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The dangers of democratizing marriage

For the past six Monday nights, millions of Americans have been unified -- not in a war against Iraq or terrorism -- but in a shouting match with the television. Their target: Joe Millionaire, the much-hyped reality television series on Fox, as they root for Evan Marriott to pick the least obnoxious woman of the pack. I must admit, I have been a part of it -- my first true experience with the new wave of reality TV.

But Fox is about to launch a new series that I refuse to support. Married By America, scheduled to air on March 3, makes an outright mockery of the institution of marriage. Viewers should boycott this show, as it embodies the fundamental problems of the reality TV craze.

Yes, Joe Millionaire is a pathetic sham, but as inane as the show may be, there is a fundamental difference between it and the proposed new series. The prize for winning the wooing contest of construction-worker Evan is not marriage to the fake aristocrat. At least the show is not trying to manufacture commitment.

Apparently, though, lying to 20 single women wasn't shocking enough. Now Rocket Science Laboratories, Inc., the same company that gave America the gift of Joe Millionaire, is putting the finishing touches on Married By America. According to Fox's official Web site, the new show, "offers singles a once-in-a-lifetime chance to change their future -- to marry the person of their dream" ( Potential contestants must be between the ages of 21 and 39, single, never previously married and without children.

From the pool of appliants who send ina questionnaire and short video tape, the producers choose two men and two women to follow through the process of arranged marriage. Family and friends of the contestants will narrow an initial group of five potential mates for each of these individuals down to two. Then, the glorious American reality-TV fan base will get to phone in their votes, and the contestants agree to be engaged to the person America chooses for them -- a person standing behind a curtain.

Some may claim the show isn't that bad, because the contestants agree to be engaged. Subsequent episodes follow the couple as they date and decide on wedding plans, with the final episode airing the wedding ceremony. Others, such as Fox's reality TV chief Mike Darnell, may claim this show is designed for people, "who are tired of the dating scene and open to the idea of having a marriage arranged for them" ("Fox Arranging Marriages. Really," Nov. 1, 2002).

The problem with both of these arguments, however, is that they ignore the fact that marriage is a serious and sacred institution not to be entered casually. At one time, most people thought of it as a life-long contract, even though current divorce rates indicate a change in public attitude. Engagement in itself is a serious step -- a symbol of a person's intentions, like a promise.

Granted, a person's intentions with regard to love and marriage are difficult to gauge. Perhaps some who auditioned for the new show are genuinely frustrated with the dating scene, feel prepared for marriage, but need help finding a suitable mate. The audience must ask, though, why someone would agree to do this on national television. When considered from this perspective, the answer is fairly clear: The contestants want fame.

They're content to be publicly humiliated in exchange for a moment in the celebrity spotlight. Maybe the idea of marriage is a motivating force behind appearing on the show, but this reality show, like all others, primarily offers average people a vehicle for stardom. Beyond providing additional prime-time advertising slots, the show and its counterparts serve no other useful function.

If the contestants on Married By America truly were seeking the security and companionship of a husband or wife, they wouldn't have to go on television to get married, just like how warring factions don't need to go on a talk show to work out their problems. There are plenty of outlets dedicated to introducing singles to one another, and they don't require participants to agree to get engaged or married, or to have the whole process flaunted before the public.

Arranged marriages still exist in some cultures. Within these cultures, it is a serious, legitimate process deeply embedded in tradition. Married By America lacks all of these necessary characteristics. The system of arranged marriage is not part of the contestants' culture, and the final decision is made by the viewing audience rather than the contestants' parents. It isn't an arranged marriage in the true sense of the term -- it is a game.

In fact, all of reality television is a game to see who can be the most shocking, the most outrageous. It is a game television producers are winning while the American public becomes fatter, lazier and dumber. Though we all have had our moments of weakness, Married By America does not deserve public support. After all, if no one watches, no one can vote in, and maybe the couples won't get married. Or at least not by America.

(Stephanie Batten's column appears Wednesdays in The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at


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