Graffiti of princess leia 'fight like a girl'

Bride Wars: the feminine message hiding in plain sight

Bride Wars may not be a ‘feminist’ movie yet it reveals many things about the social expectations on women, and especially the things we aspire to.

Bride Wars is a 2009 RomCom about two best friends who want to get married on the same day and, as a result, turn into wedding-wrecking back-stabbers before resolving their differences and getting back together again. The end.

… then again, any kind of ‘cultural output’ (i.e., books, films, art, comics and even adverts) can’t help but reveal, reinforce or react to social rules. The characters, symbols and plot devices a work uses reflect what that society aspires to or, occasionally, what it detests.

Bride Wars is not a feminist movie, but it does reveal many things about gender roles and, more specifically, what it means to be a woman. What’s the difference? In very basic terms, ‘feminist’ is a political position, while ‘feminine’ reflects “culturally defined characteristics” (1) – i.e., how society says we ‘ought’ to be behave.

So, what images of women does Bride Wars play with, and what does that say about gender politics?

False feminism

Historically, art has tended to repress or misrepresent women. In response to that, the Bechdel Test measures the representation of women in fiction and film. To ‘pass’, a work (a) should feature at least two named women who (b) talk to each other (c) about something other than a man. By this criteria, Bride Wars is pure girl power.

This is a movie about strong women, and in which men are reduced to marginal roles. It’s narrated by wedding planner Marion St Clair, a woman at the top of her industry. Kate Hudson’s high-flying lawyer Liv is likewise a winner in a man’s world. Emma doesn’t have a Big Girl career, partly because she hasn’t (yet) learned to roar. As a result, she’s stuck with Fletcher, a bully who’s all-but been defrosted from the 1950s to give her something to rebel against. And ultimately, the film celebrates female friendship and empowerment.

This all looks like feminism and smells like feminism … yet the film deploys a series of easily recognisable characters and clichés that only pay lip service to feminism. As a result, Bride Wars can seem to be a positive movie about ‘sisters doing it for themselves’ rather than a more cynical take on feminine compliance.

What a girl wants

Peter Barry says this about the roots of feminist criticism in Beginning Theory:

“Feminists pointed out, for example, that in nineteenth-century fiction … the focus of interest is on the heroine’s choice of marriage partner, which will decide her ultimate social position and exclusively determine her happiness and fulfilment in life, or her lack of these.” (p122)

So 19th-century fiction reinforced a very narrow world view for women, with a limited set of roles or choices: marriage and motherhood. Two centuries later, Bride Wars doesn’t give women any further ambition. Marion St Clair spells it out thusly:

“A wedding marks the first day of the rest of your life. You have been dead until now. Were you aware of that? You’re dead right now.”

Emma and Liv do indeed know. What both wants more than anything – what they’ve been dreaming and dress-rehearsing since childhood – is to be married. In fact, to not be married is a potent source of anxiety that can be only be managed through binge-eating, self-medication or manipulating a man into proposing.

Legal eagle Liv is even willing to trade her carefully curated professionalism for the perfect wedding day. Emma, meanwhile, almost marries Mr Wrong because a June Wedding at the Plaza is the real catch. This isn’t too much of a leap for romantic comedy, a genre which since Austen and earlier has viewed marriage as the goal of human existence. Now, however, the dress, the venue, the band and even one’s ‘couple style’ are as important in judging feminine success.

‘Wedding Fetish’ is a social subgenre all of its own. It involves shopping and planning for a big wedding, huge dresses, designer names … and the inevitable meltdown and last-minute doubts that entails. The fetish is both a real phenomena and an on-screen invention: consider (semi-scripted) reality TV series such as Bridezillas, Say Yes to the Dress and Don’t Tell the Bride, as well as Sex and the City (6 seasons of foreplay before the main event). Ultimately this kind of cash-gobbling consumer hyperventilation accepts and even encourages bad behaviour: on the one hand, it’s inevitable; on the other, it’s entertainment.

