Selling the White Wedding Fantasy

You have dreamed of this day your entire life, and in your dreams it has looked like this:

You in a creamy white organza gown, your hair done in ringlets bunched around a shimmering tiara. He in a crisp, black tuxedo, his rugged jaw quivering slightly as he watches you walk down the aisle. Together you stand beneath a crystal blue sky on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the ocean breeze gently blowing your hair. This is where you make your promises. There is a tasteful yet gleefully romantic kiss. And then the deal is sealed.

Afterwards, you and your beloved and 200 of your nearest and dearest retire to a large tent where fine china and centerpieces of fully bloomed, peach-colored roses adorn each table. Ribbons upon ribbons of tulle and organza drape the walls. You dine on a sumptuous feast, sip champagne from engraved glasses, and then come together, fingers interlocked and eyes brimming with joy, for your first dance - the dance you dreamed of since 10th grade - as husband and wife.

If you are a woman about to be married, this is what you want. Or, this is what all the magazines, television programs and movies about weddings tell you that you want. And, based on the increasing success of America's wedding culture, women appear to be buying into this fantasy with every bridal magazine we skim, every episode of A Wedding Story we watch, and every ticket to see Jennifer Lopez play a wedding planner who falls in love we purchase.

In the last decade, wedding-related products and entertainment have become increasingly popular. Bridal magazines, like Modern Bride and Martha Stewart Weddings, fly off the grocery store shelves. Internet sites like the knot have turned into mini-media empires, selling books and other print publications in addition to their Web services. The news media covers Madonna and Guy Ritchie's wedding as though it were a G7 Summit.

On television, it seems impossible to escape the "I do" syndrome. Proposals and weddings have long been used as a device for ratings-boosting season finales, from Joanie and Chachi's marriage on Happy Days to Monica and Chandler's engagement on Friends. These days, in addition to sweeps gimmicks, networks are broadcasting a seemingly endless parade of reality and infotainment-style shows about getting hitched: TLC's A Wedding Story; Lifetime's Weddings of a Lifetime; the In Style Celebrity Weddings special; VH1's All Access: Rock & Roll Weddings. The list is longer than a full-length bridal train.

And, of course, there are the movies: My Best Friend's Wedding, Runaway Bride and The Wedding Planner -- which despite universally awful reviews, was number one at the box office for two consecutive weeks and grossed $47 million-plus in four weeks. So how can we explain this seemingly insatiable appetite for all things bridal? Just as there are many ways to pop the question, there are many theories that may shed some light upon the wedding culture boon. Take a walk down the aisle and let's explore them.

Theory Number One: It's All About the Benjamins

Thanks to a booming economy that peaked in the late '90s, savvy investors and dot.com dabblers found they had a lot of cash to spare. And when you've got money to burn, there's no easier way to turn it to ash than by planning a wedding. According to recent statistics, roughly $50 billion is spent annually in the U.S. on weddings, which averages out to $20,000 per wedding. One can assume that the stable economic times allowed well-off Baby Boomers to feel more comfortable exceeding wedding budgets for their children. In many cases, the couple themselves -- lready well established and successful in their careers -- found they could contribute to the proceedings as well, if not pay for it outright.

In recent years, stories about lavish weddings have spread in the media, making it seem somewhat normal to treat a nuptial event as a big-ticket item rather than an intimate gathering. Destination weddings -- over-the-top parties in exotic locales like Italy and the Caribbean -- became a major trend. And celebrity weddings, with all their fanfare and ludicrously expensive pomp and circumstance, were hot topics. (When you hear that Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston spent $1 million on their wedding, it somehow seems reasonable to spend a mere $200,000 on your own, doesn't it?)

Given the fear about a possible recession, will wedding culture go out of style? Probably not, because regardless of Puff Daddy's assertion, it's not solely about the Benjamins. It's also about...

Theory Number Two: Supply and Demand

It's so basic that it's almost embarrassing, but here it is: Wedding-related products continue to proliferate because they make money.

Weddings are special events but they're also big, big business. Magazine magnates, television producers and movie studio executives wouldn't continue to use bridal themes as a blueprint if they didn't snare consumers. Ten years ago, the magazine Martha Stewart Weddings did not exist. Now it's one of the most popular, if not the most popular, bridal magazines around. And that's because people are willing to pay $7 to thumb through all those glossy pages and gaze at the pretty pictures. (Sorry, guys; the industry has yet to convince men that they need 500-page guides to figure out what to wear and where to honeymoon.)

