Bride Wars: the feminine message hiding in plain sight

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Bride Wars may not be a ‘feminist’ movie, but it reveals a lot about the social expectations on women.

Bride Wars is a 2009 RomCom about two best friends who want to get married on the same day. This date clash turns them into wedding-wrecking back-stabbers who go all-out to destroy each other before finally resolving their differences and emerging stronger than ever. The end.

If that’s how you want to enjoy the movie, look away now. But, if you’re interested in what the story is hiding, and how else it can be interpreted, read on.

Bride Wars may be about the battle of the sexes and gender roles, but it isn’t a feminist movie. What’s the difference? In very broad terms, ‘feminist’ is a political position, while ‘feminine’ reflects “culturally defined characteristics” (1) – i.e., how society says women ‘ought’ to be be or behave.

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

False feminism

Art and culture have traditionally limited female characters to eye candy or love interest. In response, the Bechdel Test measures the representation of women in fiction and film. To ‘pass’ the Bechdel Test, 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. Wedding planner Marion St Clair, a woman at the top of her industry, narrates the film. 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 defrosted from the 1950s). And ultimately, the film celebrates female friendship and empowerment.

This all looks like feminism and smells like feminism … but while Bride Wars appears to be a positive film about ‘sisters doing it for themselves’, in another sense it’s kinda the opposite.

The meaning of marriage

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 want 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 much of a leap for romantic comedy, a genre which has viewed marriage as the goal of human existence since Jane Austen and earlier. Now, however, the dress, the venue, the band and even one’s ‘couple style’ are as important in judging feminine success.

The Wedding ‘fetish’

‘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 ‘reality’ TV series such as Bridezillas, Say Yes to the Dress and Don’t Tell the Bride – not to mention Sex and the City.

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. She may have it all and do it all, but she does 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, there’s more than a little schadenfreude to the comedy.

Most societies applaud and reward women 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 free, and even sadistic.

Comedy and farce share roots in the concepts of carnival and mardi gras, i.e., a fleeting instance when things are turned on their heads. It’s a time to break (or invert) the rules. 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 and selfless mothers.

The ‘gender swap’

In film, dramatic tension often comes from a character or characters realising they can’t carry on as they are: something has to change.

Yet, while the comedy of Bride Wars comes from subverting social rules, its biggest gambit is a ‘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:

  • 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 (Liv’s brother).

Similarly, while several characters are presented as strong, independent women, it’s not entirely convincing. Marion is a wedding planner with as much warmth as an ice sculpture. 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.

Sticking to the rules

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. 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.


Bride Wars, dir. Gary Winick (2009)

1. Peter Barry, Beginning Theory. Manchester University Press, 1995.

Picture credit: Marija Zaric