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Photo: Anne-Marie Jackson/Toronto Star/Getty Images)
Photo: Anne-Marie Jackson/Toronto Star/Getty Images)

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I Learned to Love Weddings by Binge-Watching Reality TV

Call it relational aspiration: a desire for a narrative I've never wanted

My best friend, a woman I've known since we were idiots in college, bumming around Boston one very hot summer, recently got engaged. She told us this news sheepishly, taking her hand out of her sweatshirt pocket and showing us the ring, twinkly and shiny on her finger. I'm happy for her because she's my friend, but I'm even happier because now she has to plan a wedding.

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Which might seem odd, because I'm pretty sure I don't want to get married myself. I wouldn't be the obvious choice for the best-friend, wedding-planning role by a long shot:  Marriage as both a construct and an institution horrifies me. As a child of a messy divorce who hates being the center of attention, signing a piece of paper and contractually hitching my wagon to one person, all while wearing a dress and at least two pairs of Spanx, go against everything I cherish.

But I do have a secret weapon: I binge-watch wedding reality TV shows.

Really. I've watched at least 264 episodes of Say Yes to the Dress and every episode I could get my hands on of the criminally underrated program Four Weddings. I can guide her through the murky waters of wedding planning with the knowledge I've gained from hours spent slumped in front of My Fair Wedding. Planning a wedding looks messy, but if you've seen enough episodes of this show, you can definitely throw one together yourself.

Hitching my wagon to one person while wearing a dress and at least two pairs of Spanx goes against everything I cherish.

Hosted by the leathery and Spock-like celebrity wedding planner David Tutera, the show offers up a blueprint for a successful wedding —€” at least, if you're someone who wants to slavishly submit to the opulence of a giant ball gown and hundreds of fresh flowers. In one episode, I watched him explain patiently to his assistant why he put stark white chairs on a black carpet and assure her in silky tones that the contrast created depth and elegance.

I'm also ready to wade through a plethora of fabrics and shapes to help her find a dress, thanks to marathon sessions of Say Yes to the Dress. With the brashness of a tough-as-nails salesperson, I can gently but firmly steer her toward a fishtail mermaid dress. Much more flattering for her figure. If she begins to exhibit bridezilla tendencies —€” unnecessary demands and crying jags over floral arrangements and cake-tier size — I will know that the best thing to do is to throw a glass of water in her face, collect my bag, grab my coat, and make sure to respond to her texts. My reality-show immersion has equipped me to handle every situation.

Don't worry, I'm not kidding myself. There's no doubt in my mind that binge-watching wedding shows has a distinct downside. At Salon, Nadine Friedman rightfully acknowledges that when the reality TV industrial complex sinks its claws into weddings, the behaviors we learn aren't positive. Backstabbing and emotional manipulation have no place in an event billed as the most wonderful moment of your life.

Reality television affects behavior, even though you might not think it does. According to a study conducted by Bryan Gibson, a psychologist at Central Michigan University, shows such as The Real World and The Real Housewives franchise illustrate a lot of relational aggression (i.e. the manipulative backstabbing that we tune in to see) and that such behavior is absorbed by the viewers. What you see as a harmless, brainless leisure activity, something you watch when you want to shut off your brain and focus on the foibles of anyone other than your real-life group of friends, can actually have a detrimental effect on your daily psychology.

The wedding-entertainment industrial complex lets me toe the line between reality and fiction.

The wedding shows that I favor don't feature as many of the petty manipulations that you see on The Real Housewives, but they have an effect nonetheless. Call it relational aspiration: a desire for a narrative I've never been particularly interested in to be imprinted onto my life, flaws and all. The wedding entertainment industrial complex, exemplified by reality shows that feature a traditional milestone in life, lets me live out a fantasy that toes the line between reality and fiction. It's the ultimate aspirational television, in the same vein as the rehab porn of HGTV and the culinary dreamscapes of the Food Network.

My passion for wedding television is rooted squarely in the deeply ingrained pageantry of an old-fashioned institution with all its trappings, drilled into so many of us since childhood. I watch these shows as pure escapism, but I'd be lying if I said that their collective message —€” that a wedding day should be the best day of my life —€” hasn't also taken root.

Now, when talk of weddings comes up, I find myself proffering strong opinions about what my fictional wedding will look like. The dress will have pockets. My sisters will be my bridesmaids. "I'd really rather spend the money on the reception and the open bar," I tell friends with confidence, as if there's a ring on my finger and a date on the books. I abhor veils of any sort and haven't quite formed an opinion about those beaded belts they're so fond of putting on women to "define their waists," but I'm pretty sure I could be swayed if Kleinfeld's Randy Fenoli tied one around my waist and placed a bouquet of fake flowers in my hand.

I doubt I'm alone in feeling this way. Though we've made smart moves to reconsider marriage, we still center much of our lives around it and the attendant circus. From Olivia Pope's decision to choose herself rather than either of her two lovers to Kate Bolick's Spinster, we see independent women on the screen and in the pages of the books we read trumpeting their independence from the mountaintops, but the spectre of marriage —€” and with it, a wedding, a dress, photos — continues to loom on the horizon.

These shows package doubt and fear of commitment into a half-hour chunk that can be consumed as easily as a Mallomar.

These shows feed into this ongoing cultural preoccupation, operating on multiple insidious levels and serving as a convenient vessel for the swirling miasma of feelings surrounding the institution of marriage. Say Yes to the Dress, for example, manages to massage that knot of anxiety, its excellent salespeople boosting your self-esteem by keeping the task simple: They just want you to look beautiful on your wedding day without feeling bad about the process. It packages doubt and fear of commitment into a half-hour chunk that can be consumed as easily as a Mallomar.

Like most reality television, of course, there's an element of fiction, and I refuse to believe that every bridal dress appointment ends in tears of relief. Still, if it were me on that pedestal, stuffed into a dress held together in the back with A-clamps, I might shed a few tears if I liked what I saw in the mirror. Everyone likes to look good. It doesn't really matter if it's in a wedding dress or a sweatshirt that fits just right. I recognize the power of looking in the mirror and loving what you see. If I buy anything about this entire process, it's this.

Armed with this knowledge, I'm ready to help my friend understand that it doesn't matter if the flower girl doesn't actually throw flowers and that a wedding dress doesn't have to speak to her the minute she dons it. I'll inform her that nobody remembers the food, so there's no need to serve Chateaubriand for 150 drunk people who won't appreciate it anyway.

Moreover, what reality TV provides is the cautionary tale I needed for my own hypothetical wedded bliss. After all, the fiction of the perfect wedding is just that: a story told to little girls that is so divorced from reality that anyone savvy enough to notice should be able to write their own happy ending. Ultimately, this is why we watch these shows: to learn how to —€” and more importantly, how not to — act in situations wholly unfamiliar and new.

Megan Reynolds is an editor and writer who lives in New York.


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