Bride Wars, naturally, fits into this. In their quest for the perfect wedding, the lead characters don’t just become bridezillas, but back-stabbers willing to exploit every aspect of their friendship in order to come out on top.

The return of the repressed

A lady, of course, is always graceful. Well-dressed, elegant. Moderate of speech and manner. Refined. They may have it all and do it all, but they do so with a smile – always gently glowing, never sweating. The impossibility of this ideal against the reality is the comedy basis of Bride Wars. The film, in other words, is a ‘fail’ compilation.

Emma and Liv are independent, intelligent women who would die for each other. But underneath that social construct, they’re as insecure and desperate as the rest of us: when sisterhood slips in favour of self-interest and sabotage, the ensuing chaos is the comedy equivalent of laughing at someone slipping on a banana skin or walking into a lamppost.

In most societies, women are applauded and rewarded when they are gentle, motherly, self-sacrificing and so on – yet the need to be those things because of gender is an untenable position. In Bride Wars, wedding stress causes the mask to slip. Liv and Emma ‘underneath’ are competitive, wild, ruthless, sexually liberated and even sadistic … but it’s only a momentary fall from grace.

Comedy and farce have shared roots in the concept of carnival and mardi gras, i.e., a fleeting instance when things are turned on their heads. Rules are broke and chaos reigns until order is reasserted. Rather like a riotous hen or stag do before the sincerity of married life, Bride Wars allows Emma and Liv to briefly show their true selves before resuming more appropriate feminine roles: gracious wives, selfless mothers.

A woman’s place

In film, the dramatic tension comes from a character or characters realising they can’t carry on as they are: something has to change. That’s also true here.

Yet, while the comedy of Bride Wars comes from the subversion of social roles / rules, its biggest gambit is a kind of gender swap. Liv – the masculine, no-nonsense breadwinner – must learn to be more like a woman (i.e., emotional, fallible) if she’s to be truly happy. Emma – the demure people-pleaser – must learn to be more like a man; to take what she wants rather than waiting to be offered.

Emma’s character represents femininity, and Liv’s represents masculinity … and so underneath the Plaza wedding plot is the invisible marriage that the woman already have with each other. Consider:

  • They ‘marry’ each other in the opening credits
  • High-roller Liv casually buys designer clothes for Emma, and even dictates what colours suit her
  • The intimacy of their relationship is more valuable / fulfilling than anything else, so much so that Liv tells the man she’s about to marry how alone she feels when Emma isn’t there
  • Liv and Emma’s relationship mimics that of Emma and Fletcher: Emma role-plays disobedience and assertiveness against Liv before doing it for real with her fiancé.

Isn’t Emma’s character development in particular a celebration of empowerment? Sure, but only within a limiting world in which self is always defined by other. Here, that means Emma discovers who she really is in order to trade-up to a better mate (Nate).

Similarly, while several characters are presented as strong, independent women, they’re fragile notions. Marion is a wedding planner with about as much warmth as a cupid statue. Liv is a success in her law firm, but once she becomes a teary woman, she loses her standing. The film acknowledges that women can indeed be competitive and ambitious but – as popular culture prefers to do – it inspects those attributes through the domestic lens, through romance rather than sport, business or science, for instance.

Marriage is the ultimate feminine aim for Emma and Liv, because of what it represents: victory, the end of dating, the dress, the beauty, the adoration, the purity, the emotional cues. At the same time, however, women are also expected to prize and nurture their female friendships – more so even than their husbands. Real intimacy, the film reminds us at the end, is to be found in sisterhood … so long as everyone knows her place.

It’s motherhood that introduces and ends the film. Visiting the Plaza with their mothers 20 yeas ago plants the feminine ideal for Liv and Emma. At the end of the film, both are pregnant and due to give birth on the same day. With that comes the tiniest warning to them and us: female friendships are important, but they’re fragile in the face of competitiveness and ambition.


Words & picture: my own (except where quoted).

Bride Wars, Gary Winick (dir). 2009

Beginning Theory. Barry, P. Manchester University Press, 1995.

Photo by Marija Zaric via Unsplash