While reading One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding, Rebecca Mead’s unbridled attack on the American wedding industry, I was often reminded of the pivotal scene in Oliver Stone’s Nixon, when the president (in a re-imagined version of a real May 1970 event), decides to take a half-drunk, late-night sojourn (sans Secret Service) to the Lincoln Memorial. There he finds himself stepping over student war protesters in sleeping bags and ends up arguing with one young woman about the United States’ continuing involvement in Vietnam. Nixon says he wants the war to end as much as she does, but it’s not that simple. She then has an epiphany that triggers one in Nixon as well: "You can’t stop it, can you? Because it’s not you, it’s the system, and the system won’t let you stop it." As the secret service arrives and H.R. Haldeman hurries the shell-shocked president into a limo, Nixon mutters, "She understood something it’s taken me 25 years in politics to understand—the CIA, the mafia, Wall Street . . . ‘The Beast.’" This moment conveys something it took Stone himself 20 years to figure out: However convenient a target for a generation’s rage the disgraced president might have been, the ship was never entirely his to steer, and the Beast that was controlling him was larger and more sinister than any president could possibly tame.
Rebecca Mead’s One Perfect Day takes on the modern wedding industry and the beast she claims it’s become. Because this book has been widely publicized and will be widely read, regardless of its merits, we all need to know what’s in it. Mead argues that crass commercialism has supplanted any traditional notion of what a wedding is supposed to signify, and reshaped, in the most opportunistic terms, the meaning of marriage and the wedding as a rite of passage into it. Of course, the most infamous beast in the wedding world is the Bridezilla, the bride-to-be who obsesses over every element of her wedding and forcibly draws everyone around her into that dementia, leaving a swath of alienated friends and family, depleted budgets, and wealthier but wearier wedding vendors in her wake. The central question of One Perfect Day is not so much which came first—the bridal beast or the bridal industry beast—but how the bridal industry (again, according to Mead's premise) has contributed to the Bridezilla mindset, and how the rush to suck every last dollar out of this $161 billion-a-year industry (according to Condé Nast) has created a culture of rabid exploitation and excess that neither the brides nor the bridal industry could possibly tame anytime soon, even if they wanted to.
Which Mead, of course, insists they don’t. For the vendors (according to Mead), escalating the American wedding is far too lucrative; and for the brides, breaking the bank and one-upping their peers is far too much fun. It’s no accident that so many brides refer to the glut of wedding magazines as ″wedding porn." They’re fuel for fantasy and guilty pleasures. Mead contends that the wedding industry is chock full of vendors whose M.O. is not just to fill brides’ needs but to feed them. As Colin Cowie, a party planner Mead describes as "the best-known wedding professional in the country," asserts, "The bride is a marketer’s target. She is a slam dunk."
Invariably, One Perfect Day deals in extremes. Mead’s approach works like this: Find an example of the bridal industry at its most obscene, set it up as a straw man, and blow it down. (So much for eschewing convenient targets.) That doesn’t stop One Perfect Day from being insightful or entertaining at times. But that’s part of the problem here. While Jessica Mitford's The American Way of Death is One Perfect Day's obvious antecedent, other comparisons are probably more instructive. There’s a long history of journalistic attacks on American industries, and they've been spilling over into book-length exposés at least since the turn of the 20th century, when Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle took dead aim at Chicago’s squalid meat-packing industry. And one could argue Sinclair was guilty of the same sin as Mead: using investigative journalistic techniques and credentials to get the whole story, then making sure his readers got only part of it. Like Sinclair, Mead transmutes fact into polemic by presenting fact selectively.
But Sinclair was a social reformer. He wanted to shock his readers and spur them to action. Mead just wants to shock and entertain. Certainly, a journalist/polemicist like Michael Moore makes a better modern-day analogy to the likes of Sinclair, but Moore also places a pretty high value on entertainment. Whether he admits it or not, Moore wouldn’t have one-tenth the audience he has if the only people who came to his movies were hardcore activists. He’d be nowhere without the other nine-tenths (or more) who get mad, laugh, and go home happy. The same consumer culture that makes weddings a $161 billion industry and brides a slam-dunk target demographic has made fleeting outrage a marketable form of entertainment. But that’s a topic for another editorial—and perhaps another book.
The point is, I’m not sure reforming the wedding industry is all that high on Mead’s agenda. Granted, we’re not talking about slaughterhouses, and no one I know in the wedding industry is exploiting slave labor to mine diamonds. Significantly, Mead doesn’t spend much time on the diamond industry. We’ve all heard those horror stories before, and where’s the Echo Boom entertainment in that?
All that said, there’s interesting stuff here, much of it suggesting that the commercialization of the bridal industry is nothing new. For example, during World War II, Mead reports that the wedding-dress industry successfully lobbied Congress for an exemption to the the ban on the use of silk except for military parachutes: "American boys are going off to war and what are they fighting for except the privilege of getting married in a traditional way?"
