Just when you think that we might have entered a progressive age when old stereotypes have been eroded beyond recognition, along comes some media event that makes you reconsider whether or not American culture will ever get out of the box imposed by the “idyllic” 1950s. Thanks to the lowbrow marketing geniuses at Fox television, such an event is upon us.
I hate to use the term “new low,” but that’s exactly what the special, Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?, feels like. As the other networks have watched their ratings plummet in the wake of the insanely successful ABC-Regis Philbin vehicle, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, the scramble has been on to come up with something to compete. At first we were simply inundated with a glut of similar game shows like Greed and Twenty One. Now, in what seems a desperate act combining imitation and parody, Fox gives us a pageant-cum-pandering spectacle that removes even the trivial intelligence or strategy requirements of the game shows, and that certainly doesn’t have good ol’ Regis.
Who Wants to Marry a Multi-millionaire?
The very idea of Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? is decidedly sickening. Take 50 beauty queens (a concept that has already inspired much vehement debate among feminists and other concerned citizens), let them compete in a pageant (including a “beachwear” section, which the intended groom specifically requested, self-reportedly for his own benefit, but perhaps for all his fellow heterosexual male viewers as well), and the grand prize winner gets to marry a millionaire, live on TV, whom they not only have never met, but have never seen.
The implications of this show are enormous for anyone who’s willing to take a second and think about it. At least with Regis, there is at least the implication of some brainpower required to put you into a higher tax bracket. With Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?, the only qualities that the winner must have compare with those of Miss America (i.e., standardized ideas of beauty that regulate, among other aspects, a woman’s hair, face, bust, legs, bust, smile, and, did I mention bust?). The women themselves, by the very act of competing for the specious prize of marriage to a multimillionaire, have implicitly bought into the sexist notions perpetuated by the show that A) marrying rich is every girl’s dream, and B) all I have to offer is complete superficiality, which is justified as long as I marry rich. If anyone ever questions the societal damage done by Julia Roberts and Richard Gere in Pretty Woman, let this be a lesson.
The grand prize winner, Darva Conger, has demeaned herself in front of the national media during the attention that the marriage and its aftermath have received. Conger claims she entered on a whim and never really thought that she’d win, that she’d actually have to go through with it. Or so she said amidst the flurry of Good Morning America and Today Show interviews. Come on! Why would you enter this contest at all if there’s even the remote chance that you might be picked? Just to say “Hi!” to your mom on TV? It’s lamentable that her name will now be associated with superficiality, immorality, and golddiggers. And it’s probably not fair, but because she made the huge mistake of even appearing on the special, she’s going to be portrayed that way. By continuing the cycle of exploitation through her talk show appearances, she further hurts her credibility. And in some sense, she deserves the infamy for not seeing it coming in the first place.
Surely, the female contestants are not the only ones whose motives need to be questioned. What about the mystery millionaire who was set up to marry the lucky girl? At what point do you say to yourself that being fabulously wealthy isn’t enough, that you need to symbolize it with a trophy wife (or husband). Trophy wives abound, and most men and women I know look down on them for discrediting women’s “equality” to men. Certainly, the men who possess them are just as culpable for the proliferation of shallowness in this practice. Maybe it’s getting harder to meet men and women who are willing to be symbolic prostitutes. Maybe the stable of trophy spouses has been depleted by the nouveau riche of Silicon Valley or the sports and entertainment complex. And maybe it’s the ultimate result of the booming economy that keeps making the rich richer. For every point that the Nasdaq goes up, there’s another millionaire trying to live in the commercial that has become the American Dream. I guess a television pageant beats the bar scene, eh?
Of course, once the shady past of Fox’s mystery millionaire, one Rick Rockwell, was revealed, it became easier to imagine what might have made him go to such desperate measures. After all, his new bride didn’t even have chance to see him, much less find out about the restraining order that a previous girlfriend had placed on him. The charges of domestic abuse have all been denied by Rockwell, but who cares? Shouldn’t the producers of the show have done something more to check into the past of these guys, or is the fact that he claims he’s really rich (even if relatives have since said they’re surprised to hear it) enough for Fox to figure he’s okay? After all, it’s only those poor people in the ghettos who ever commit crimes, right? Just look at COPS.
And a word on those producers. Did you know that Fox has a studio department specifically for reality programming? I didn’t, but thanks to the glut of media coverage, I now know who to blame: Mike Darnell. Fox has long gambled on his ability to provide sensational entertainment with a “real TV” edge. Prior to Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?, I had been saddened by the fact that The World’s Scariest Police Videos has a regular time slot now. But this latest production takes the cake. When Darnell was asked if he really thought the couple would stay married, he said he thought it would be a long shot, but that “They’d go away, come back and decide whether they liked each other or not.” Talk about the sanctity of the institution of marriage!
Let’s think how ridiculous this whole concept was to begin with. First of all, there’s the blatant insult of beauty pageants being broadcast at all. Then, there’s the fact that the producers dug up some lonely rich guy who wants nothing more than to marry a pin-up that he can look at and, presumably, have sex with. Let’s not leave out the voyeurism of the public who will tune in to the show just to see what the guy and his bride look like. Finally, there’s the fact that the show ends up promoting the idea that the ultimate prize is marrying into money that you never have to work for, think for, or even try for, as long as you meet certain physical requirements. You can definitely get more mileage out of your silicone implants this way than you would, say, going into the porn industry.
Can you believe they considered making this a regular feature?!? There must be a line of lonely millionaires down at Fox studios who are totally bummed out now. The sad thing, had the producers not totally blown it by choosing to use Rockwell the Abuser as their dream husband, is that it would have worked! 23 million viewers! 23 million of us who had to see who would be stuck with whom in a legally binding marriage, which of course comes with a sizable cash prize. Come on, people! This isn’t the wedding of Charles and Diana! Don’t you know that it will keep getting worse as long as you keep watching? Are we all so stupefied by spectacle that Faces of Death has a shot at syndication now? Isn’t there anything better to talk about around the water cooler at work than whether or not Darva and Rick had sex on their honeymoon?
There may be other contexts for thinking about the show. Perhaps, in an alternate universe, it has revealed a shift in the way we think about stereotypes since the 1950s. That is, perhaps the show has restored dignity or at least public approbation to the business of whoring and pimping. In this case, everyone involved deserves credit: the female contestants, the “lucky” millionaire, the producers, and to some extent the eventual viewing audience. After all, Fox has managed to surprise most of the broadcast world by offering up some truly innovative and creative shows, even when those same shows aim for an ostensibly lowbrow humor, like The Simpsons and Malcolm in the Middle, humor which is, in turn, reclaimed by critics as postmodern. Maybe once Fox can set up some kind of screening that includes a more comprehensive or reliable background check, they’ll change their minds and revive the show. Or maybe they’ll come back with their original concept of having 50 men compete for marriage to a female multi-millionaire. That would certainly even out the degree of insults to both genders. After all, 23 million people can’t be wrong. Not in the television business.
If they can pull it off, maybe once the contestants on Greed, or on Regis’s show for that matter, become more successful in winning millions, there will be a rich stock (pun intended) of potentially single, new millionaires who would love to marry the beer poster girl or boy of their dreams. Tune in next week to find out.
// Channel Surfing
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