One ring to rule them all

From post-"Bridget" fiction to ABC's frightening "The Bachelor," the wedding porn genre mates emasculated Mr. Rights with soulless, life-size Barbies.

Published April 25, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

"The poet is in command of his fantasy, while it is exactly the mark of the neurotic that he is possessed by his fantasy." -- Lionel Trilling, "The Liberal Imagination"

Call it wedding porn. The popular subset of commercial fiction features romance novels about neutered, neurotic professional girls. Instead of ripped bodices and heaving breasts, wedding porn features broken engagements, squirrelly commitment-phobic men and superembarrassing quarrels in really nice restaurants. Following in the footsteps of "Bridget Jones's Diary" -- which transcended the mediocrity of the genre through originality of voice, over-the-top parody and a plot gently lifted from legendary wedding pornographer Jane Austen -- these books throw together a lovably neurotic but ultimately bland female lead, a straight-talkin' "you go girl!" female sidekick, a devilishly handsome, supersmooth "bad for me!" boy, and place them all in a seemingly endless procession of unfathomably zany situations, until our heroine finally finds that wonderful, pure-hearted, dull at first but ultimately supernice fella who we can immediately picture gracefully maneuvering a minivan through the parking lot of Bed, Bath & Beyond.

Already, the genre includes titles like "Otherwise Engaged," "See Jane Date," "Amanda's Wedding," "Animal Husbandry" (the one made into "Someone Like You" starring Ashley Judd) and "Getting Over It," to name just a few. So popular, in fact, is this Wacky Career Girl Finds Love formula that Harlequin has just launched Red Dress Ink, a whole line of wedding porn intended to bring us "stories that reflect the lifestyles of today's urban, single women" that show "life as it is, with a strong touch of humor, hipness, and energy." See also: Zany, sickeningly sweet fun with a big diamond on top.

Reflecting its indisputable ability to march to the leaden beat of mainstream America, ABC offers us TV's version of wedding porn, "The Bachelor," in which a dull but ultimately supernice fella navigates his own neuroticism to choose between 25 fluffy females in order to find his wife. It's "Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire" but without the harsh game-show format and the tacky participants. Alex went to Harvard, we're reminded 50 or 60 times per show. Alex is a sweet guy. Alex wants a woman to spend the rest of his life with. Alex has been pre-selected for his ability to live up to the fantasy of kind, pretty, hollowed-out provider.

The real question is, what's his motivation, or theirs? Why do the fluffy girls of "The Bachelor" and the bland heroes of wedding porn long for Egyptian cotton bath towels more than hot sex? Unlike Bridget, the lead character in wedding porn never recklessly indulges her sexual impulses -- no way! Having a normal sexual appetite would make her unlikable. While even recently canceled "Ally McBeal" sweats and fantasizes in her own disturbing Skeletor way, wedding porn takes all the dirtiness out of romance. Each scenario is meant to get our hearts (but not our parts) fluttering. This isn't about sex, it's about shopping. For men. Maybe, just maybe, there's some passing reference to a nice butt, but the comment is made from a great distance, like the appreciative but almost clinical observations of a mother in her mid-60s who considers herself out of the game. Instead, we're supposed to get hot over the fact that Prince Charming has his own posh bachelor pad, that he buys fresh flowers and nice dinners, that he's earnest and doe-eyed. "Sweetness" is the Holy Grail, the ultimate turn-on. Can this man fuck his way out of a paper bag? Maybe not, but he recycles!

We meet our heroine at a low point in her man-seeking life -- not a Dostoevski low, mind you, but a "Darn it, my hair is being so weird today, and why can't Mr. Everything ride in on a white horse already?" low. Her media job is so hectic and nutty, her friends are so hectic and nutty and she's so adorably scattered and sweetly disheveled. She's our own private idle 'ho (as played by Meg Ryan): deliciously flawed, sneezing cutely and wrinkling her nose over cheese (she's lactose-intolerant, get it?), and she's come to make the world safe for uptight, mediocre yuppies like herself! She's spunky, not gloomy. After all, readers don't need to get more depressed than is necessary to set up the elation of finding true love in the final chapter. We don't ask, "Will she throw herself into the river?" but rather, "Is she really gonna have to eat that whole hot fudge brownie sundae all by herself?" Aw, look. She's got hot fudge on her cute little button nose! Poor peanut.

Does she need a swarthy pirate to wipe that fudge away? No, sir. She needs a hand-holder, a chirpy little professional boy who'll tell her that, in this light, her eyes look as blue as the waves that lap the beaches at Club Med Belize.

