Why a bride-to-be should think twice before choosing a Maid of Honour

Emotional labour has been a hot topic in feminist circles of late.

The term refers to the emotional requirements of a job and everything that goes into fulfilling the expectations around managing feelings and expressions during interactions with customers, co-workers and superiors. Feminists argue that female employees take on the brunt of emotional labour by being more likely to do office chores, like taking notes at meetings, mentoring colleagues and going above and beyond when it comes to socializing and customer service. This expectation is seen as an extension of the traditional role women have played in the nuclear family, in which convention would dictate that they delegate household tasks and remember everything from the grocery list to the schedules of children – all while maintaining a sunny disposition. 

When women don’t do these things, they’re viewed negatively. Men, on the other hand, are simply not expected to take on these roles – but if they do, they’re praised for their extra efforts. As a result of this imbalance and the lack of appreciation for such duties, women often experience burnout and even mental health problems.

It’s not without a healthy dose of irony, however, that the most onerous form of emotional labour subjected upon a woman is not at the behest of men, but rather other women. In fact, it’s often prescribed by a woman’s best friend, under the guise of a coveted privilege, reserved for those lucky few who bear the title, Maid of Honour.

The origin of bridesmaids and maids of honour can be traced back to Ancient Rome, where many believed evil spirits would haunt weddings. To confuse the spirits, they required 10 attendees to dress in the same clothing as the bride and groom so that it would be harder to tell who was who. The Maid of Honour typically stayed right beside the bride, dressed exactly like her, to also ward off potential kidnappers motivated by money or jealousy.

 

"Our cultural obsession with female friendships is seldom focused on the quality of those relationships, but rather chasing an impossible and idealized version of them."

 

While there may no longer be such threats at your average wedding, maids of honour have never been busier. Their duties can include emotional support, doing the bride’s makeup, throwing bridal showers, organizing bachelorette parties, sending invites, keeping a record of gifts, assisting in dress shopping, coordinating other bridesmaids’ duties, attending bridal fairs with the bride, meeting with vendors, assisting with set-up, choosing decor, keeping the bride fed and hydrated, handing out wedding favours, acting as a social gatekeeper and making sure everyone is having a grand old time.

There’s simply no male equivalent to the Maid of Honour on the groom’s side of the aisle. A best man typically has to find himself a tuxedo to rent and maybe organize a bachelor party. The role is a lot more fun, and a lot less taxing.

Despite the potentially burdensome time, financial and emotional investments involved, women in North America and Western Europe are still eager to be named Maid of Honour. When a friend becomes engaged, speculation begins almost immediately about who may fulfill the role. It’s even common for the bride’s final choice to spark fits of jealousy and tension between friends, sometimes permanently scarring relationships. It’s for precisely this reason Meghan Markle decided against having a Maid of Honour or any adult bridesmaids at the recent royal wedding, saying it would be too difficult to choose among her close friends.

The Maid of Honour role’s enduring desirability seems linked to the same commodification of female friendship that inspires #SquadGoals and girl-gang culture. Attribute it partly to Taylor Swift, who famously flaunts her gaggle of seemingly perfect, beautiful friends, including Selena Gomez and Karlie Kloss on Instagram and in music videos. Social media has warped friendships into performative acts that often emphasize exclusivity more than inclusivity, and trade in social currency between participants. Being named Maid of Honour bestows one friend special value in a sea of “BFFs.”

Our cultural obsession with female friendships is seldom focused on the quality of those relationships, but rather chasing an impossible and idealized version of them. Female friendship, often portrayed as an alternative to romantic idealization, is now every bit as aspirational as evidenced by popular hashtags. Rather than imagining themselves as modern-day Cinderellas or Julia Roberts in Pretty Women, females seek to be the Betty to someone’s Veronica, or the Serena to someone’s Blair. Playing Maid of Honour is as important to that fantasy narrative as a proposal is to traditional romantic ones. It symbolizes having “made it” to the top of the friendship pyramid.

But, similar to how many couples experience “post-wedding blues” or a sense of aimlessness after having finally tied the knot, female friendships can falter when the emotional labour of actually being Maid of Honour finally hits home. According to a poll of 1,939 U.K. brides, approximately one-third cut ties with at least one of their bridesmaids after their wedding day. For many besties, it seems the reality of being part of the bride squad doesn’t live up to the fantasy sold to them by social media and the entertainment industry.

As weddings and their surrounding festivities become bigger and more extravagant, true friends may want to reconsider the role of Maid of Honour. While more and more women scoff at the idea of expecting their future husbands to live up to a Prince Charming-like ideal, neither should they expect their girlfriends to meet fictional standards of friendship. More brides would be wise to mimic Markle and prioritize the health of real-life relationships over chasing a friendship pipe-dream.

This piece first appeared in the National Post

Sabrina Maddeaux