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Spouse selection on television undercuts importance of intimacy

SHE'S NOT a gold-digger, she just plays one on TV. Last week's multi-million dollar spectacle brought one woman closer to what every American female desires - marital bliss with a filthy-rich male specimen.

When Darva Conger tied the knot with alleged-multi-millionaire Rick Rockwell (rumor has it he may not be worth quite as much as we originally supposed), she scored a victory for money-grubbing husband hunters everywhere. Kudos to Fox for facilitating this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity! I'm certain the National Organization for Women (NOW) will review the decision to air "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire" quite favorably when they evaluate the networks' treatment of women during the flurry of February sweeps.

Related Links
  • AP Article on "Who wants to Marry a Multimillionaire"
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    Nielsen ratings evaluate ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox based on program popularity, allowing local television stations to determine advertising rates. The NOW sweeps rating differ, however, monitoring the networks from a strictly content-based perspective.

    The NOW scorecard should prove an interesting reflection of how far the entertainment industry, and by extension the American viewing public, have come in developing a social consciousness about gender. Analysis of gender role stereotyping, sexual exploitation and violence against women in network programming certainly will provide interesting fodder for feminist debate. Or in the case of Fox's latest sensationalized spectacle, fuel for the ever-present fire of feminist fury.

    The age-old conundrum of how to evaluate a beauty pageant in a feminist context plays into discussion of this latest display of blatantly physical analysis and evaluation of the female form. If the women choose to subject themselves to such scrutiny, should we still condemn the practice? Perhaps. Why, one should ask, do women find themselves drawn to display their bodies for approval by a male audience - in this case, an audience of 23 million Americans? Cultural and social conditioning that leads women to take pleasure in achieving such acceptance and accolades make likely culprits.

    In the case of the multi-million dollar nuptial hunt, women did not stop at baring their bodies in attempts to win over their "prize" - a rich, handsome young buck. They also coaxed the reticent Romeo with promises of the fabulous things they could do for his life. Rockwell sat silent during the entire broadcast - concealed behind a screen but observing all of the unfolding drama, the display of female sexual prowess.

    Finally, however, the voyeur - the "mysterious multimillionaire" - emerged from his hidden vantage point to make his selection. The finalists stood in white satin wedding dresses as their fates hung in the balance. This man would change one of their lives - do we presume for the better? - crowning one woman the victor and leaving the rest in the dust.

    How have we come to this? How, in an age of supposedly improving gender equality, can such a disgusting display garner such attention and - disturbingly - such wide viewership? Though it would be easier to assume that 23 million appearance-oriented men made up last week's captive audience, a staggering 1 out of every 4 women between the ages of 18 and 39 tuned into the broadcast.

    My first reaction: "Is this for real?" My follow-up reaction: "What the hell? This is for real." Besides providing a public forum for scrutinizing women's bodies, personalities and marital aptitude, the program's concept seemed problematic in another sense. Bordering on a return to arranged marriages and the mail-order bride, the pageant represented the manifestation of a nation-wide search for women hankering to appear on the show. Think you're having a dry dating spell? Never fear! Now you can find - and marry - a woman perfectly suited to your needs during a primetime television broadcast.

    The high divorce rate among American couples no longer stands alone as a testament to our inability to develop and foster lasting intimate relationships. More powerful than the most effective dating service, "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire" scales the male-female barrier in a single, perfectly orchestrated bound. Certainly, Rockwell and Conger can divorce immediately upon their return from the honeymoon (2 bedrooms were provided for use, if desired). But the multi-million dollar debacle already has done its damage in its treatment of women as objects, men as consumers in a meat-market and relationship cultivation as an insurmountable challenge for American adults.

    This program - a pageant peddling brides to tempt a wealthy connoisseur - presents as many problematic gender issues as an entire sweeps month full of "Married With Children" could have hoped to offer. Condemning the Fox broadcast is a place to start. Changing the social conditions that create a market for such an absurd affront to female dignity should remain the ultimate goal.

    (Amy Startt's column appears Wednesdays in The Cavalier Daily.)

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