In the United States, the word “wedding” tends to evoke certain associations. The mind automatically regurgitates images absorbed from films, commercials, and magazines: a glowing bride ensconced in layers of delicate white fabric gliding among tables festooned with elaborate decorations, decadent food, and thousands of dollars worth of fresh-cut flowers. In this fantasy, money is no object, happiness is guaranteed, and future contentment seems likely. But how did such an extravagant, illogical vision become normative? Why are weddings consuming people's lives and bank accounts to such an extreme degree? These are the questions Rebecca Mead explores in One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding.
As Mead describes her excursions to bridal shows, wedding planner conventions, Aruba (a popular locale for destination weddings), and a Chinese factory that mass produces bridal gowns, she both contextualizes and deconstructs the fantastical visions of beauty and perfection which generally dominate our sense of the American wedding. Even if you aren't planning a wedding, it's difficult to avoid the current glut of wedding-themed media. Wedding cake decorators feature prominently on TV shows that compete with Say Yes to the Dress and A Wedding Story. Each year it seems more and more books and magazines are dedicated to offering advice on how to fully enjoy an ice sculpture center piece or perfectly match the flower girl's shoes to the bride's sister's earrings.
Despite the dizzying array of wedding-related media, these examples of visual culture seem to revolve around a singular understanding of what constitutes the typical American wedding. However, Mead's research clearly illustrates how these visions of normalcy actually reflect calculated attempts to transform the fairy tale wedding and the blissful union it supposedly initiates into commodities.
Rather than interviewing brides and grooms who have been ensnared by the trapping of commercialized romance, Mead directs her attention to the representatives of the wedding industry itself, conversing with the men and women who earn their livelihoods by perpetuating the profitable notion that in order to be joyous and memorable, one's wedding must be a surreal spectacle of expensive excesses.
This emotional manipulation is partially enabled by the fact that, when it comes to weddings, the realm of possibility seems almost unlimited. Although this scenario creates greater opportunities for self-expression, Mead argues that this freedom also has some negative consequences. Whereas previous generations followed a basic script established by religious, cultural, and family traditions, today's wedding industry now defines what is and isn't ideal for one's wedding. Because of the “vacuum of authority” which has emerged from a general ambivalence towards tradition, the wedding industry has solidified its presence as a surrogate authority and used that authority to transform weddings into a very profitable empire.
As Mead speaks with wedding planners, gown designers, and other industry professionals, it becomes clear that the real commitment being celebrated at a wedding isn't necessarily between the couple exchanging vows. According to Mead, they are also “saying 'I do' to the wedding industry's own assumptions about nuptial authority, administered through bridal magazines, bridal stores, department store wedding registries, and all the other venues in which romance and commerce have become inextricably entwined.” To some extent, weddings often inadvertently celebrate the bond between merchant and customer as they initiate brides and grooms into their new identities as lifelong consumers.
One Perfect Day is a very readable account of one woman's exploration of the ideologies and agendas embedded in contemporary wedding culture. It also works well as an introduction to ethnographic journalism. While Barbara Ehrenreich by no means invented the sub-genre, her ground breaking book, Nickel and Dimed, bolstered both its visibility and popularity. It seems fairly common now for writers to familiarize themselves with a particular topic or phenomenon by becoming participant observers, often traveling to different sites to explore as many layers and manifestations as possible. Some other excellent examples of ethnographic journalism are Tracie McMillian's The American Way of Eating, Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz, and The Red Market by Scott Carney.
As a reader, I enjoy having access to a writer's personal observations of her/his chosen topic. Rather than focusing on abstract musings or passive descriptions, these writers seem willing to immerse themselves in various trends and ways of life, allowing experience to inform their perspectives. It also adds an adventurous flair to what could otherwise be bland, pedantic analysis. Best of all, these books have made readers more cognizant and critical of aspects of social life that would be easy to overlook or accept as natural and immutable. When entertainment and enlightenment overlap, everybody wins!