I’ve only been married a year, so I’m hardly in a position to start making pronouncements on the subject. I have, on the other hand, watched quite a lot of the Don’t Tell The Bride, so I have plenty to say about that. The show has discovered a successful formula which has sustained it for series after series, in which a couple (almost always a man and a woman, though there have been a couple of exceptions) live apart for three weeks before their wedding, whilst the groom is given a sum of money by the production company to plan the wedding without any input from the bride. Hilarity, stress and “concept weddings” abound.
I’m less interested here in the ways by which the show’s editing shapes scenes, or produces characters from the people onscreen (though there’s plenty to say about that elsewhere.) Instead, I want to look at some of the assumptions which lie beneath the stories which play out on the show. Because whether we’re watching a football-themed wedding in Stoke or a Bollywood-themed wedding in Brighton, there are certain ideas which keep recurring.
The most basic is that men don’t need to listen to women. The show often makes a big issue of the fact that the bride has been planning her wedding “since she was twelve”, and has a scrapbook or a wedding journal, and has everything about her ideal day planned in advance, but the man she’s getting married to has no idea about what she wants. On one level this is a humorous conceit which enables the whole action; the audience marvel scornfully at the guy who has apparently never listened to his future wife talking about one of her favourite subjects, and instead decided she would like a diamante-encrusted minidress, accessorized with a wand instead of a veil.
But I think it goes rather deeper than that. It’s not simply that the audience gets to feel superior to the hapless bloke on the screen. As the shows continue, the failure to listen to the bride looks more like part of an entire gender ideology. I say that because so many of the grooms seem very aware that they’ve ignored their partners’ wishes, in favour of staging their zoo-based extravaganza, or their Harry Potter ceremony. They frequently tell the camera versions of “If she was here, she’d probably choose…”, or “She and her friends would be freaking out right now…”, with various degrees of glee or bravado.
OK, they’re being an arse about it, knowing she would be shocked or taken aback by what they’re planning, but the way they’re being an arse about it is quite revealing. So many of the grooms seem absolutely convinced that giving the bride something she definitely hasn’t asked for is the right way to plan the day. It isn’t just that they want a motorbike show or a tattoo convention and don’t care about her wishes (though there’s a few of them in the mix too), but that they seem to think their bride will be shocked, or even scared, and then realize the groom was right all along.
The arc of the show seems to encourage this idea, as it cuts between the groom’s quest through fancy-dress shops or Magaluf clubs, and the bride’s tour of locations and dresses she’d like (but knows she can’t have.) There’s another running joke implied here, with another ideological level: the men are always miles away from what the women are choosing, and the women’s choices are so very frequently the same as most of the brides on the show. A white dress, a village church, a stately home for the reception. Whether they call it “classy”, “timeless”, “elegant”, classic” or “vintage”, and whichever details they opt for, there’s a general sense that we know what they’ll pick.
This is another joke about the groom’s haplessness, and no doubt a lot of the audience find themselves shouting at the TV “You don’t even have to know what she wants, have you never seen this show ever? They all want the same thing!” And in that assumption the genre of the show connects with a certain ideology of gender: that women’s interests are basically a bit frivolous, predictable and dull. They all want a white dress and a sit-down dinner, like all the others.
Men are the individualistic thinkers, who want originality and creativity. Women just go with the herd. Whether we agree with this as audience or not, it’s a precondition for the show: after all, if every groom did give every bride a stately home and a village church, the show wouldn’t be worth watching. The genre itself makes assumptions about gender far beyond the foolishness or bad taste or any individual man or woman. It’s not just that he doesn’t need to listen to her; he must actively try not to listen to her, for the show to work.
The way the story arc ends is also loaded with assumptions about gender. I mentioned above that the grooms so often seem convinced that they know better than their brides, and the show very often tacitly endorses this. The “caper” quality of the genre, which has parallels with movies in which a hapless group of misfits take on an apparently impossible mission and somehow muddle through, results in a generally jolly ending. The bride doesn’t storm out, the lovers are reunited, everyone has a good time at the reception, the show goes on and they somehow pull it off.
In order to reconcile this ending with the entertaining chaos and uselessness of the last thirty minutes, there’s a phrase which keeps appearing. “He knows her better than she knows herself!” It turns out that he was right, that having a Las Vegas-themed wedding, or a blessing in a cave, or his best friend performing magic tricks during the ceremony, was exactly what she wanted, but she didn’t know it. A lot of this is surely face-saving, by brides who assure the camera crew that “he knows me better than I know myself”, because the other option is declaring that your own wedding has been a bit shit actually, but now let’s get on with the marriage.
Still, this phrase connects with a lot of the ideas circulating in our society about gender. Specifically the notion that women are less rational, reliable and intellectally capable than men. Lucy Allen has written extensively on this; that women are regarded as unreliable witnesses, even when the subject is their own mind. A recent example, as noted on Twitter, might be the uproar over Rue and Hermione on the question of race, with both J.K. Rowling and Suzanne Collins being told they didn’t know crucial facts about the characters they had themselves created.
That adult women don’t have a secure handle on their own thoughts and desires seems a ridiculous idea. But it’s encoded into a host of the way our culture portrays women, and it seems to be a central part of the way Don’t Tell The Bride works out its story arcs. She thinks she’d like that, but that’s boring and just like other women, and therefore a bit rubbish. A man will give her something else instead, which may shock or unsettle her – indeed, it may be explicitly designed to do so – and will jolt her out of her boring woman-ness into realizing that he knows her better than she knows herself.