Bride Wars (2009) explained: weddings, weaklings and girl power

Close-up of woman wearing boxing gloves

Is Bride Wars a feminist film or a fail compilation? Here’s how the fight goes down.

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. Kinda.

Is Bride Wars a feminist movie?

The Bechdel Test measures female roles 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.

Wedding planner Marion (Candice Bergen), who narrates the film, is 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 (Anne Hathaway) doesn’t have a Big Girl career because she hasn’t learned to roar – but all that’s about to change.

And ultimately, the film celebrates female friendship and empowerment.

This all sounds smells like feminism … but while Bride Wars looks like a story about sisters doing it for themselves, in another sense it’s exactly the opposite.

Marriage in the movies

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.”

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

“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 know. They’ve been dreaming of and dress-rehearsing marriage since childhood. In fact, to not be married is a potent source of anxiety that can be only be managed by binge-eating, self-medicating, or manipulating a man into proposing.

Legal eagle Liv is 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 – well, forever.

Now, though, the dress, the venue, the band and even one’s “couple style” are as important in judging female success.

Bride Wars and wedding fetish

Wedding Fetish is a social sub-genre 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. TV homage includes shows like Bridezillas, Say Yes to the Dress and Don’t Tell the Bride – not to mention Sex and the City.

Ultimately, cash-gobbling consumer hyperventilation accepts and even encourages bad bridal behaviour and excessive spending. On the one hand it’s inevitable; on the other, it’s entertainment.

Bride Wars toes this line. In their quest for the perfect wedding, Liv and Emma 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 is always graceful. She may have it all and do it all, but she does so with a smile; always gently glowing, never sweating. Yeah – right.

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’re gentle, motherly, self-sacrificing and so on – yet the need to be those things because of gender is an untenable position (see The Stepford Wives).

In Bride Wars, wedding stress causes the mask to slip. Underneath, Liv and Emma 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.

Like a riotous bachelor party or last fling, Bride Wars allows Emma and Liv to briefly show their true selves before resuming more appropriate feminine roles as gracious wives and selfless mothers.

The gender swap

In cinema, 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 conform to symbols of femininity (i.e., become emotional, fallible) if she’s to be truly happy. And we have to see her screw up in the office to find her likeable and worthy of friendship.

Emma – the demure people-pleaser – must adopt supposedly masculine traits; to take what she wants rather than waiting to be offered.

Hence, underneath the Plaza wedding plot is the invisible marriage these woman already have with each other:

  • They marry each other in the opening credits
  • High-roller Liv buys designer clothes for Emma and dictates what to wear
  • Their friendship is more fulfilling than their romantic partnerships
  • 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 strong, independent women, there’s always a flip side. 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 – i.e., an underdog, the woman audiences can identify with – she loses her professional standing.

The film acknowledges that women can 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 aim for Emma and Liv, because of what it represents: victory, the end of dating, the dress, the beauty, the adoration. Until this moment they’re dead, remember – they’re un-people waiting to be born.

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.

Visiting the Plaza with their mothers as children cements 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 (2009), directed by Gary Winick

What to read or watch next

See also: Peter Barry, Beginning Theory. Manchester University Press, 1995.

Picture credit: David Suarez