The wedding porn genre applies the Madonna-Whore complex to men: If he's sultry and charismatic, he's dangerous, not a man you'd want to marry. But if he's soft and harmless and borderline-laughable? Yes! Tag that wildebeest and track him until he's lost his will to run, and his will to live, and is therefore ready to be propped up at assorted couples' brunches and holiday dinners, presented to the world as the slightly deadened but hopelessly devoted provider.

Sure, our female lead always has her madcap career in either magazines, publishing or TV, but it's nothing that can't be forsaken at the drop of a hat for a chance to pursue true love. The career is merely a subplot: Our heroine is already fairly successful, but there's an undercurrent of sentiment that her life will never be complete without a man. Plenty of women go through stages of feeling this way in spite of their best intentions, but there's some Final Resting Place feel to the prize these characters are chasing. "I'm so tired," they tell us. "Tired of my zany job, tired of chasing flat male characters without getting laid." Their real message to each and every man they meet is, "Get me a ring and plant me in your penthouse."

It's not hard to see why our hopelessly neurotic heroines dream of sitting in the sun like a ficus all day long: They long for a final escape from their own self-defeating, circular thoughts. Driven by ego and self-doubt, they share an unquenchable desire to be "chosen," once and for all. They imagine a glassy post-wedding reality in which all naysaying voices and stabs of rejection or defeat are erased from the picture, replaced by glazed-over, hazy warmth from the unconditional love of Mr. Nice & Safe.

The challenge comes in trying to locate something real beneath the hollow, faceless fantasy of the ring, the fantasy of being chosen by somebody, anybody. As the back cover of "Animal Husbandry" puts it: "Commitment: Every woman wants it. Men can't even spell it." But what does it mean to want "a commitment" in the general sense, without having any idea of the person you might be committing to? And shouldn't the things that you want from someone depend, at least in part, on what that particular person has to offer? If you fall in love with an unemployed house painter who makes you laugh, wouldn't you adjust your expectations slightly and take him for what he has to offer while providing for yourself in the areas that he might not provide? In the language of wedding porn, there's an unspoken expectation that a man will squeeze comfortably into a preset role: handsome, sweet, neutered wage earner. He works hard so you don't have to.

The pretty contestants on "The Bachelor" reflect their desire for a faceless hero repeatedly. One particularly deluded contestant, Rhonda, performs a face-plant on a bed, lamenting the fact that she and Alex are perfect for each other. Sure, she met him two days ago, but she can just tell! "I wish we had met in different circumstances!" she cries, sounding about as realistic as a drunk at a topless bar who's convinced that each dancer on stage is hot for him. Rhonda's post-dismissal interview is cut short by a panic attack, but in the other interviews, each woman tearily repeats the unending search for that special anyone, reassuring herself out loud that "maybe the timing is wrong, but someday I'll find the right man," someone who'll "love me for me."

Not surprisingly, despite the fact that the show focuses on a running competition among the women, Alex seems to struggle the most with whether or not the women actually like him. He can't tell, because they uniformly want him to pick them -- instant, public validation, the engagement fantasy of being "chosen" writ large. These women want to win -- not just the ring and the Harvard guy, but the promise of being publicly redeemed from every rejection they've ever experienced on the road to this moment. While Alex's interest in them comes across as quite sincere -- he's already The bachelor, after all; now he just wants a relationship that's good enough that he won't feel like a jerk for being on the show -- their interest in him is debatable at best, downright dehumanizing at worst.

And when Alex drops character and expresses a quite reasonable hope that he and his future wife will have good chemistry (see also: hot, raunchy sex), he is openly chastised and reminded of the difficult situation he (not the producers, but Alex himself) has put these poor girls in. The one exception to this rule is Amanda, who mentions that she loves dressing up and has a Wonder Woman costume, to which Alex, attempting to mask his enthusiasm, replies, "That's good news."

That good news seems to make her far less appealing than the competition, however, who require much more work from Alex, parading their high-maintenance needs and dysfunctional tics as if a real prince will naturally recognize them as assets. But even as many contestants reveal those flaws that complete the picture of them as princesses -- "See how bruised this pea made my ass?" -- they refuse to disclose aspects of their personalities that could actually give Alex some indication of the mundane qualities and flaws that reflect who they are as human beings. As the dates become more intense and the number of contestants is cut to four, it's clear that Alex is the real victim of this insane setup, partially because he seems to have an even stronger desire to be America's sweetheart than they do. Even when he performs a clumsy, cursory cost-benefit analysis, instead of shaming or objectifying the women involved, it seems to reflect his respect and sincere concern for them (an impressive feat, given the circumstances). But more than anything, Alex's assessments hint at his own dysfunction and prejudices. Overall, he seems to vastly prefer women who refuse to fool around with him, who can't look him in the eye and/or who criticize him outright.

