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Singles weigh in on 'Millionaire,' 'Bachelorette'

By Arts and culture correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 10, 2003


Kristie Mclean is watching the dating show "Joe Millionaire" and taking her frustration out on a couch pillow. On the TV screen, 20 women in horse carriages are trotting up to a French chateau to meet a man they've been told is a nouveau riche Prince Charming.

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In truth, Evan Marriott, aka "Joe Millionaire," is a construction worker who makes $19,000 a year. Each time a girl fawns over Evan and says she feels like a fairy princess - even though it seems evident he might not be who he says he is, and not just because he dances like a wounded penguin - Ms. Mclean has another encounter with the cushion.

"This show makes me realize we [women] haven't come anywhere," says the 30something. "This sets us back 50 years."

Mclean's comments typify those of a group of singles gathered in a living room here to bring a sense of reality to TV's latest "reality" shows.

While the unscripted TV craze now includes everything from celebrity "moles" in Hawaii to Allen Funt versions of high school reunions, dating remains a popular topic for the genre. This week two new shows debuted to predictably high ratings for a culture always fascinated by the spousal quest - "Joe Millionaire" on Monday and the "The Bachelorette," in which a woman, Trista Rehn, gets to winnow her way through 25 grinning guys, on Wednesday.

But to the diverse group gathered in this living room on two different nights, the shows evoked something less than the excitement of the Nielsens. The talk here was of the decline of feminism, sexual stereotypes, and crass commercialism.

Mostly, though, there was a lot of pillow punching.

"Desperate, desperate, desperate," says Mclean, not holding back about what she thinks about singles who go on these shows.

Scooping baked chips into bowls of salsa, the group of singles, ranging from girls in their teens to a man in his 50s, give varied responses to the shows starring evasive Evan and trysting Trista.

"How can you say these shows are about relationships?" asks 15-year-old Whitney Williams, sitting cross-legged on the rug and leaning forward attentively. "All they're doing is lying to each other. Relationships are supposed to be based on trust."

But Jeff Daniels, a 50-year-old computer programmer, thinks the shows are a hoot. "Of course it's a lie," he says, laughing. "That's what makes it perfect TV."

A slight to women?

Still, it's all too much for 23-year-old Heather Miller, a brunette with light streaks coursing through her long hair. She objects to how "Joe Millionaire" calls the women contestants "girls." To her, that word indicates how the two shows play off a coarse series of stereotypes about men and women. She complains that the two shows perpetuate the idea that a woman without a man isn't complete, and that a woman has to have a man with money to feel successful. That, she opines, is dangerous because of the power television can have in shaping people's perceptions.

"We learn about who we are from the media. The media reflects who we are," says the Wellesley College graduate, "but then it reinforces who we are back to us and it imprints itself on us so that we just keep perpetuating the same old ideas. These are all the old clich├ęs."