SHERMAN OAKS, CALIF. — 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.
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."
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 clichés."
"Joe Millionaire" certainly plays on the idea that a tall, dark, and handsome man with riches is an ideal mate. Or at least it tries to. Evan Walker seems to be all of those things and ever so suave, until that is, he tries to mount a horse for the first time in front of 20 women. Eliza Doolittle would have winced.
By contrast "The Bachelorette" does try and play with so-called "traditional" gender roles when it comes to dating. At the end of the series it will be Trista who will have the opportunity to propose to a man.
Still, the show doesn't stray too far from some traditional views. Dr. Brooke Barton, a clinical psychiatrist, says the old cliches have never really gone away, but a backlash against the career-focus of feminism has brought back the emphasis on early marriage and babies with a vengeance. "Trista talked about all the traditional values," she observes. "We're in a very reactionary mode right now and you can see people reaching back to these traditional values on these shows."
The shows themselves are a hot topic around Hollywood.
Suzan Brittan, a single singer who is in town to pitch her own upcoming reality show, "Single in the City," says single life is driving people to "some pretty desperate measures. It's just horrendous." Actress Diahann Carroll is also in town to pitch a new show, "TV and the Single Girl," a companion to Brittan's show. She starred in "Julia," the first network show to feature a single career woman and sighs in agreement.
"Men and women are so lost these days," she says. "They have less idea than ever who they are now, especially in relation to each other. They're just scrambling for some sense of identity and unfortunately, they just turn to the old stereotypes you see on these shows, out of sheer desperation."
Brittan, star of "Single in the City," a coming reality show about singlehood on the cable channel WE, says she agreed to be in the show to chronicle the most important time in her life: finding her husband. "When it's all done, we'll have something to show our grandchildren," she says.
People watch these shows because they want to see that it's possible for things to work out, she says. Even though she's the subject of a show that looks at one person's dating life, she says she wouldn't appear on any of the other dating shows. "I understand why some of those people are on those dating game shows, but I don't think I could actually do one of them myself."
Back in the living room, the idea of finding the perfect mate on television is met with a snort of derision from 23-year-old Melissa de la Rama.
But then, she adds, maybe they're just looking for love. "I guess I don't blame them for looking for love in a weird place."
Maybe it's clear why the singles show up for their TV dates, but why are so many people watching them do it? "It's pure entertainment value," says Daniels. "This is just like a spin-off from 'Survivor.' It's like watching a train wreck. People can't take their eyes off freak shows."
Kristie McLean, jumping up and down, enjoyed the shows, too. But, she says, the shows are cynical. In the end, they're also a story about the commercialism of the culture.
"It's no surprise that people would sell even their most desperate desires," she says. "It's the culture we live in. Sell it if you've got it. It's hard to live in a whorehouse without turning a trick."