On Tuesday night, Fox aired the premiere of "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?," a two-hour Miss America-style pageant, wherein 50 women competed not for a crown and scholarship money but for an Isuzu Trooper, a three-carat diamond ring, and a multimillionaire husband whose identity was revealed only minutes before the winner was married by a Las Vegas justice of the peace.

The show scored big in the ratings, coming in second only to the ABC phenom "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." But instead of answering trivia questions about sitcom stars and English royalty, the contestants on "Who Wants to Marry..." were met with the challenge of boiling all the tactics of meeting a mate down to a few jaunts down the catwalk and some supposedly character-revealing ad-libs. In lieu of the traditional panel of judges, the multimillionaire's friends and family weighed in with their opinions on such issues as the importance of having children and the proper way to handle finding another woman's telephone number in your husband's pocket.

As the contestants, most of whom were in their 20s and early 30s and had most of the trappings, if not the exact measurements, of national beauty queens, were narrowed down to five finalists, the viewing audience saw only the back of the multimillionaire's head. His options seemed at once overwhelming and woefully narrow. All but a few of the potential brides were white, hailed from either the Midwest or Southern California, and had hot-rollered coiffures that suggested a hybrid of "Melrose Place" and Dorothy from "The Wizard of Oz." "Kate is wild about her collection of Garfield dolls and spends lots of time at the shooting range," intoned host Jay Thomas during the swimsuit segment. Another contestant listed her dislikes as "pork and pessimists."

The executives at Fox may doing nothing but offering an exaggerated version of natural human impulses.

But pessimism seemed to have been checked at the door that night. What else but youthful optimism could have propelled these women to spend the days before the taping being fitted for wedding gowns, partying with Wayne Newton, and signing prenuptial agreements stating that they'd be entitled to nothing in the event that the marriage fizzled? The shadowy multimillionaire, who was finally introduced as Rick Rockwell, a rollerblading real estate mogul and motivational speaker who enjoys home-cooked dinners with down-to-earth friends, chose Darva Conger, an emergency room nurse and Loni Anderson look-alike who had served in the Gulf War.

Perhaps it was her do-gooder profession that attracted him. Conger's competitors were career women with jobs like project manager, escrow agent, and floor-plan manager (with a stunt woman and clinical psychology doctoral student thrown in for good measure). Many insinuated that the multimillionaire factor was incidental, though it's difficult to imagine that women who embody such culturally sanctioned standards of beauty and have no problem crossing a Las Vegas stage in a bikini and high heels would have trouble getting dates with average or even above-average Joes.

Was this a display of gold digging at its most egregious or simply another manifestation of female ambition in a boom economy?

The whole notion of gold digging has certain retrograde connotations. In the postfeminist era, wallet-chasing women are viewed chiefly as dysfunctional, low-self-esteem types, and, in the vein of Donald Trump and whichever model he's currently dating, the shallow men who fall prey to them are widely believed to get what they deserve. But just as books like "The Rules," which mapped out startlingly shrewd tactics for landing a husband, rose to the top of best-seller lists, the executives at Fox may doing nothing but offering an exaggerated version of natural human impulses.

That's because no amount self-styled empowerment or self-made money can override the pesky old inclination that women feel to seek a mate that will provide for them and their children. After 30 years of feminism, women may wear their own Armani suits and make their own cool millions, but, for most, finding a husband still means not looking down.

If you took a random sample of educated, enlightened, single women, few would probably be so bold as to state outright that they're looking for a man with money. But that's largely a matter of semantics. Instead of using the word money, women tend to say they're looking for someone cultured, educated, well-spoken, and attuned to the sensibilities they associate with sophistication. In a nutshell, that means money, but it can be amusing to hear the lengths to which they'll go to avoid telling it like it is.

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