I JUST TYPED "bride" into the search engine on Amazon.com and got 132,398 results. Some referred to fiction titles like "Brideshead Revisited," but the vast majority were nonfiction field guides to femininity. There was "The Conscious Bride," "The Buff Bride," "Chicken Soup for the Bride's Soul" and something called "And the Bride Wore White: 7 Secrets to Sexual Purity." And that was just from the first few pages of the list.
I conducted the search because it's June and weddings — along with a whole new crop of books about them — are creeping up on us like newly hatched sea turtles ambling to the ocean. One of these books, Rebecca Mead's "One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding," is a sobering and sorely needed examination of how and why contemporary nuptials have turned into bank-breaking three-ring circuses. Another is "Altared: Bridezillas, Bewilderment, Big Love, Breakups, and What Women Really Think About Contemporary Weddings," in which 27 female writers (I'm one of them) do pretty much what the subtitle suggests and bemoan the uneasy coexistence between free will and what has now become one of the most expensive social conventions in human history.
These two happen to have been published in the last couple of weeks, but, I assure you, there are a lot more where they came from, including, this September, "Destination Weddings for Dummies." (I know what you're thinking — finally, a how-to for Disneyland nuptials!) In their own very different ways, most of these books suggest something about the relationship between women and weddings that most holdouts like me don't like to admit: Fairy-tale wedding fantasies have become so culturally ingrained that even the most cynical, tradition-defying woman can get caught in their grip.
Statistics from the Condé Nast Bridal Group show that wedding costs have risen 100% since 1990, with the average wedding now running close to $30,000. Consider that the median U.S. household income is just over $46,000 (and that if you live in an expensive city, you can pretty much double that average wedding cost) and it's entirely possible that the only other way to rack up such a large bill for just one day is to land in the ER with a massive head injury.
But my "bride" search was motivated less by my exasperation with the culture of extravagant weddings than by a desire to find dissenting voices. Surely amid nearly 133,000 results there would be someone — a radical feminist or a religious conservative or even just the exhausted (and broke) father of several daughters — telling us to stop the insanity. Surely there are writers out there who are not just wringing their hands over the folly of the bridal business but refusing to participate altogether.
Admittedly, such dissenters do exist (Mead, for her part, was married in office attire in a New York City courthouse), but among women who purport to think critically about marriage rituals, I've noticed the following (very troubling) pattern: We identify the conflict (big wedding, small wedding or no wedding?), obsess over its political ramifications (am I a consumer pawn or a long-term investor in the love market?) and after much hemming and hawing and rationalizations (but people expect an ice sculpture carved in the shape of the bride and groom), take the "traditional" route anyway (formidable diamond ring, poofy dress, overzealous gift registry).
I put "traditional" in quotes because, as Mead points out, engagement rings, lavish receptions and even honeymoons were largely unheard of in the United States before the 1940s. Any bride who thinks she's honoring a long family legacy by blowing her inheritance on a Vera Wang dress is indulging in revisionist history. By the same token, if she believes that expressing disquietude about the bamboozling nature of the wedding industry is the same thing as actually taking a stand against it, she should be stripped of whatever rebel credentials she still dares to carry.
Even some of my best friends need to face facts: Feeling conflicted about gargantuan weddings isn't acting on principle. Pointing out the hypocrisies of your own decisions does not make you less of a hypocrite. And saying you're embarrassed about the whole enterprise while ordering monogrammed butter patties is kind of like saying you smoked pot without inhaling.
But in so many areas of life, complaining is now considered a worthy substitute for direct action, so who can blame the modern bride for refusing to cut back her guest list when she can get similar credit just by feeling guilty about the tab?
That's why my favorite brides are those who embrace the role with neither irony nor apology, who not only admit how much they love tiaras and garters and Michael Bolton's version of "When a Man Loves a Woman," but don't see why this should be considered an admission because, hey, what's not to like about that stuff? Sure, most have forked over their common sense as well as their life savings, but at least they've abandoned self-righteousness too.
Not so the angst-ridden bride, who wants to waffle on her position and have her waffle iron too. Now that's a racket.