Art & Commerce: Consumer Republic

Sensational TV shows give us a sense of superiority
By Debra Goldman’s
Was anyone really surprised to learn that Rick Rockwell, the most televised groom since Prince Charles, was both more and less than he purported to be? In a perfect world, the producers of the sweeps supernova Who Wants to Marry a MultiMillionaire would have found some nice, normal, attractive multimillionaire who, as Rick himself put it, was filled with “the desire to find love on a television show.”
The problem, as Fox belatedly learned, is that looking for love on a TV show is not the kind of thing a nice, normal, attractive multimillionaire is likely to do. On the contrary, it is something a middle-aged showbiz wannabe who has problems relating to women would do. So it’s hard to be shocked when it happened.
Nevertheless, in its brief life, the program served a vital public service. Those who have watched in amazement as network television pursues programming that makes syndicated fare look like PBS and wondered, “How low can they go?” now know: not as low as Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire.
The demise of the show, a.k.a. When Good Programming Gimmicks Go Bad, must have been some comfort to Robert Thompson at the Center for the Study of Television, Syracuse University. While all of organized feminism howled in protest at the show, few put the case more strongly than Thompson, who observed, “At the end of two hours, if you turned down the volume of your TV and listened carefully, you could hear Western civilization crumbling around you.”
First, I would suggest that if the professor is going to take the idiocies of the idiot box so hard, he might consider another line of work. Second, if he is suggesting that the spectacle of women competing for a wealthy man portends civilization’s end, he needs a history lesson.
The story of mankind has been passed on through untold unions that were little more than mergers as well as countless arranged marriages in which bride and groom first saw each other on their wedding day.
I confess I had trouble understanding the feminists who argued sexual justice would not be served until men competed for the hand of a lady multimillionaire–a wish the ever-accommodating Fox threatened to fulfill. It’s not that there’s anything unnatural about men pursuing a woman with a good set of assets. For all the good it did them, women have been married for their money from time immemorial: It is called a dowry and many an eligible flower withered on the marriage vine without one. (Perhaps the professor should watch less TV and read more Jane Austen.)
Besides, everyone knows the Darwinian flip side of Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire is Who Wants to Marry a Supermodel.
I don’t mean to defend the show. (When my husband asked me during a promo if I was going to watch it, I told him, “I’d rather stick a poker in my eye.”) Yet I am unable to work up the requisite outrage at this silly spectacle because I think it stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of the reasons viewers are drawn to such programs.
Consider the talk shows, which only a few years ago were the designated agents of the end of civilization. To watch the waves of lesbian Nazis and mothers who slept with their daughters’ boyfriends is to sit in head-shaking amazement at how pathetic, attention-hungry and just plain perverse some people can be.
In the same way, it is impossible to see some pimply deadbeat take a tongue-lashing from Judge Judy without wondering, “What kind of person would volunteer for this?”
Whatever kind it takes, there apparently are thousands of them out there–enough to crash the
Multi-Millionaire Web site. As for the rest of us, we don’t watch these shows because we approve of them or identify with the “values” they espouse. Their entertainment value lies in the feelings of perverse fascination and superiority they elicit.
So feminists, take heart: The notion that millions of women tuned in because they think it’s OK to marry a rich stranger on a game show is absurd. It is more likely the vast majority watched Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire because the concept was so bizarre, unthinkable and wacko.
Viewing has less to do with greed or sexism than with our species’ eternal fascination with freak shows and fatal accidents.
And like many vintage freak shows, it was also fake. Both Rockwell and the contestants signed a prenup protecting their assets.
Even get-rich-quick dreams aren’t what they used to be.