Reality TV Gives Marriage an Extreme Makeover

By Halberstam, Judith | The Nation, July 5, 2004 | Go to article overview

Reality TV Gives Marriage an Extreme Makeover


Halberstam, Judith, The Nation


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 Guantanamo 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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Reality TV Gives Marriage an Extreme Makeover
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.