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).
In the end, The Bachelor/ette openly depicts heterosexual mating patterns in a Darwinian, “survival of the cutest” way, in which men and women choose mates based on looks and immediate sexual chemistry alone. This turns heterosexuality into a highly superficial system of selection that runs counter to the ideology of romance manufactured by Hollywood and women’s magazines–namely the “soul mate” model, which, in fact, most of the participants on these shows bring with them. All of the marriage seekers claim to be open to love and marriage; all tend to be young, good-looking and financially secure; many, weirdly, seem to be in “pharmaceutical sales” (you tell me). Most claim to have been either unlucky in love or just not managing to find that one special person. Meredith Phillips, for example, last season’s “bachelorette,” says she signed up for the show “in an attempt to find her soul mate.” Meredith, a makeup artist and a model, was a participant on Bob Guiney’s season of The Bachelor. When Bob picked another hopeful lovely from his batch of ladies, Meredith was crushed, since she had been sure that Bob was her “soul mate.” But ABC allowed her another stab at tracking down the elusive “one and only,” and the next season she claimed to have found him among the twenty-five financially secure prospective husbands picked out for her perusal. Soul-mate hunting, it turns out, depends less upon the twists and turns of fate and much more upon a well-funded boyfriend search on national TV.
A whole series of shows that followed The Bachelor, therefore, made it their mission to show that hetero men and women care about more than just money and looks. Average Joe, as the snappy title implies, asks a woman to choose from a set of “average guys,” and Joe Millionaire has women compete for a guy whom they are tricked into thinking is very rich (in fact, he’s a construction worker). While the goal of these parasite shows is to demonstrate that the participants really value relationships over fame, TV exposure, money and quick sexual encounters, in each case, greed and looks win out over other more abstract markers of compatibility. On Average Joe, for example, the producers send in a group of male models to confuse the bachelorette halfway through her process and, sure enough, each season, she jumps at one of the models and dumps the average Joes!
Reality shows, we now know, have a limited shelf life, in the sense that once the format has been learned by the audience, boredom can set in all too quickly. This season’s The Bachelor, for instance, was so bad and so boring that you could not tell the difference between three out of the four final blond women, and the fourth was cast as a psycho around whom the producers engineered a very halfhearted stalking episode.
The tedium factor drove all the networks to new creative lows this season, and they desperately fiddled with the format to try to find fresh arrangements of groomed male and female bodies in search of matrimony. So, audiences could pick between My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance, The Littlest Groom and even a gay show on Bravo, Boy Meets Boy. On the first, a woman has to trick her parents into accepting her “big fat obnoxious” fiancé, who is played by a professional actor, in order to win a million dollars. In the second, a midget man picks between a group of female small people and some regular-sized women. And in the gay version, a clean-cut, handsome and smart white gay guy goes on dates with countless other clean-cut, handsome and smart white guys (only some of whom are actually gay) in search of a life partner. His challenge is to select the gay men from the gay impersonators. My Big Fat Blah, Blah, Blah failed because the trickery was staged and blatant; the midget marriage series bombed because it exposed the “freak show” aspect of all the marriage shows. And the “trick the fag” show ultimately fell way short of its aspirations because the gay contestants, in the end, seemed far more interested in cruising each other than in focusing their attention on the one good-looking gay guy selected by producers as the Prime Gay!
Two scenarios have so far been completely avoided by the “get hitched in prime time” phenomenon. First, all the shows have refused to test the waters of interracial dating, and so far none have cast a bachelor/ette of color in the main role. In a perfunctory nod to diversity, there are always contestants of color in the group of potential mates at the beginning of these shows. The black or Asian contestants usually don’t make it past the third round (you don’t want to cut them too quickly); the occasional ambiguous Latina/o can make it a bit further. But in the end, these shows always manage to avoid parading interracial romance on prime time. A suspicious viewer might be inclined to read intimations of social engineering into these shows. Are they ads for white families at a time when demographic shifts have made white people a minority in certain cities and states? Are the shows trying to caution against interracial unions or just portray a process of “natural selection” as “color-blind”?
Second, while the format seems to extend to telegenic gay dudes, so far there is no interest in creating a show about lesbian dating/mating. Far be it from me to advocate for such a thing, given that, based upon The L Word, such a show would undoubtedly involve hetero-looking bisexual babes pressing up against each other for the viewing pleasures of straight men. And yet, the absence of lesbians and people of color (not to mention lesbians of color) bears mentioning. Apparently, US audiences can thrill to the spectacle of arranged marriages and dating opportunities for all kinds of white and heterosexual bodies, but the whiff of interracial or lesbian trysts would make audiences queasy and stretch the marriage paradigm to its limit.
On the finale of Average Joe Hawaii, one bachelor finally took a stand and rejected his new mate in a fit of pique. Was he reacting to the false moralism of the show? Was he refusing to fall in love in three days on national TV? Did he want to make a point about selling intimacy short? Nope, he was furious that his new girlfriend had held back from him a frightening secret: She had once dated Fabio! Even though no one could explain why this “secret” should bother our “Above Average Joe,” he claimed that “any guy in America” would feel as outraged as he did. What Fabio represented to this insecure model-actor we may never know, but these are the mysteries of reality TV that we must tolerate. In the end, our stud could not recover from this terrible disclosure, and the match made in NBC studios faltered and died a natural death.
Few of the hopefuls on reality marriage shows actually marry their new mates. Most use their time in the limelight to secure modeling contracts, get exposure as actors and enjoy the half-light of the semi-celebrity status that chases them for a few weeks after the show ends. Of course, if they were honest, the studs and babes would admit that the chance to nuzzle, cuddle and smooch twenty-five hotties with impunity in a two-month span is reason enough to sign on for the rocky ride of reality dating. But honesty is not the best policy for bachelor/ettes. So as each potential soul mate confesses to “falling for” (the most overused phrase in reality marriage land) the man or woman of the hour, the bachelor/ette returns the love and longing in equal measure and commits to love, honor and obey, forsaking all others, in sickness and in health, until death do they part, or at least until the next episode.