Performing Femininity

Performing Femininity

Saying ‘I don’t’ to reality TV romance

The fairytale wedding ideal remains compelling, but harem fantasies are free of “Prince Charmings”. Jennie Park/Flickr

If you’re under the age of 30 and consider yourself beautiful (if you’re a woman) or intelligent (if you’re a man), now is the time to seize the opportunity to audition for the sixth season of Beauty and the Geek Australia. If you are a woman who is more interested in joining a harem in inexplicable pursuit of a man you’ve just met, unfortunately applications for the second series of The Bachelor Australia have recently closed.

Local and imported versions of these and other reality programs that depend upon a substantial assembly of beautiful, single women who are paired up with men in various ways remain popular and long-lived for their genre. Even the Australian edition of The Farmer Wants a Wife screened for eight seasons before it was cancelled.

“Harem fantasies”, in which men have the choice of an array of women, such as The Bachelor and The Farmer Wants a Wife, have their origin in a one-episode special aired by Fox in the US in 2000 called Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?

The program saw a wealthy man, Rick Rockwell, evaluate 50 women in the manner of a Miss Universe pageant. Rockwell, who the female contestants could not see, selected nurse Darva Conger and they were married immediately.

Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? outraged both progressive and conservative community groups for its exploitative nature. In 2002, the executives behind the condemned program modified the initial idea into the enduring The Bachelor format, which inserted the vital idea of the fairytale romance into the marriage plot.

Most of us realise that reality television merely gives the viewer the illusion of a basis in reality.

The events and milestones of each episode and series are scripted, and sometimes outcomes and decisions are subject to influence by producers. For example, Evan Marriot, the construction worker who posed as Joe Millionaire in search of romance in 2003, claimed that the show’s producers determined his choice of schoolteacher Zora Andrich, who he never saw again.

Rachel E. Dubrofsky describes reality television as a “constructed fiction, like the action on scripted shows, with the twist that real people create the fiction of the series”. In programs where there are substantial prizes to be won, such as Beauty and the Geek or Big Brother, the motivation for individuals to allow themselves to stand in for paid actors is self-evident. It is less clear, apart from aspirations for fame, what motivates women to volunteer to be one of several dozen women vying for one man’s attentions.

In The Bachelor, the eligible male at the centre of the program has access to 25 women. Somewhat contradictorily, the ultimate aim of the series, despite the fact that the Bachelor often has encounters with multiple women – sometimes on the one night – is to is enter into a monogamous marriage.

The Bachelor trailer.

Women occasionally decide to leave the show willingly, refusing a rose from the bachelor at the episode’s concluding ceremony. Yet those who remain on the show are subject to the whims and desires of the bachelor and must strive to remain likeable and desirable, despite the jealousies the scenario is designed to provoke.

True romances rarely result from these programmes. Despite dozens of individual series in the US, only a handful of lasting relationships or marriages are on record.

This might have something to do with the casting choices made. Producers tend to opt for a man who is non-committal and who has no urgent desire to marry.

In contrast, the women who make up the harems are usually presented as desperate to find a match, with that desperation increasing with age. Strikingly beautiful women express fears about being “left on the shelf” and becoming old maids, while the quests for men are less influenced by a desire for marriage and are free of concerns about an expiration date.

Female age was played upon in the dismal Age of Love in 2007, which featured former Australian tennis player Mark Philippoussis as the eligible male. Though he was 30 years of age, the women who vied for his attentions were grouped into the competing categories of “kittens” (in their 20s) and “cougars” (late 30s and early 40s).

Age of Love.

In these shows, women are often placed in situations that are designed to incite moments of bitchiness and competitiveness. In her book Reality Bites Back, Jennifer L. Pozner suggests that many of the scripted tasks exploit a need for approval:

[W]e watch women sink to sickening depths as they perform one mortifying stunt after another in pursuit of male validation. City girls stick their hands up cows’ asses to prove their romantic fitness for a cute country bumpkin on Fox’s Farmer Wants a Wife.

Of course, The Bachelor has produced the spin-off series, The Bachelorette. Doesn’t this even out the sexism by giving a woman access to a harem of men?

The female equivalent of The Bachelor is not a simple reversal of the concept. For one, all of the women selected as The Bachelorette have been rejected by a bachelor on a previous series. None of the male Bachelors are presented to their harems, and an international audience, as “rejected” goods.

Moreover, the Bachelorettes still constitute eye candy, as they did in their previous location within the harem, with many shots lingering over their bodies in each episode.

Yet, despite the focus on the Bachelorettes’ sexual appeal, as Pozner points out, “female stars are harshly judged for behaving half as wantonly as any of the randy Bachelors”. The path to finding the “right one” for women is not supposed to involve sexual experimentation with more than one partner.

The white, heterosexual fairytale endings fetishised in these series rarely translate into love in reality. The question is, why do we find such artificial, and unashamedly sexist, stories of “finding the right one” so compelling?