Ewa Glapka is a research fellow in sociology department at the University of the Free State, South Africa. Her current research projects revolve around language, gender, the media, and the sociology of the body and beauty. She says she is particularly interested in the role of language in shaping people’s perceptions of themselves.
Glapka’s new book, Reading Bridal Magazines from a Critical Discursive Perspective, is out now from Palgrave. She spoke to The Baffler recently about what she’s found about the appeal of wedding magazines—an appeal that persists even amongst those women who’d like to think they know better.
Why did you choose bridal magazines as a specific phenomenon to study?
As a linguist and a media consumer myself, I’ve always been interested in how media affect us. And the more I read and thought about it, the more convinced I got that the whole issue of the media’s influence is not only about what the media tell us, but also about how we engage with it. As a woman, I was naturally interested in the media that specifically address women, so women’s magazines were my first object of interest.
Still, before launching my study, I had many informal conversations with women about glossies, and I realized that most of the women don’t treat them seriously. The main complaint which I heard from the women was about what the magazines predominantly feed their readers with–trashy gossip, new-age psychology and lifestyle mumbo-jumbo, and all sorts of information that only make you feel worse. By this they meant pictures of air-brushed bodies, lots of advertisements for ridiculously expensive clothes and cosmetics, and articles that remind you how bad your diet is and send you to the gym to repent.
But apparently there is a moment in a woman’s life in which many women are more likely than ever to be tempted by this rhetoric—and it’s when they get married. Perhaps it’s because the day itself is by its nature quite surreal? Maybe that’s why many women are then ready to step into the role of a “Cinderella,” which they would otherwise consider pretentious and a contradiction of how they live their lives on a regular basis.
Can you give us a little background on the history of bridal magazines within the wider context of other magazines, and how they’ve changed over time?
In comparison to other women’s glossies, bridal magazines have historically been even less responsive to the ongoing changes in how people nowadays understand and live gender. The only indication of the editors’ sensitivity to the surrounding reality that I’ve noticed consists in how they jumped on the bandwagon of consumerism and commodification. Of course, weddings have always revolved around consumption in one way or another. But the role of consumption in weddings that bridal magazines propose clearly shows how commodified the modern wedding has become, and how they reflect the paradoxical nature of commodification.
On the one hand, we are no longer bound by tradition, and many people treat the ceremonies as opportunities to celebrate the ways they have decided to live. Yoga aficionados, bungee-jumpers, immigrants proud of their, say, Caribbean heritage—all couples are now offered professional assistance in “personalizing” their weddings…. And here comes the paradox—in the end, we are bowing to a new, secular, tradition. We individualize our weddings, but we do so by means of mass-produced products and services.
This picture becomes even more interesting once we study people’s reception of the magazines. It seems to be possible to consider yourself to be absolutely “above that,” and at the same time, follow suit. Some of the women I talked to criticized the logic of commodification, but then gave clear indications of embracing it when they told me about their own weddings. (But to be honest, still others were indeed consistent in their anti-consumerist attitude.)
What are some of the ways in which bridal magazines reinforce and maintain traditional gender roles—for instance, through the language or the visuals they use?
As for the language that the magazines use, it’s the assumptive tone in which the magazines address their readers. This is typical of all glossies: you can open any glossy and read something like: “Finally! Our experts found a quick way of weight reduction!” “Finally?” you might ask? “But was I really waiting for that finding?” If somebody presumes I was waiting for it, they also presume that I need it desperately. Here is where you find the subliminal message that “fat is bad.” Bluntly speaking, messages couched in this way are like coated pills in which we “swallow” many presumptions about who we are and who we should be!
When reading bridal magazines, instead of thinking whether you really need to be slim on your wedding day, you begin counting calories. Oh, and speaking of counting, in bridal magazines, many assumptions are appealingly packed in the form of “wedding countdowns”—as time goes, your body, apparently, requires different forms of work to be done. “If it’s seven days to go, make sure your skin is tanned and smooth.” It’s all about when you need to do something; whether you should is out of discussion.
As for visuals…well, it’s easy to see, when you take a look at the average proportions between the pictures of brides and the pictures of grooms and other people. The emphasis on the bride and on her body plays on and reinforces a very patriarchal view of the wedding, a ceremony that objectifies the woman. She’s supposed to be the object of admiration walking down the aisle from one family to another. I could speak forever about the magazines’ rhetoric of grooms taking pride in the beauty of their brides….
You’ve interviewed women in different points of life about their relationship to bridal magazines. What did you find about how individual relationships with media representations of femininity differ amongst different age groups?
Actually, in my study, rather than interview large, representative age groups, I was interested in the psychological and socio-cultural implications of media consumption. Throughout the interviews I heard from these women a pronounced sense of exclusion.
Of course, the fact that women older than forty feel excluded by the media is nothing of a surprise. We all know about the media’s infamous age and race bias, and bridal magazines seem as a matter of fact even more biased in that regard than women’s magazines. Wedding magazines completely neglect the increasing age of the average bride; they seem to labor under the false idea that it is still only women in their twenties and very early thirties who get married. So, as I’ve said, it’s no wonder older women feel excluded. But the complexity and gravity of that experience was amazing to investigate.
What struck a particularly emotional chord with me during the interviews was to see that some women treat the media’s exclusion of them as an indicator of society’s overall attitude towards them. This sense of exclusion spanned all races and ages. None of the women I talked to saw herself as the ideal woman that bridal magazines were speaking to. If white, middle-class, heterosexual, and fully abled women don’t feel fully included, I think this speaks volumes about the magazines.