Weddings are kind of my sport. Not as a competitor; just an enthusiastic spectator.
I love the spectacle, the drama and the romance. I follow the hashtags of virtual strangers like league tables (“the scores on the table settings are innnn!”), and lap up episodes of Say Yes To The Dress and Don’t Tell The Bride with all the dedication of a lifelong fan.
But above all, I live for the bridezilla stories. Don’t we all? Barely a week passes without Reddit, Mumsnet or agony aunt columns throwing up some new tale of outrageous financial demands, bridesmaid exploitation or brawling in the aisles. And I can’t help but reach for the metaphorical popcorn. Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to say: ‘wait, she did WHAT?’
There was the bride who cancelled her wedding after guests refused to pay $1,500 (approx £1,147) each to attend. The bride who held an auction for friends to compete for the roles of bridesmaids. The bride who sent an email asking a guest for more money because a £100 cheque just wasn’t enough. The word ‘bridezilla’ has been in the Oxford English Dictionary since 2011, but the legend of the monster in the white dress and veil has been doing the rounds for decades.
We might assume the stories that make the headlines are anomalies – after all, none of our lovely, rational friends would ever dream of behaving in that way – but once I started asking around for firsthand bridezilla stories, they came flowing in like a champagne luge. I heard about a bride who made her friend pay £200 for a hotel room located five minutes from her flat. A bride who screamed at a five-year-old flower girl for “not sprinkling petals properly”. A bride who asked all her guests to wear metallic neutrals, “so they looked more harmonious in photos”, and a groom (grooms are rare in these stories) who insisted that everyone followed a dress code of “rustic chic”. With example pictures.
The worst/best stories feature not just tantrums and outlandish demands, but breathtaking insensitivity. “My best pal asked me to cover up my wrist tattoo with makeup when I was a bridesmaid for her,” says Natasha*, 30, an account manager. “The tattoo was a tribute to my late mother, who had died only six months before.”
Unsurprisingly, money is a common catalyst – as are the photos. “My friend ended our friendship of 11 years when I couldn’t financially justify buying a grey velvet tracksuit with ‘bridesmaid’ embroidered on the back to wear while getting ready for her wedding,” says Felicity, 28, a mental health worker. She had already forked out for flights and accommodation in Italy, for the wedding she didn’t end up attending.
“The bride did contact me after the wedding to apologise… but adding the caveat that ‘my other friends knew how important the photos were for me’,” she says.
But the irony is that while bridezillas heap unreasonable expectations on their nearest and dearest, it seems likely their behaviour comes, deep down, from a place of even worse pressure and insecurity.
“Weddings are still a significant life event or rite of passage for many women and as such, they can become fixated on creating the ‘perfect’ event in anticipation that it will be ‘the best day’ of their lives. This can cause a lot of stress,” explains Hilda Burke, an integrative psychotherapist and couples counsellor. Burke tells me the increasing financial demands of a wedding almost certainly contribute to the emotional pressure cooker, although you hardly need to be an expert to realise that spending an average of £27,000 on 10 hours of your life could prompt a few irrational moments.
Sure, most decent people can promise with confidence that they would never ask their friends to do a juice cleanse (yep, this is a real story I heard), hold a florist up against the wall by their throat (oh yes) or rip off a bridesmaid’s wound dressing to prove she was faking surgery in order to get out of the hen party (I wish I was making this up). But while callous demands and targeted aggression are never justifiable, can anyone who hasn’t already planned a wedding say hand on heart that they would never have even a small moment of meltdown? Hell, I’ve had meltdowns just trying to find the right outfit to wear as a guest to a wedding. Even as I gasp at the stories, a little voice in my head thinks ‘there but for a mismatched napkin go I’.
Suzanne, 35, a HR manager, admits that her own bridezilla mist descended while planning her nuptials a few years ago. “For days, I could talk about nothing but finding little flags with mine and my fiancée’s initials on them to go in the drinks. I would cry if someone even suggested that they weren’t important to the overall day. It was an absolute haze of madness. I couldn’t see any way my wedding could be a good and happy occasion without a f*cking drinks flag in every glass.”