In one brilliantly edited "Bachelor" sequence, we see one of the four finalists, Shannon, return home to introduce Alex to her parents. First, we witness an awkward, faux-warm greeting in which Shannon begs her mother not to make her cry, purportedly because there's so much love in the air. Meanwhile, the two seem about as anxious to touch each other as homophobic teenage boys. (Note to self: If you hire actors to play your parents, get some who can actually feign warmth and unconditional love for you.) Then Shannon rushes out to greet the family dog with more affection and feeling than we've witnessed in any of the contestants up to this point. Next, Shannon, Alex and the parents sit in the den and attempt to chat casually. Shannon insists on sitting next to the window, so the dog will be able to see her. The conversation is stifled at first, but Alex and the parents start to hit their stride, at which point Shannon leaps up and dashes out to hang out with the dog again. This happens two or three times. Next, Alex waits in the limo as Shannon and her parents discuss him.

"So what do y'all think?" she gushes. Her parents' smiles are strained. "Do you have anything in common with him?" Shannon: "Yeah! A lot! We think a lot alike." Mom: "Like what?" "OK," Shannon says, "I get grilled 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so I don't want it from you guys." "Well, he doesn't have any pets, so I wonder if he really likes pets ... " her mother says. "What else do you have in common with him?" her father asks. Obviously they're not excited that she's on the show, which is understandable. But it's still pretty disturbing to watch parents who care more about looking reasonable and smart for the camera than they do about the fact that they're making their daughter look like a shallow asshole.

Cut to Shannon in the limo. Alex wants to know what her "rules" are, rules about not kissing or having sex that she's vaguely alluded to, that sound a lot like "The Rules," if we're not mistaken. Shannon is livid that Alex has asked. Alex says that he feels bad if he's putting her on the spot. Shannon's response: "I don't think that you feel bad at all. I think that you see how awkward I feel right now, but you don't care." Wait. Is she talking about her parents now, or Alex? Shannon, can you say "projection"?

So Shannon manages to shield her "rules" from Alex, thereby creating even more mystery and frustration. Instead of telling the camera, through tears, "This poor woman needs therapy!" Alex reports that Shannon "feels like my girlfriend" and that "we've had some fights and I want to make it better." Meanwhile, Kim, who isn't self-conscious or mysterious at all when she states that she reads self-help books by Dr. Phil, and who seems to genuinely like Alex, is dismissed at the end of the show. Alex pronounces her "too easygoing for me."

Alex wants to know who really likes him, apparently so he can consistently choose the women who don't. This isn't incredibly surprising when you consider the overall goal of the show, and of the glossy ring-shopping culture reflected in wedding porn: If your goal is to trap the poor animal at all costs, why wouldn't the animal be more attracted to tourists than to trappers? What Alex doesn't recognize yet is that the best trappers of all are the ones who dress up in Hawaiian shirts with cameras around their necks.

But eventually Shannon's neurotic shenanigans are too blatant to disregard. Though we suspect Alex likes being tortured by her better than he likes being sexually catered to by the voluptuous Amanda, he announces with no small amount of regret in his voice that Amanda is probably better for him, since she's sweet, seems to like him, lets him lick chocolate off her naked body, etc., while Shannon pouts and moans endlessly, seeming to blame Alex for everything from her parents' disapproval to the fact that she agreed to be on this cheesy show in the first place.

While in wedding porn the bossy, self-involved girl always finds true love, in reality -- or at least on reality shows -- the truth is a little harder to swallow. With the average age of the bride increasing from 20 in 1964 to 27 according to the latest estimates, women have many more years to escape into the fantasy of being chosen, all the while becoming more neurotic and inflexible in ways that seem to lessen the possibility of fostering the kind of openness that's necessary for falling in love -- falling in love not with a gallant poster boy, but with a real human being. Our uptight, scattered heroine can stomp her feet cutely until someone spineless enough to cater to her every whim wanders up, but in the real world, it takes an ability to drop any preconceptions of "the dream guy" and follow your feelings, not your thoughts, to a person who makes you happy. A lasting relationship isn't indicated merely by the fact that he opens doors and brings home the bacon and accepts an endless stream of demands without complaint. Real love grows from two people accepting each other beyond the confinement of outdated roles and societal notions of what constitutes a desirable mate.

Plenty of women want to get married, and the contestants' ability to state that goal so directly is actually what makes them appealing; in the end they're following their dreams unself-consciously. But "The Bachelor" and the wedding porn genre reflect our culture's tendency to romanticize a courting process that exists in some vapory realm of boudoir tricks, dance cards and expensive rings. When falling in love is painted in such fantastical colors, you can expect marriages that reflect the same limitations -- roles that crush our ability to be honest, that keep us from presenting our true, original, flawed selves to each other, and ultimately, that rob us of our own desire.

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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