As a self-employed entertainer, I live in a constant state of stress. Will anyone buy tickets to my show? Am I posting enough on TikTok? Will I make enough money this year? The only time I feel truly relaxed and carefree is when I find myself in a beautiful hotel room. In a hotel room, everything is taken care of. I can spread out in the middle of a king-sized bed and partake in my guiltiest pleasure: reality TV. I will happily watch Chopped, House Hunters, or Love It or List It, but I always say a prayer that TLC will have a marathon of my favourite show: Say Yes to the Dress.
The show is self-explanatory, and its formula hasn’t changed since its 2007 premiere. Brides are on a hunt for the perfect wedding dress, with their very opinionated friends and family, at Kleinfeld, an iconic New York bridal salon. The heart and soul of Kleinfeld are the fabulous and quirky bridal consultants, who have the best Long Island accents. The fun of the show is in feeling like you’re part of the consultation. My opinions are just as strong as those of any mother of the bride. I am gleefully mortified when a client walks in with a $30,000 budget. “Girl, you are insane,” I say to myself and the bride. “That’s a down payment on a house!” But I’m also excited because that big budget means I get to see the most garish, tacky, bedazzled Pnina Tornai gowns. Pnina is Kleinfeld’s hottest exclusive designer; her signature aesthetic is stripper meets Disney princess. Her dresses are, hilariously, the most coveted. Everyone wants a Pnina!
But SYTTD is so much more than over-the-top bridal consultations. What keeps me coming back is the show’s fascinating and, often, terrifying glimpse into the cult of heteronormativity, which I watch with morbid curiosity. Finding a man, getting married, and having babies is still the expected trajectory for women in North America, and that will definitely not be questioned at Kleinfeld. I have seen hundreds of grown women on the show say they want to be a “princess,” and I cringe every time. In the last episode I saw, a woman explained that she brought her fiancé to the consultation because she can’t make any decisions without him.
When I was a kid, I thought nothing was more glamorous than a wedding. I loved when my favourite soap opera characters tied the knot in lavish, dramatic ceremonies; I loved making Barbie marry Ken, even though my sister always thought it ruined the game—ironically, she’s the one who’s married and I’m the one who will be (happily) dying alone. I dreamed of finding my soulmate and getting married. Now, as an adult and long-time singleton, I can see that my desire to marry was my desire for safety. Girls, even trans ones, are taught that to be safe in this world, we need the protection of a man. And I think that’s what the SYTTD brides want too. The big difference is that no matter who you marry, the world, at least as I know it—and probably will ever know it—is not safe for trans women. We’ve had to look for alternatives to safety; we’ve had to turn to community instead of husbands for protection. The women on the show have so much invested in their marital hopes, but is the safety they think they’ve found real? Am I completely overthinking a simple-minded, formula-driven reality TV show? Have I turned a feel-good show into a tragedy?
Ultimately, the feeling I have when I watch SYTTD is relief. At the end of each episode, I feel like I’ve dodged a bullet. Thank god I didn’t say yes to patriarchy. Thank god I didn’t say yes to heteronormativity. I did recently say yes to Discovery+, which has 300 episodes of SYTTD. I no longer have to be in a hotel room to watch this masterpiece; I can watch it from the comfort of my own bed, where I can pretend that the biggest stress in life is finding the perfect wedding dress—I wish.