2016-06-30

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.

Personally, my friends have listed criteria ranging from "He must subscribe to The New Yorker" to "He must have straight teeth." The more unabashed will admit to preferring Ivy League educations, steady, high-paying jobs in law or finance, and expensive gym memberships. Whereas in our early 20s we blithely dated struggling artists, flaky musicians, and video store clerks with unfinished screenplays, the aging process has a way of narrowing the pool down to a few semifinalists who seem like sure bets.

The mystery lies in the fact that we do this regardless of our actual need for a financially solvent male. Women who bring in $75,000 a year still get together over drinks and cluck about men who won't pick up checks. Women who are earning more money at 30 than their parents needed to raise an entire family refuse to consider a man who makes less than they do. Is this gold digging or merely the contemporary manifestation of a condition that's deeply ingrained from birth?

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.

I have a male friend who is 29 and lately finding himself unable to attract the beautiful, interesting women that seemed to flock to him in his early 20s. He's intelligent and talented, but he shares a crappy apartment in an undesirable neighborhood in New York City, works temp jobs, and doesn't like to pick up checks. He rails against the superficiality of women who dismiss him in favor of Wall Street brokers and has, over the past few years, taken to dating much younger women who are content to moon over his poetry and his CD collection. He says he'd rather date women whom he sees as his equal. I sympathize with his plight, but only up to a point. I'm looking for my equal, too, which is why I no longer date temp workers who live in crappy apartments.

Most of us want to date and marry our equals. The problem is that "equal" is a lot more difficult to identify than the more obvious conditions of "inferior" and "superior." To deem someone our equal requires taking a hard look at how we score in the pageant of life. This, of course, is an impossible task. A certain amount of self-delusion is necessary just to get through the day, and besides, the internal rating system has a way of fluctuating with good and bad hair days. So when we look for our equal, what we're usually doing is seeking our superior.

The human species has thrived largely because we've managed to convince ourselves that we're a little bit better than we really are or and that we deserve a mate who's a little bit better than what we think we are. "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?" may be a tacky, oversimplified interpretation of Darwinism, but its precept is no different from the one put forth by programs on the Nature Channel that show lions mating.

Fox Television knows full well the atrocity it has created. The more people who become outraged and smugly proclaim that they're above such shallowness, the more contenders there will be for what should surely be the next installment, "Who Wants to Be a Hypocrite?"

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