Mead’s notion of the traditional—or rather, the "traditionalesque"—in the modern wedding is also an interesting one: the past as pastiche, with the trappings of various old traditions replacing any single, time-honored way of marrying (Mead calls it "market-driven play-acting"). She has a funny chapter on the often-"decorative" role of religion in the modern wedding, too, and she tells a great story about the increasingly popular "Apache Indian Prayer," which originated not in Apache wedding tradition, but in a 1950 James Stewart western called Broken Arrow.
All of which gives a crystal clear picture of a bilkers’ boomtown to any reader for whom One Perfect Day is her first look inside the wedding industry. But how much does that garish $161 billion figure tell us about the thousands of mom-and-pop shops that comprise the bulk of this industry, and--after the celebrity vendors take their cut--feed their families on what’s left of the pie? As for our segment, Mead doesn’t know because she didn’t get that far. Her exposure to wedding videography seems confined to a single WEVA Expo—and not a particularly recent one at that.
And what did she learn there? Most of us already know the shots heard ’round the world—her opening salvo ("There is one wedding expense that no bride wants memorialized in her wedding photographs: that of her wedding videographer") and her regrettable choice of quote to characterize the videographer’s impact on the wedding day (a photographer’s forum posting of unspecified vintage: "I must admit that my heart sinks when I hear there will be a professional videographer . . . When a videographer flips on the 20,000-watt, highly directional spotlight (with its telltale BOOOOF sound effect), the ambient mood lighting goes to hell in a handbasket"). Given that many wedding videographers today often work with ambient light alone, this quote should leave plenty of readers asking "Where’s the BOOOOF?"
Of course, Mead rehashes the familiar "fat guys in loose shirts" stereotype in describing WEVA’s CEA banquet, alongside the nearly-as-insulting myth of videographer and photographer as churlish rivals (what reader would ever guess from Mead's portrayal that videographers and photographers often refer each other?). And I suspect that there are loads of disappointed CEA hopefuls who would disagree strongly when Mead devalues the WEVA awards program by saying that WEVA gives out so many awards that "in WEVA, as in kids’ baseball, nobody who participates goes home without an award."
Mead actually devotes quite a few pages to the sessions she attended at WEVA Expo. There’s a self-contradicting attack on LaDonna Moore’s brilliant demo video (particularly the dig at the "hefty" bride—who’s zillin’ who?), and a broad misreading of John Goolsby’s "double-your-prices" message. But then she does an almost-decent job with Maureen Bacon’s seminar about how videographers can interact with the bride and groom on the wedding day to construct a narrative. If you’re not instinctively inclined to want a cinematic wedding video, it can take a while for, say, the value of reenactments to sink in, and Mead almost seems to think on it long enough to let it happen.
Finally, she uses Mike Nelson’s seminar to exemplify the industry’s reliance on highly suggestive selling. I’m pretty sure the anecdote that she recounts about videos shown at receptions—the bride, groom, and other guests got so preoccupied with a looping Love Story video that they spent the whole night watching TV—wasn’t the only one Mike told, given that Mike presents a Love Story and/or SDE at nearly every wedding he does, and the fact that most SDEs and Love Stories tend to heighten a reception’s mood rather than killing it. But then again I'm not surprised that it's the one she picked.
Mead really pulls out all the stops to slant Mike Nelson’s idea of the post-wedding meeting as a time to sell the bride new products from the video he already shot: "It struck me as quite an accomplishment that, having established the notion that memories can be materially preserved, saved, and owned, a videographer could also claim default ownership of them—rather like an explorer who alights upon an island, stakes his flag into the sand, and claims the territory for the Crown, without consulting the island’s native inhabitants as to their feelings regarding unsought subjection to the alien monarch."
Of course, wedding photographers have been holding their clients’ "memories" hostage since time immemorial. But that doesn’t seem to strike Mead as odd in the way it does with videography.
Which gets to the real problem here. In One Perfect Day, the entire wedding industry is accused of manipulation and excess. But according to Mead, videographers aren’t so much guilty of excess as they are a symptom of it. Any videographer (however unobtrusive, well-dressed, trim, or female) is condemned to "Who invited that guy?" status. Which is infuriating, because a lot of people are going to read this book, and even after it takes its rightful place alongside the rest of the bridal porn, most readers will recall nothing about videographers but Mead’s hackneyed image of fat slobs with big lights.
To be fair, Rebecca Mead does grow a heart and a soul in the final pages of the book, when she acknowledges that, in the three years she spent cracking wise about the commercialization of the modern wedding, the vastly more consequential issue of whether getting married is predominantly a religious rite, or—given that it confers legal privileges and protections unavailable to unmarried people—a civil right, was polarizing the country and helping to re-elect the most unpopular president in American history. But by then, advance in hand, she probably couldn’t have stopped writing this book if she’d wanted to. We all have our beasts to obey.
Stephen F. Nathans is editor-in-chief of EventDV.