The British Reality TV show Don’t Tell the Bride has had fourteen season since it began in 2007. That’s right – fourteen seasons of intense heteronormative, patriarchal stereotyping dressed up as entertainment. Beginning on BBC3, it has moved several times, to BBC1, Sky1, and is now at home on E4, where the frequent advert breaks make it even more unwatchable than it was already.
For those who are uninitiated in this disaster of reality television, Don’t Tell the Bride is a relatively simple show. Couples are given £14,000 (originally £12,000 on the BBC3 version) to spend on their wedding. The catch? The groom must do the entirety of the planning. From the dress, to the venue, to the cake, and even the stag and hen parties – all without telling the bride. The couple must have no contact at all for the three weeks of the show’s duration.
Initially, it might not seem clear why this show is so insidious. Is it not simply harmless fun? Whilst it took until 2018 for the first couple to actually not get married as a result of the groom’s decisions on the show, despite their children and eight-year-long relationship, the messages sent by Don’t Tell the Bride can hardly be described as ‘harmless’. From the normalisation of archaic gender roles to reducing marriage to merely a gimmick, Don’t Tell the Bride is just one disaster after another – and that’s before we get on to the grooms’ decisions.
The first major problem with the show is that is essentially a set up for failure. The ridiculous three week time limit in which grooms must secure clothes, venues, and invitations for the wedding is beyond unrealistic. In reality, many couples book their wedding venues at least a year in advance or, according to wedding forum ‘Hitched’, even earlier than that. To do this in three weeks is almost impossible, inevitably setting the groom up to fail and thereby upsetting the fiancée.
Then there’s the issue of the wedding dress; wedding dresses in reality often require months of alterations and fittings. How on earth is anyone expected to buy such a personal dress without the person to whom it should be fitted. Some grooms bring a female friend; some have a store employee try on the dress. Some just grab something off the rack and guess. Hardly a recipe for success! Formal dresses often look different on different body types. Whether it is form-fitting or A-line or ballgown, mermaid or high-low, lace or tulle, without the bride there, securing the ‘dream dress’ is another impossibility.
You could argue that the couples who go on this show are aware of these challenges – right? They’ll take these difficulties into account, and surely the show wouldn’t mine these opportunities for drama…
Except these opportunities are meant to be mined for drama, with brides in nearly every episode being taken to do their own dress shopping in a high-end boutique far outside of whatever budget the clueless groom has left over for the dress. Not being aware of the budget, they try on gorgeous gowns and inevitably cry when they realise that there is precisely zero chance of the groom picking out that one specific dress they’ve fallen in love with.
And lack of budget awareness goes further than this to crush the bride’s dreams. In Season 1 Episode 1, Katy admits that she has “expensive tastes” whilst trying on wedding rings, and demonstrates repeatedly that she has no awareness of Sam’s budget. Her dreams are completely unobtainable and unrealistic – but, because she has not been a part of the organisational process, she does not recognise this. There’s no way for Sam to succeed in recreating her hopes (although he actually does pretty well in the end). Denying the bride access to the decision-making process inhibits her ideas from ever being grounded in reality.
But notice here that we have until now only been considering the bride’s dreams. What of the groom’s? Should the groom be trying to recreate what the bride wants? Or should they be trying to create the wedding that they might have been dreaming of for their special day?
A wedding, much like a marriage, should be about compromise, and the combination of two people and their lives together. Through the planning process, the couple should be working together to create an event that suits both their tastes. But, in this show, compromise is almost always failure. Why? Because the bride is not involved in the process of compromise; instead, she only has her own vision to compare it to. Therefore, any compromise to the groom’s vision comes across as imperfection, a source for disappointment rather than joy.
This leads us on to the insidious aspects of this disastrous show: the enforcement of patriarchal, heteronormative gender stereotypes. In Season 1, Episode 1, the phrase her day or variants thereof is repeated no fewer than ten times. Not once is his day, or even their day said by anyone, including the groom, who looks worried when he mentions that perhaps the event has a touch of his personality to it.
This perpetuates the stereotype that all women have been planning their weddings since before they were born, that all women want to plan their weddings, love organising, and should basically do everything themselves with little to no input from their hapless husbands. Simultaneously, it also shows the unfair burden that is put on women who get married; Sam in Episode 1 describes the wedding-planning as, “a full time job” – and it is. This huge amount of work should not be left to women by themselves in the first place. It also continues the ugly stereotype that men are useless and can’t cope without a woman there to guide them; In Episode 1, Katy is shown packing the freezer for Sam before she leaves because he’s never lived on his own before. He is a grown adult!
These stereotypes are harmful to both women and men. They perpetuate the myth that this is how a relationship is supposed to be. Rather than a willing and loving compromise between two responsible adults, who take equal share of the emotional, intellectual, and physical labour their relationship entails, it standardises the outdated myth that a marriage is emotional labour done by the woman to effectively nurture a helpless man-baby.
Lastly, this show turns weddings into gimmick. When it’s all about the wedding rather than the marriage, the love (you hope) between these two people is overshadowed by dramas about dress sizes and fake flowers. An emotional connection is belittled into nothing more than ‘Reality’ TV.
Don’t Tell the Bride is an outdated, heteronormative, patriarchal disaster that should have left television before it was even aired. We need to take a look at our Reality TV and decide what kind of messages we want to be sending to our audiences, and to the world, and about the values we want to uphold in Britain.