Wedding planning, as I’ve discovered in the past year, mostly consists of spending giant gobs of money for things and services I have no idea how to buy -- and I say this as a dedicated capitalist. Each new detail has been an occasion for a fresh crisis of confidence: What kind of food/venue/music/flowers/ice sculpture/pyrotechnics/unicorn parade was I expected to provide that also neatly fit my personality, the wedding theme, and the budget? But there was one aspect of wedding planning I wasn’t terrified of, because I’d been taught how to do it through TV. Just like I’d learned English through hours of television, I mastered the art and the language of wedding dresses through TLC’s Say Yes to the Dress.
In case you have no women in your life, Say Yes is a reality show that chronicles the search for a wedding dress at Kleinfeld Bridal, an upscale boutique in Manhattan. Two women are featured in each episode, while a third struggles with some facet of the alterations process. The woman (or her family) is responsible for paying for the dress.
In many respects, Say Yes is an unabashed advertisement for Kleinfeld and the dresses featured on camera. Now in its 14th season and well into its decline, the series has begun to rely on celebrities and the relatives of D-listers to stay relevant; Martha Stewart and High School Musical costar Corbin Bleu made appearances this year. But during its heyday, the show felt proudly inclusive, even necessarily so, showcasing brides of all colors, sizes, sexualities, disabilities, family and health situations, and personal histories. Unless a woman’s profession figures into her backstory, like this season’s Air Force veteran or Paralympic snowboarder Amy Purdy, it’s rarely mentioned. And unlike a lot of other reality TV (e.g., the Real Housewives franchise), the women aren’t there to be mocked (for the most part), but to find happy endings.
Say Yes to the Dress also teaches women how to shop, specifically for a lavish, (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime outfit, by talking about attributes like occasion, fit, fabric, and silhouette. And, of course, each dress that the women try on is identified by designer and cost (euphemistically referred to as “price point”). After the diversity and the easily digestible story lines, the show’s earnestness toward its “characters” and its seeming candor about money drew me into hours-long marathons. I’m not alone in my (former) love. The show is influential enough that I was asked if I was “saying yes to this dress” at the end of my wonderful, otherwise-free-of-embarrassment dress appointment, which took place about 4,000 miles from Kleinfeld. As I’ve discovered via other engaged friends’ Facebook pages, brides all over the country are being asked similar questions by their dress consultants.
And then, as they say, the veil was removed from my eyes. I spent what seemed like an obscene amount of dollars on a garment to be worn once, but it was still less than half of what the most economical new dresses on the show cost. I’d originally loved that Say Yes was one of the few shows on TV to be fairly up front about price tags, which added to its democratic appeal: Unlike with Olivia Pope’s gladiator gear, anyone could find and purchase the dress they’d seen on TV through a quick Google search. But after thinking less abstractly about price tags and contextualizing the dresses within the larger wedding planning -- even assuming that the women on the show spend far more than the 8 to 10 percent of the event budget generally recommended for attire -- I felt thoroughly duped. Generally spending between $3,000 and $5,000 on the dresses, the Say Yes women weren’t everyday people, I realized, but one-percenters, or at least 10-percenters, throwing extravagant parties for themselves. Or it was middle- or working-class people throwing money down like they were rich, perhaps even going into debt for their fantasy wedding. In other words, Say Yes is just another example of the advertising ethos that has shaped television since its inception, the firmly aspirational masquerading as the sweetly relatable.
There’s a part of the TV viewership that likes to pour haterade over shows they don’t like by pointing to their lack of economic realism. There’s no way a barista and a chef could afford the West Village palace on Friends; nor could a real estate agent like Modern Family’s Phil Dunphy afford his L.A. McMansion. But for fans of those shows, the gap between the people on our screen and the amount of money we think they have doesn’t really matter. Financial escapism may even be a draw: We’d be much less interested in the type of shoes Carrie Bradshaw could afford on an actual freelancer’s income. If you don’t want to completely give in to that escapism, though, what may result is a constant vigilance, as it has for me: nagging myself with reminders that the things that bring me so much visual pleasure on screen aren’t things I can actually own. Identification with characters is one of the main reasons why we watch TV and engage with stories in general, but there has to be a certain set of conditions that make that process happen. Sometimes it’s because the protagonist is too much of a shit, and sometimes it’s because we’re distracted by how much more money they have than we do.
Aspirational consumerism in fiction generally doesn’t bother me, perhaps because I’m so used to relating to upper-middle-class characters whose wealth is incidental (Transparent) or even a source of angst (Black-ish). But sometimes that cognitive rip between what we’re told and what we’re sold is harder to get over. Maybe it’s New Girl’s DTLA loft for you. It certainly became Say Yes to the Dress for me, as my fandom curdled into bitterness. Because I’d never shopped for a wedding dress before, I had no idea what a “normal” price tag for one looked like. TLC mostly taught me — or tried to, at least — that spending thousands of dollars is totally OK because all kinds of different women were doing it. Say Yes requires so little of me as a viewer that I’d let my guard down, confusing its lack of complexity for a lack of ideology. And so ideology did what ideology does: normalize the unusual and the unfair, which, in this case, is spending cuckoo-bananas for a dress.
The last few years have brought about a greater sense of class consciousness: We are better able to see ourselves as “indebted millennials,” “minorities screwed over by shitty loans,” “middle-class people bailing out banksters,” etc. As we all know, TV is fucking amazing right now, but it’s also depressingly insidious sometimes, the result of an unconscious collusion between visually gifted artists and writers and executives from mostly well-off backgrounds creating fantasyscapes most viewers could never afford. In so doing, it’s possible that television is training the masses to identify as upper-middle-class (or upper-middle-class-in-the-making), a historical pattern that may make us less attuned to economic inequality and helps shape who we think of as worthy of having their stories told.
I’m pretty sure I never would’ve dropped so much coin on a wedding dress if I’d never been introduced to Say Yes by a friend, and thus hadn’t been socialized, however briefly, to treat over-the-top consumerism as normal. I enjoyed the high-end treatment at the boutique (when it didn’t make me queasily nervous — it was hard to get the image of a queen and her lady-in-waiting out of my mind when my consultant was lacing up the back of my dress). I like my gown and I’m sure I’ll look great on my wedding day. But what I mostly got out of spending so much money on it is an expensive lesson about the importance of staying aware of the difference between what I’m trained to see as normal and what normal actually is. Television and film help us figure out what we want, but also shape what we want. Saying yes to stories is easy. Saying yes to desire is much trickier.