Of course, the ‘haze of madness’ so many brides describe feeds right into another trope, and a much more toxic one – that of the ‘crazy’ woman.
Even writing about this kind of behaviour without lapsing into ableist slurs is hard (I have a tab open right now on thesaurus.com), so used are we to dismissing bridezillas as ‘nuts’, ‘psycho’, ‘batshit’, etc. Ever since Miss Havisham, the mentally unstable bride has been a popular figure of scorn and pity – but it wasn’t really until Rachel Bloom gave her the satirical treatment in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend that I paused to wonder just why we’re so keen to publicly haul women over the coals for being ‘bonkers’, rather than questioning the society that sets them up to behave that way.
“I do think it’s super harsh that society expects women to spend £10k+ on one event, which they are told must be THE HAPPIEST DAY OF THEIR LIVES, but then jeers at them for getting stressed about it,” says Polly, 25, who had to convince a friend not to add a ban on “black, white, red, yellow, orange or patterned” outfits to her invitations.
Weddings are just one of the many contradictions of womanhood, writ large. On the one hand, we’re supposed to be a flawless floating angel surrounded by floral-scented perfection, but on the other, we’re not allowed to show any visible signs of effort to achieve it. We’re expected to fork out life-changing sums of money, then shamed if we seem materialistic.
And it’s little wonder that brides, not grooms, are most often the ones slammed for their behaviour, when the bulk of wedmin in most male-female marriages still invariably falls onto women (I’ve seen an article on ‘15 Ways He Can Help With Wedding Planning’ that included ‘getting a haircut’). It’s obvious that if we’re the ones making the bulk of the decisions and bearing the brunt of the judgement, we’re the ones who are more likely to have the meltdowns. And be judged all over again.
But what about us jeering bystanders? What is it about these stories that has us rubbing our hands with glee and sending the links around all our WhatsApp groups?
“I think it’s a part of our human nature to be attracted to the ‘people behaving badly’ narrative,” says psychotherapist Burke, “whether it’s Naomi Campbell hurling a phone at a PA, Christian Bale ranting at a technician, or bridezillas making everyone’s lives miserable. These stories can help to reassure us on some level. We can read them and feel: ‘well I’m not THAT bad’.”
We get a thrill observing the extremes of other people’s humanity, however unsettling, because they make us feel better about our own. It’s partly the same reason we hang onto Donald Trump’s every tweet – the element of emotional freak show. And deep down, perhaps there is a teeny tiny part of all of us that would love to behave like a screaming brat for a day, just to see what happened. As women we can be so constrained by the opinions of others; people-pleasing, contorting ourselves into uncomfortable shapes to try and fit with what society expects of us. When you’re working so hard to keep your s**t together, watching someone else lose theirs can feel illicitly freeing.
But there’s something less sinister at play too; more like a moral barometer. Those stories are a way of navigating everything that the marriage industry has become in the 21st century. For better, or for worse. By drawing that line in the (attractively seashell-strewn) sand, we’re kicking back against the whole idea of a ‘perfect’ wedding and reminding ourselves to step back and examine our own priorities too.
When a Reddit post from a disgruntled bride went viral last week, complaining that her ‘oversensitive’ bridesmaid had dropped out of her wedding because it was going to be held on a former slave plantation, the internet wasted no time in telling the bride that she was the terrible one. In holding up the cautionary tales of bridal tyranny, we keep our collective behaviour in check. It’s the same lure as Mumsnet’s sacred ‘Am I Being Unreasonable?’ Forum. We’re looking around, saying ‘OK, we all agree this is ludicrous? Good.’
But while we all long for a time in the future where nobody feels they have to have a Kardashian princess dreamscape or a hundred matching drinks flags in order to celebrate true love, it must be possible to gawp at the extreme stories without necessarily shaming all the women involved. You’d hope.
So: do I, internet gossip fiend and shameless wedding fan, promise to keep my ‘crazy brides’ stereotyping in check, and hold society – not just women themselves – accountable for the wedding pressures they succumb to?
*All names have been changed
This feature was originally published in September 2018