Communication studies professor Erika Engstrom and her husband spent $300 to get married, so it’s hard for her to fathom why anyone would spend $30,000, the average cost of a wedding, on what boils down to a fancy party.
“That’s a significant portion of a college education. That’s a car, or a down payment on a house,” she says. “You could buy half a house for that today.”
Her disbelief at the extravagant price some are willing to pay for weddings led her to dissect the role the media play in supporting the bridal industry in her book, The Bride Factory: Mass Media Portrayals of Women and Weddings.
In it, she examines a wide range of wedding components – from announcements to gown selection to cakes – depicted in various media, including reality shows and bridal magazines.
She finds that the media, for the most part, support traditional gender roles cloaked in a feminist “you can have it all” message. According to Engstrom, they set unfair and unrealistic expectations for women.
Engstrom describes herself as a reality TV fan, and her interest in the bridal media began in 1998 with one, “A Wedding Story,” on the Learning Channel.
She noted a common phenomenon: While the women were doing all of the planning, the men were unengaged in the process, usually participating in some completely unrelated outside activity, like playing touch football. On the big day, while the women were primping, tending to their hair and nails, and putting on makeup, the men seemed unconcerned about their looks and were still, oddly enough, playing touch football. Such obvious reinforcement of stereotypes struck her as worth further exploration.
About the same time, she was engaged and looked casually at some bridal magazines.
She said to herself, “This is not for me. I can’t afford to buy a dress like this.”
Instead of spending money on a wedding, she built a research agenda around the trappings of the bridal industry and the role of the media in perpetuating it. She wrote papers first on a few reality shows, then moved on to bridal magazines and websites, media coverage of royal and celebrity weddings, and newspaper wedding announcements.
Then one day over lunch, she and her mentor, Martha Watson, sketched out the book’s outline on a placemat.
Between teaching, serving as associate dean, and completing her other work, Engstrom began the lengthy process of writing the book.
Her analysis of wedding media found the same patterns, whether it was a royal wedding, a low-budget affair, a gay wedding, or a televised one. They all portray the roles: the bride putting in enormous amounts of time on preparation – both on the event and on herself – and the groom is in the shadows, buying a diamond, maybe helping a little, but ultimately playing football right before the ceremony.
She says gay weddings may differ from straight weddings in terms of division of labor, but they still include many of the same elements – fancy clothing, the cake, the reception.
“It still goes back to, ‘We want a wedding,’ which assumes certain values,” she says. “It’s perpetuating the wedding as a show.”
Her research indicates that the big wedding is a relatively new phenomenon. In the early 20th century and before in the United States, a wedding was generally a low-key affair at home, with a few days of planning and the bride wearing the nicest dress in her closet.
This stands in contrast to the current media message, which is that a woman can be a feminist and still want the big wedding, a message that Engstrom says creates undue pressure and diverts attention from where it should be.
“People put a lot of emphasis on the objects instead of the relationships,” she says. “If the bridal magazines actually had a checklist for what is real love or compatibility, people might say, ‘No, I don’t think we’re compatible’ … which would put them out of business.”
She hopes that when people read her book, they don’t come away thinking, “She hates weddings, she hates love, she hates men, she hates … the world,” she says, adding that she’s not anti-marriage, or even anti-wedding.
“I’m married. I believe in marriage,” she says. “It’s just that you don’t have to have the big wedding if you don’t want to.”
She hopes people think carefully about what they observe in the wedding media.
“Basically, I suggest they question what they’re seeing,” she says.
If anything should be celebrated, Engstrom says, it should be anniversaries: proof that the relationship was right from the start. But don’t expect an invitation to Engstrom’s anniversary party.
“It’s not that I’m not fun. I just don’t have the time,” she laughs. She is busy continuing her research, turning her attention to other subjects. She has written two other books with co-authors, one on the CW network show “The Supernatural” and its depiction of religion, and the other on the portrayal of women on the AMC show “Mad Men.” Both are due out next year.