Marriage. Is it: (1) an intimate union recognized by the state, (2) the joining of man and woman in the eyes of God or (3) a competitive sport on network TV produced for the entertainment of millions? Anyone emerging recently from an isolation chamber (say, in Guantánamo Bay) might be forgiven for believing that marriage has gone to the dogs (and the gays and the lesbians, for that matter) and become a game show. Indeed, young men and women are lining up to be chosen by complete strangers for lifetime commitments even as divorce rates hover at 50 percent. Why has marriage become prime-time fodder for a public that craves escapist “reality” TV? Should we interpret these new marriage shows as evidence that the institution has completely crumbled or as a reinforcement of its ubiquity?
Reality marriage shows have angered conservatives who feel that the programs represent marriage as a kind of popularity contest. But one could easily argue that these shows take marriage for granted as a basic fact of life and revel in its endlessly fascinating details. Some gay and lesbian viewers have complained that these shows recentralize heterosexuality at a critical moment in the nation’s marriage debates. And yet, the conservatives are ultimately right: The Bachelor, Joe Millionaire, Average Joe, My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance and all the other “win a husband/wife” shows surely trivialize the sanctity of marriage and, in the process, turn straight coupling, for better or for worse, into pure entertainment. Heterosexuality never looked so fragile.
The breakthrough marriage show was ABC’s The Bachelor, which debuted in 2002. In the interests of gender equality, the successful first season was soon followed by its matched set: The Bachelorette. These shows set up the bachelor/ette with twenty-five dates and allow him or her to eliminate a certain number each week until the number of potential mates has been winnowed down to four. At this stage, the lucky bachelor/ette meets the suitors’ families and then makes a cut. When the suitors have been reduced to the more wieldy number of three, the bachelor/ette goes on intimate overnighters with each date (creating an adulterous scenario in the process). After another cut, the two remaining contestants meet the bachelor/ette’s family, and then he or she makes a final decision and proposes on the season’s finale.
The reality marriage shows actually replace family sitcoms about the drudgery and necessary hardship of marriage (Roseanne) and challenge other sitcoms about the fun of single life (Friends, Seinfeld, Sex and the City). By giving marriage a radical makeover, they revive the audience’s interest in private lives and turn the viewer’s attention away from the public sphere during a period of intense political secrecy, grotesque military blunders and faint public dissent. The marriage shows, like much reality TV, produce a steady stream of “real” images of “conflict” (Big Brother), “survival” (Survivor) and “terror” (Fear Factor), which then compete with real conflict, real survival and real terror.
But don’t mistake me for a reality-TV basher. Ever the cultural optimist, I truly believe that audiences can read between the lines of pure ideology (romance) to see clearly the actual rendering of marriage in these shows as practical (tax credits, access to sex, state recognition, gifts at the wedding, gifts at the baby shower, social and familial approval), while at the same time understand real marriage as neither romantic nor practical (little access to sex after a while, expensive to have children, you hate each others’ family and friends).