They tell bridesmaids to lose weight, force fiances into second jobs – and one reportedly asked a friend to have an abortion. Bridezilla stories are tabloid catnip, but what do they tell us?

Wedding cake with bride and groom figurines

It is wedding season, and as surely as an Ed Sheeran-soundtracked first dance follows a street-food-truck meal, stories of brides behaving badly are keeping the internet stoked. There is a whole group on the forum Reddit devoted to tales of so-called bridezillas. Newspapers devour them like a slice of naked wedding cake. Last month, a screengrabbed picture of a text conversation between a bride trying to force her cousin to be a bridesmaid before telling her she was “too fat anyways” was posted. Another post related how a woman had tried to force her fiance to get a second job to fund their wedding. There was also the story of a woman who posted the picture of her engagement ring – which once belonged to her partner’s grandmother – complaining it wasn’t what she had wanted, and the woman who complained her bridesmaids didn’t want to pay for their dresses. Earlier this year was the story of the bride-to-be who asked her pregnant bridesmaid to consider having an abortion so as not to complicate the dress fittings, and the bride who forced her friends to take a polygraph test. She wanted to find out which one of them had leaked details of her planned dress code, in which colours were allocated according to weight. Whether or not these tales – usually anonymous – are true, in WhatsApp groups over the country, women are prefacing any request of their bridesmaids with “not to be a bridezilla or anything, but …”

“I won’t stand for it,” says Mark Niemierko, a wedding planner, of outlandish demands. Only recently, he says, he took a bride-to-be to one side and asked her to stop being so rude to his suppliers. When he talks to other people in the industry, they do share stories of overly-demanding brides, though he adds it has become such a well-worn – and feared – stereotype that the bridezilla has started to die out. It came about, he thinks, with the advent of celebrity weddings. He blames David and Victoria Beckham, and their 1999 wedding – with its golden thrones, outfit changes, balloon release and fireworks – for starting the modern trend for wanting the biggest and flashiest do, along with all the stressful organisation and cost that entails. The worst behaviour he has seen from couples “comes from being somewhat insecure and more so, keeping up with the Joneses”.

The term bridezilla, likening brides to the fearsome Godzilla, the giant lizard-like sea monster from the 1954 Japanese film, had emerged four years before the Beckhams’ wedding in a newspaper article in the Boston Globe about demanding brides. It peaked around 2009, with the film Bride Wars, in which Anne Hathaway and Kate Hudson try to sabotage each other’s weddings. And yet, 10 years on, the unhinged bridezilla has become as much a fixture of the wedding picture as that other monstrous female stereotype, the hostile mother-in-law.

A still from the film Bride Wars

“We get a slew of news stories about out-of-control brides making ridiculous demands,” says Jilly Kay, a lecturer in media and communication at the University of Leicester, “and I think what it tells us more about is not that there is an epidemic of hysterical bridezillas, but that our culture is really uncomfortable with the idea of women having power and also women being angry. It speaks to this deep anxiety we seem to have with women who assert themselves, want to take control and have a voice.”

Alena Amato Ruggerio, an associate professor of communication at Southern Oregon University and editor of the book Media Depictions of Brides, Wives and Mothers, came across the term when it was used as the title of a US reality show in 2004, showing the extreme behaviour of brides-to-be. Why has the stereotype been so enduring? “It taps into longstanding stereotypes about women,” she says. “That, under pressure, a woman is going to have a meltdown.” A woman, particularly a heterosexual woman, is supposed to view her wedding day as an achievement, something she has been encouraged to “dream” about – through stories and films – since she was a child. It is supposed to be perfect. “And when it’s impossible to live up to those standards, we’re going to sit back and enjoy watching the drama of her stress.”

She can’t win, says Ruggerio. “On the one hand, a woman is supposed to have high standards in order to make all the arrangements and manage all the details; she’s being asked to exert a lot of power, but even just being able to display that competence can be a threatening display in a sexist society.”

The term bridezilla, says the writer and feminist Joan Smith, “brings together a number of things, which is a rather old-fashioned idea of femininity, women apparently behaving in a trivial way and also being assertive. Those things together are always very easy to set up as a target.” There is also the irreconcilable idea that women are not supposed to seek attention, while also being the centre of attention on their wedding day (although a mute, virginal figure). “They’re spending a fortune on the dress and they want people to look at them and admire them, and women are not supposed to do any of that, even though the commercial pressure to do all that is very large.”

Smith points out she is from a generation of women who did not want to get married, and certainly there are opportunities for resistance. “You don’t necessarily have to subscribe to all of those cultural standards of what a wedding is supposed to look like,” says Ruggerio. But the $300bn global wedding industry – not to mention the deluge of Instagram pictures and Pinterest boards – continues to push the idea of what a wedding is supposed to look like.

Sophia Kingston, an administrator from Somerset, is getting married in two years’ time and is already heavily involved in planning her wedding. Her boyfriend is helping but she is doing the majority of the work. She says she didn’t think there was much danger of turning into a bridezilla “until I realised I am going to end up becoming one, because it’s hard to plan a wedding and juggle work, and it’s hard not to freak out about costings and guest lists. I didn’t realise how easy it would be to become one.” One of her friends has already called her bridezilla. “I hate it,” she says. “Even as a joke.”

There is no groomzilla in popular culture – or if there is, it is said as a joke. But often, says Niemierko, it can be the men, particularly those with a lot of money to spend, who can be as bad as any tabloid bridezilla. “And they can be even worse,” he says. He has seen grooms insist on attending dress fittings, or turning the wedding into a networking event, inviting clients and people he is trying to impress. “He is going to have that ridiculous firework display and show off, and outdo his friend’s wedding he went to last year.” The British reality show Don’t Tell the Bride, in which the groom takes on all the wedding planning to surprise his wife-to-be, only works because we take it as a given that it is the woman who should really be organising their wedding, and the stakes are so high because it is supposedly the most important day of her life. When a groom on the show is throwing a tantrum or making impossible demands of his best man, nobody suggests he is becoming a monster.

In the UK, the average cost of a wedding is about £30,000. “I’ve spent the past eight years working with brides-to-be, some of whom had £7k to spend, many of whom had well over £100k to spend,” says Jade Beer, a former editor of Conde Nast Brides and author of The Almost Wife. “But regardless, their attention to detail is what is consistently staggering. These women are deeply impressive. Every one of us could learn from their work ethic.” Imagine juggling the dietary requirements of more than 100 guests, she says. “Some tell horror stories of guests flying in from multiple foreign destinations and expecting the bride to assume the role of tour operator.”

The bulk of organising a wedding is still viewed as the woman’s job, Kay points out. “It’s not just project management, in terms of running this multi-faceted event, but all the emotional labour that has to go into it – negotiating complex family politics and making sure that everybody’s happy,” she says. If some women snap under the pressure, it is hardly surprising, but the trope of bridezilla says more about how we view “women’s work”. “It’s part of the way we don’t value the kind of emotional labour women are doing all the time,” says Kay.

Of course there will be some women who have acted in horrendous ways while trying to create some idealised perfect day, but the fear of being criticised for having demands or wishes, has a wider, pernicious impact. “The trope of the bridezilla,” says Kay, “does a lot of ideological work in trying to keep women in their place.”