If you've ever been a bride, then you know that one bridal magazine isn't enough. After becoming engaged, buying a truckload of those advertising-rich periodicals is practically a rite of passage, a way of proclaiming to everyone in your check-out line and to society-at-large that you have entered the nuptial sorority. If your engagement will be a long one, then you'll buy even more bridal magazines. And even if you don't, it's OK -- there's a steady stream of brides-to-be and an assembly line of rose-colored-glasses wearing wedding planners who will buy these publications from now until the end of time.

The same can be said of cinema. The past decade has been chock full of mostly mediocre yet highly profitable marriage movies: Father of the Bride, Four Weddings and a Funeral, the Julia Roberts two-fer My Best Friend's Wedding and Runaway Bride, The Wedding Singer, and the most recent Lopez vehicle, The Wedding Planner.

Consider The Wedding Planner for a moment. One could argue that it was successful largely because of Lopez's drawing power. But do you think the film would have done as well if she and Matthew McConaughey fell in love against the backdrop of a homeowner's association battle? Probably not. The wedding theme has worked in the past and when new ideas are scarce, any movie studio or other revenue-hungry business will go back to what's tried, true, borrowed and blue.

Theory #3: We Are All Joan Rivers

I don't mean that we've all had plastic surgery and enjoy using the phrase "Can we talk?" Deep down inside there's a little bit of Joan (and Melissa) in many of us because we enjoy analyzing fashion. And fashion increasingly has become a part of our collective culture.

At least one reason so many people watch major award shows like the Golden Globes and the Oscars is to see what the stars are wearing. When someone sports a dress that's particularly outrageous, it becomes fodder not only for gossip columns, but for mainstream news media as well. Look no further than Ms. Lopez again for proof.

As much as we enjoy the Academy Awards, few of us ever actually get to go, much less explain to an Entertainment Tonight reporter that tonight we're wearing a dress Carolina Herrera specially designed for us. The closest most of us get to high fashion is our wedding. For once, the red carpet is yours and you get to dress as close to the Hollywood dolls as you choose. You can hop from bridal boutique to bridal boutique trying on $4,000 gowns and pooh-poohing them because they're "just not what you're looking for."

It's a game of dress-up made reality, inspired by the media's fascination with celebrities. The recent In Style: Celebrity Weddings program broadcast on NBC put the spotlight on several celebrity weddings and, during one segment, on singer Toni Braxton and her search for a bridal gown. Viewers won't find out what she chose until next year -- and since the first In Style wedding show merited a second, you can rest assured there will be a third. As fluffy, shallow and silly as such segments might be, they pique viewer interest, particularly among women. Before you're married, you dream about how you'll look. After you're married, you dream about how your friends will look (or how you could have looked). And if you have a daughter, you dream about how she will look.

So you eat up these TV specials like pints of Ben & Jerry's chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream. After all, you're Joan Rivers. And you want your little Melissa to look like a princess. Anything less and you're likely to feel marginalized by a society that continues to press the white wedding fantasy on women.

Theory #4: The Circle of Life

In case you haven't guessed, I am engaged to be married. My wedding is in May and for the past 15 months (long engagement, many bridal magazines), I've been knee deep in planning, but without a Lopez-esque wedding planner to help me out -- good thing since she has a tendency to fall for other people's fiancés. As level-headed and practical as I think I am, I have found myself engaging in heated arguments and internal debates about subjects to which I never thought I'd be reduced. I've analyzed the pluses and minuses of dyeable bridesmaid shoes, the virtues of a detachable veil and the benefits of buttercream frosting. On several occasions, after hearing myself talk, I have paused and asked, "What are you even saying? What have you BECOME?"

It's so easy to get wrapped up in the money, the style, the etiquette and all the assorted wedding accoutrements that we forget what weddings are really about: commitment, family, love and tradition. When you reduce everything down to its essence, that's why weddings have always fascinated people, from the time the Song of Solomon was written to today. Today's wedding culture is just a modern, money-driven response to an old obsession.

It's hard not to be smitten by weddings; they reaffirm that despite all the negativity observed in society, love and hope endures. For many, they are formal rituals that solidify a commitment to family and God. For me, as for others, the wedding is a final goodbye to childhood. I'm 28, so technically I've been an adult for 10 years. But becoming someone's wife, making a lifetime commitment to another person, will be the most adult thing I've ever done, even more adult than paying my own rent for the first time.

There are certain moments that define the cycle of life: baptisms, bar mitzvahs, graduations. But weddings, with their drama, their tears and their toasts, may be the most joyous, the most emotional and the most beloved. Like few other events, they remind us of what we once were and what we hope to be. And the wedding industry and the media know a good thing when they see it. After all, when you break down the four most consistent expectations in life, what have you got? Birth, marriage, death and taxes. And no movie studio will ever greenlight a film called Four Tax Audits and a Funeral.

Jen Chaney is a Washington, D.C.-based columnist and feature writer.

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