When the television reality program "The Bachelor" aired, it immediately irked my feminist awareness and common sensibility. Of course, the basic absurdity and insult of setting up a bunch of women to fight over a man is demeaning enough , to say nothing of being completely unnatural. Females make the mate selection in nature, not males. Males fight over females in the courtship ritual throughout the animal kingdom, not the other way around.
Considering it seems Frat Boys are programming television these days, it’s obvious they’re not concerned with a reality show being based in reality or, for that matter, decency. So, I wasn’t surprised when rationality went out the door and in came "Joe Millionaire"-- epitomizing the humiliation of women, the other common thread in all of these dating "reality" programs.
Oh sure, there’s "The Bachelorette," which was produced, as its creator admits in Newsweek, "to silence some of our feminist critics." In other words, we’ll throw you this bone so we can nail women everywhere else. How thoughtful.
Unless you’ve been hiding in a Tora Bora cave for the past couple of months, you know "Joe Millionaire" is the reality show which is anything but. Here, the absurdity is not just the fact that women are lined up to compete to get the guy, but they’ve all been lied to about his financial status They’ve been told he’s the 50-Million-Dollar-Man, when in fact he’s a 19,000-Thousand-Dollar-a-Year-Man. Their public humiliation is supposed to be funny and entertaining. Should I be thankful they don’t have to wear a burqa?
On the day "Joe" premiered, I was asked to be a guest on CNN’s Connie Chung show about this very subject. I, of course, was the person who was to explain what could possibly be wrong with all this fun (I was lucky they didn’t identify me as "Wet Blanket"). The producer of this mess, Mike Darnell, was also on the program and explained that he and a few buddies were sitting around one night trying to figure out "how to push the envelope," to capitalize on the "The Bachelor" idea. I’m paraphrasing here, but he said they thought it would be fun to see how women would react to this situation (being lied to), testing them, if you will, to see if women could like a guy just for himself.
Think about that for a minute. Here we have a man designing a program which tells young women (and men) that women should put up with lies, deception, humiliation and embarrassment in courtship in order to prove she’s trustworthy. For the poor woman ultimately chosen by "Joe" that will be the issue, and for every viewer that is the singular message. If Joe’s choice accepts him she approves of abuse, and if she rejects him she’s a whore. Talk about a no-win situation.
My concern, though, is not for the women who chose to participate in this thing. Their decision simply makes Andy Warhol more insightful than I ever thought he was. They got a free trip to France, and 15 minutes (okay an hour or more ) of fame. My complaint rests with the impact these programs have on how we view ourselves and each other.
We know television has an remarkable impact on our culture. There’s no way around it. Corporations know the depth of that power when they spend tens of thousands of dollars to buy 30- and 60-seconds of commercial time. Considering how one minute influences us, what do you think an hour of programming accomplishes?
The insult of "Joe Millionaire" sends an extraordinary message to both the young women and men who watch it. For some men, it reinforces suspicions about the intentions of women. That program, by its very construct, tells young men that women are not sincere; women don’t want you for who you are; women cannot be trusted; and ultimately, you have to be very careful because women, in their hearts, are just in it for the money—the burden of proof that they’re not whores rests with them.
While it may be tempting to dismiss this perverted "pushing of the envelope" in television, England provides a serious caution to apathy. The UK’s Channel 4 is scheduled to air a documentary called "Beijing Swings," which will feature "performance artist" Zhu Yu eating the flesh of a dead baby.
Shocking? Absolutely, but is it so far removed from our program, "Fear Factor," where contestants must do hideous things (including eating the unimaginable) for victory and money? While some argue that the offended can simply turn off the television, that’s not the issue here. I’m not offended--I’m angered at the destruction of my culture which continues whether or not I watch it happen. Young women and men who are not watching this tripe have to deal with it’s impact on the scads of their peers who are.
While our issue here rests with something a bit less horrifying than cannibalizing a dead infant, "Joe Millionaire" is a tepid but important warning sign. As long as our culture is shaped by a gang of irresponsible and indecent people sitting around trying to figure out how to make television more extreme, Zhu Yu can’t be far behind. The only thing which will keep us from facing such a horror, is to decide now that we won’t revel in or support the public humiliation of another individual, no matter how "funny" it’s supposed to be.