtv asserts itself to be the content destination where strong, confident women viewers connect through quality original programming. I find it absurd for WEtv to suggest that through their shows they are promoting a “strong, confident women.” I would suggest that instead they are creating a passive, weak girl. The majority of the network’s programs center around weddings, not marriage, but solely on a one-day celebration. The wedding shows discuss the role women play in the wedding coordination, her responsibility in preparation, what the bride must look like, and what is acceptable behavior.

Furthermore, the network also offers an interactive website that is centered on weddings. The WEtv website provides information about the network’s schedule, health and fitness advice, free low-fat recipes, a fashion section, bridal information, interactive bridal games, and several blog communities that again talk mainly about wedding preparation. Some of the hosts of advertisers include, eHarmony, Sandals Resorts, DeBeers, and Alfred Sung’s wedding dresses. It’s interesting to see when viewing a reality show that the advertisements are very emblematic of what is being produced or better yet what they, the producers, want the audience to consume. Bordo’s analysis is very fitting when she writes that the construction of self is then located within consumer culture and its contradictory requirement that we embody both the spiritual discipline of the work ethic and the capacity for continual, mindless consumption of goods. Therefore, the only agency women have is their ability to consume goods; they are not capable of a career or individuality but simply the power of the purse, to purchase more commodities. Not only do I get a sense of this while viewing the show, but many of these ideas were addressed within the responses to my questionnaire.

The majority of the women who participated in my study demographically were between the ages of twenty and thirty-five, the majority were college-educated, 50% were married, while the other half was split between women who were either engaged or single. The group identified themselves as 70% white, 20% Latino/Hispanic, 5% Jewish, and 5% Asian; half of my respondents were equally distributed to associates in Texas and New England. I originally sent thirty questionnaires out to exclusively female friends and received forty completed questionnaires back. The women and two men that commented on my questionnaire were anxious to answer the questions and offered insightful comments; I even had a few women that I emailed the questionnaire to forward it to other friends. I received their enthusiastic feedback, hence receiving forty questionnaires back.

I found that the majority of the female viewers of wedding reality shows watch them because they enjoy watching the “entertaining drama” that unfolds prior to the wedding. The majority of the viewers shared a common expectation of weddings which is very similar to what they see on wedding reality shows. Every one of my participants from Texas wrote that they identified with the shows because they saw a little bit of themselves in several of the episodes. One twenty-three year old graduate from Southern Methodist University in Dallas wrote, “I am by no means spoiled but I was brought up to believe and expect to be treated as a princess and nothing less. These girls on the show aren’t bad they are just trying to make their dream wedding come true.  Besides, weddings are a time for us to have fun and really shine.”  A thirty-two year old, high school graduate participant, also from Dallas, wrote that she watched the shows because “it helped me see that I wasn’t the only one going CRAZY trying to plan a wedding. I wanted my day to be perfect.”  A twenty-seven year old, college graduate from Houston wrote that she likes to watch Bridezillas and Platinum Weddings equally because “I like to watch the magic behind the scenes. Women love fairy-tale endings and these shows really allow us to see a girl’s special day, everyday.” Many of the answers received from the women from Texas seemed almost uniform in that they all generally share similar expectations of an ideal wedding, believe that it’s “their day,” and that they are “princesses.”

On the other hand, I found a little diversity in the answers from the women from New England. One twenty-six year old, college graduate from Worcester commented that she watches the shows to get "a general idea of what the wedding process looks like. It also gives me suggestions and ideas for my future wedding.” According to a twenty-nine year old, male Bostonian, he watches "for a laugh and to see how crazy and neurotic women get when it comes to their wedding.”  The New Englanders weren’t so open with their comments, but were all equally prescribing to the same testimony as the women from Texas and that is they watch the wedding reality shows to get ideas of what to expect or what to do for their weddings.

After carefully analyzing the questionnaire, the WEtv website blogs, and watching the shows, I am convinced that wedding reality shows, in general, entice female viewers with the glitz and glamour of wedding celebrations while providing a false representation of marriage. They teach audiences to identify themselves as “princesses” and beautiful “girls” that deserve a perfect “fairy-tale ending” to their wedding day.

Growing up in Texas, I found gender roles and expectations for women were more pronounced and defined, terms like “the little lady” and “sweethearts” were very much symbolic of women’s role in Southern society. In contrast, New Englanders tend to define gender roles in a less assuming fashion, therefore gender neutrality abounds and husbands and wives are simply partners. Overall, women in both regions decode the same message - that American women are expected to marry men and have children - yet arrive there through different paths. However, I wonder if women realize that in the end there’s marriage and domesticity. Do they realize that marriage is nothing like the planning of a wedding, and it is not going to be centered on women looking beautiful? 

Though some of the shows do offer a little comic relief to the production of a wedding; in essence, they also present marriage as a fun and glamorous “rite of passage” for all women. The majority of my questionnaire participants are college graduates or graduate students therefore representing a small sample of women who regularly watch the show. I think that they believe that the shows are typically aired because of the financially successful trend of reality shows overall; however, they are not really zoning into the larger message: why so many wedding shows?

Are the corporate executives really trying that hard to hammer these domestic images onto women? Are women that threatening to deal with in realms outside of the home? According to Faludi, without that show of feminine frailty, the culture could not sustain the other figment vital to the myth, of a nesting America shielded by the virile and vigilant guardians of its frontier. As my research shows, I believe that wedding reality shows are produced and heavily aired by corporate America with the intention of creating docile female consumers whose only goal in life is to be a bride. As a part of the culture of fear, American women have been frightened and taught to become wives through the glamorous spectacle of wedding preparations. Reality wedding shows create this false sense of hope that women are being empowered through television networks like WEtv, but in reality, nothing is as it appears.

Marriage is after all a government-sanctioned institution, so in reality who is really in control?

June 2011

From guest contributor Rosa Giorgio

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