What Happened to the Revolution?
It began with “Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?” in 2000. Before long, that stunning media debacle was matched by “The Bachelor,” “The Bachelorette,” and “Average Joe.” And now, premiering June 18, 2007, NBC brings us “Age of Love” in which a 30 year old “tennis superstar” will pick from a field of women competing for his attention. Some of the women are in their 20’s, while the others are “40-something(s) on the prowl.” The dramatic conflict: Will he “go for youth or maturity”?
This is the twenty-first century, but you would never know it by the way women routinely grovel, belittle and demean themselves on national television in the name of being the woman selected by a man to be the object of his affection or, in the case of “The Bachelor,” his future wife.
I grew up in the 1960’s and ’70’s — post “Leave it to Beaver,” “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” and “Father Knows Best” — when women fought for the opportunity to stand alongside men as their equals in all aspects of their lives. I distinctly recall when Diahann Carroll broke down color and gender barriers in 1968 by becoming the first African-American woman to star in her own prime time television series in the role of a nurse raising a young son on her own after her husband was killed in the Vietnam War.
I also remember watching Marlo Thomas portray “That Girl!” every Thursday evening on ABC: Never before on network television had the character of a young, single woman living alone in New York City been the focus of a sitcom, so we forgave her for her overprotective father and dorky boyfriend, as well as the impossibly expensive designer wardrobe. After all, Ann Marie was chasing her dreams and, while watching her, we dreamed of our own futures.
Of course, beginning in 1970, we were enchanted by the penultimate “Mary Tyler Moore,” from which “Rhoda” and “Phyllis” both earned mildly successful spin-off series. When we secured our first apartments, we all put initials on our walls like Mary’s prominent “M” because we all wanted, in some ways, to be like the Mary Richards, the gal with the “spunk” Lou Grant claimed to despise.
Those women were the fictional pop culture role models of my youth.
But when I see the commercials for the aforementioned reality series, I shake my head in bewilderment and revulsion. How did this culture devolve to the point that we sit glued to our television sets watching two women spend all day primping and preening for a meeting with the purported man of their dreams — a man they have known a few short days and weeks, and with whom they have never spent any time without a camera crew looking on? Each “candidate” is a mass of anxiety about whether he will dump or propose to her.
The depth of humiliation to which these women willingly subject themselves is nothing short of astounding.
Like the crowd gathered at the accident scene, we are fascinated when the camera zooms in for the “money shot,” i.e., the moment when the tears begin to roll down their cheeks as they finally come face to face with the man they profess to be in love with. The announcer leaves America hanging in suspense, promising that after the commercials, one woman will be crying tears of joy when her dreamboat announces that, after much soul-searching and deliberation, he has concluded that she “touches his heart the most” (or some other such nonsensical phrase that the producer told him to use because, let’s face it, guys don’t think up such verbiage on their own) and pulls out the engagement ring purchased by the producers. The “loser” sobs dejectedly during the limousine ride back to obscurity, mascara and snot running down her face in equal parts, wondering what she could have done differently to secure a happy ending to her dream — and another 15 minutes of fame.
Sociologists will surely be studying the cultural phenomena known as “reality television” for decades to come. I find myself searching to understand why any self-respecting young woman would willingly participate in these deprecatory spectacles. Why are so many otherwise intelligent, educated, accomplished and, yes, attractive women apparently so desperate for fame and/or a relationship with a man that they will parade in front of cameras on group “dates” and line up in anticipation to see if they “receive a rose” signifying that the hero deigns them worthy to remain in the competition for his affections a while longer?
More importantly, consider what message such shows send to the girls and young women who watch them. I know that they are indeed watching because I hear them — and their mothers — talking about these shows. In fact, many actually have “Bachelor” parties — they gather to watch the finales together to see if their favorite contestant wins the man.
Having come of age during the Women’s Movement, I find these “reality” programs horrifying on many levels, the most important of which I have already mentioned: To watch a group of lovely young women throwing themselves at one guy, viciously one-upping each other to entice him into a state of infatuation masquerading as “love,” and even offering themselves up physically in order to “win” the “competition” saddens and embarrasses me as a woman, a feminist and a humanist. The way they willingly submit themselves and their futures to the whim of another human being is appalling. Worse, I cringe in shame and revulsion when they backstab, manipulate and out-maneuver their fellow contestants in the name of “true love,” perpetuating the stereotypical notion that women are incapable of empowering and encouraging each other.
The spectacle degrades all of us and cheapens the sacrifices and contributions of the many brave women — and men — who fought so courageously to secure equal rights and opportunities for all persons irrespective of their color, gender, sexual orientation or other immutable characteristics. As a practicing civil rights attorney, I speak with authority when I tell you that the fight for equality has yet to be won.
Women, especially mothers of daughters, need to carefully and deliberatively consider the impact of such programming, not just on impressionable young girls, but the culture as a whole. As women, if we support this kind of programming through our viewership and patronage of the sponsors who make it possible, we are culpable and will suffer the consequences when others hold us in low regard, fail to treat us as equals, and refuse to accord us the respect and dignity we, our mothers and grandmothers, worked so hard to secure.