Joe Millionaire

Unless you’ve been on vacation outside the galaxy, you know the premise of Joe Millionaire: Fox invites twenty beautiful women to a chateau in France, where they will compete for the chance to marry its ostensible owner, a young, handsome multi-millionaire, who’s not really a multi-millionaire. Yet another version of Fox’s Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire? and ABC’s The Bachelor, Joe Millionaire might appear to offer viewers a familiar choice: enjoy the guilty pleasure of the twisted fantasy — men and women each have their own here — or laugh at the absurdity of prime time “reality” TV.

Leave it to Fox to resolve the dilemma for us. Rather than acknowledge the ridiculousness and moral weakness of both genders, Joe Millionaire draws a moral bull’s-eye on the female participants’ avarice and shamelessly endeavors to inspire cattiness among them. Too bad for the women that their Prince Charming is actually a construction worker (and occasional model) who “makes $19,000 per year” (so says the show’s promotional campaign). In the final episode, when the guy has chosen the woman he likes best, he’ll reveal his real circumstances, and we’ll get to watch her reaction. What Fox calls a test of her true love is, in fact, the same sort of thinly disguised woman-hating for which the network has developed a reputation.

So what’s wrong with slamming a bunch of gold-diggers? Theoretically nothing, but why should the finger-wagging be so blatantly gendered? (This feature of the show is more than a bit ironic, given that the moral trap is sprung by deception.) Clearly, women aren’t the only ones who marry for money — or appear on these shows in search of fleeting celebrity. And how about critiquing the fantasy that wealth and power permit a man to stage his own private beauty pageant with all the requisite objectification of female bodies? The makers of Joe Millionaire wouldn’t think of it. No, this program is intent on satisfying the backlash lust of women-hating men. The moral judgment of gold-digging is merely the mask behind which Fox hides its ad-hominem attack.

What’s so disturbing is how easily we — or at least the 18.6 million viewers who tuned in for the premiere episode — consent to the stereotype, especially when it’s presented as “unscripted” and “unplanned.”

Here’s one of the “unscripted” scenes: the women are lined up in front of the chateau, and from the horizon emerges a dark figure on a dark horse — “Joe,” a.k.a. Evan Marriott. He dismounts and makes a witty crack about how the horse “should have been white” (more spontaneous reality or just a cruel Fox joke?). One of the women says in voiceover that, on first appearance, Evan looks like Gaston, the handsome villain of Beauty and the Beast… and Fox winks at the omniscient audience.

Shortly after they meet Evan, the women are informed by British butler Paul that there will be a ball that night. They are to select their dresses from the assortment in the next room. The catch is that there are exactly twenty dresses for the twenty women. And did production assistants take measurements of the women in advance to ensure that each will have a properly fitting dress? Of course not.

And yet, despite these Darwinian circumstances — seeming to guarantee a catty battle for the prettiest, best-fitting dresses — the resulting scene is remarkably tame. Fox shows some of it in fast motion to create the appearance of a frenzy, and the butler offers a scornful voice-over, but the women strike this viewer as mostly polite and dignified. Heidi, a particularly competitive member of the group, naturally catches the eye of the Fox editors, and her grabbing of two dresses becomes their focus.

The cynical Paul is one of the program’s cleverest devices. What he guarantees is that Evan Marriott can perform the woman-hating deception without appearing to be the woman-hater. The butler makes the comments to inspire the she’s-so-busted whooping and hollering that likely filled American living rooms on Monday night. And while Paul sneers, the faux millionaire can have angst-ridden thoughts about the trick he’s playing on the poor girls. “Now that I’ve met the girls,” he says, “I feel really guilty about deceiving them, but I’m waist-deep in it now.” Boo hoo.

After he gives eight of the women the boot in a humiliating elimination ritual (he bestows pearl necklaces on those selected to remain), we cut to Paul sitting in a chair, holding a snifter of brandy. “Going home without their pearls,” he says in mock sympathy. “There isn’t room in the chateau for all of us… Well, actually there is. Anyway, next week…” As the most competitive, money-grubbing women seem to have survived the cut, his commentary only underlines the whim of male choice that the show so obviously fetishizes. Paul’s sarcasm suggests that Evan and Fox send eight women packing after the first night simply because they can.

Jen, a 23-year-old office coordinator, is one of the women who must hit the road. “So he’s not my prince and he’s not my fairy tale,” she says. “I will have a happy ending.” Revealingly, this program is replete with clips of the women comparing their situation to various prince and princess myths. This odd motif coaxes to the surface the paradox on which the show teeters. On the one hand, Fox implies that Joe Millionaire is more “authentic” than traditional dramas because it depicts “real” people in “real” life. On the other hand, the show’s own mythic structures are based in gold-digging: Prince Charmings always rescue women from loneliness and work.

And so, the women are mostly guilty of believing what they’ve been told — either all their lives or by the producers of the show. What’s easy to gloss over is that finding twenty women who are in love with the myth of marrying a rich, good-looking savior is probably about as difficult as finding twenty men in love with the fantasy of marrying a Playboy playmate. Fox may seek to indict female materialism, but what it does is expose the culture that reproduces such ostensible “deviance” as the norm.

So nice try, Fox, but there’s not enough room in my life for more Misogyny TV. Really, there isn’t.

Editor’s note: Fox will repeat the first two episodes of Joe Millionaire on 16 January, from 8-10pm ET.