No Difference

There are lots of ways to meet people these days: dating Web sites, newspaper personals, matchmaking services. And then there's the newest one: appearing on a reality-television show.

Trista Rehn takes it one step further. Rehn was spurned last year on ABC's The Bachelor. But she got a sweet consolation prize: a chance to be the star of ABC's The Bachelorette -- which debuted Wednesday night -- and to choose from among 25 potential Prince Charmings.

I have to say, it must be nice to have someone pick out about two dozen men who suit your interests and have them show up, decked out in suits, trying to win your heart. One guy presented Trista with a bracelet from Tiffany's. Another wrote her a poem. Others told her she looked beautiful and tried to establish a personal connection with her that would get them to the second round (she had to cast 10 men aside on the show's premiere).

As ABC declared at the show's beginning, the tables -- for the first time since the networks started airing reality shows built around dating several years ago -- are now turned in women's favor. Unlike on The Bachelor, Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire? and Joe Millionaire, women -- or at least the woman on The Bachelorette -- won't be the ones praying to be handed a rose or a pearl necklace as a sign that they passed that night's test. At last, the men would have to compete and feel nervous. It's a small step toward equality for women then, right? They can be just as choosy as men. They can be heartbreakers, too. But as one of my older female friends asked me, Is this really what we fought the women's movement for?

The show's premise -- that Trista will eventually choose one man to marry and that they'll live happily ever after -- isn't deceitful per se (unlike the premise of, say, Joe Millionaire, which Noy Thrupkaew recently derided as antifeminist garbage in a review for TAP Online). However, it's worse than Survivor, where you may get stabbed in the back by someone you think is your friend but at least you're not getting your heart broken. And Trista seems to put faith in the romantic charade she's taking part in. "I want to find Mr. Right; I want to find him," Trista said. As for her suitors, as the host noted at the show's beginning, "These guys are all here because of their romantic feelings for Trista" -- romantic feelings, mind you, that they developed by watching her get wooed and dumped by the bachelor from the previous show.

And, to be honest, a lot of what the men had to say during the first episode sounded less like romance than a high-stakes business deal or a sports competition. "It's a little bit like a shark tank out there right now," a suitor named Wayne pointed out (he was rejected). Some of the men seemed to want to possess her more than woo her. "In the fire department, I'm the one searching for the fire, definitely," said Jack. "Trista's the fire, and I'm going to get her." Brook added: "Roping a girl is much more dangerous than roping a steer. I can let that steer go, but sometimes it's harder to let go of a girl." To be compared to cattle -- how flattering. (Trista chose to let both men continue to the second round.)

Trista admitted at the end of the first show that she had developed feelings for only about one-third of the men she sent to the second round. But she kept telling the host that she was sure her future husband was there. "I've dreamt about my wedding day for a very long time," Trista said. Join the club, sister. But that doesn't mean I'm about to go on national television auditioning husbands.

What kind of men go on this type of show? The same type of women who do: desperate ones. Jamie turned down a contract to play professional basketball in order to meet Trista (he advanced to the second round). Another guy put his business on hold to be on the show (he didn't make it past Wednesday night). But the reactions of the women who lost on The Bachelor and the men who lost on The Bachelorette were markedly different. Trista cried when Alex Michel, the first bachelor, rejected her. (She's since gotten over it, you'll be happy to know.) The men she rejected looked hurt and appeared angry, but they kept their composure. A preview of the upcoming shows had one guy saying that some of the people in Trista's final four wouldn't have made it past the round of 15 in his book. In fact, it was Trista who was crying at the end of the first episode because she felt bad about possibly hurting someone's feelings. So much for The Bachelorette's inversion of gender roles leading to a form of women's liberation -- it's actually more like an old-fashioned ideal, with men having to "court" women, rather than the other way around.

I'll admit that dating is hard. (I wrote a column recently for The Hill about placing a personals ad in a newspaper and having a man I hoped might be my dream guy answer it; instead, it was a friend of mine playing a joke.) But I find it difficult to imagine what exactly (other than the hope of gaining exposure for an acting or modeling career) could motivate people to appear on these shows. Still, one imagines that there will always be people willing to humiliate themselves on TV. The question is: Will the rest of us ever get tired of watching them?

Mary Lynn F. Jones is the Prospect's senior editor.