Reviews > Culture

The marriage craving

Culture | Reality TV and the box office prove that the institution of marriage is still the ideal

Issue: "Press coverage uncovered," March 8, 2003

One of every three TV sets in America was glued to the finale of Joe Millionaire to see which woman Evan would choose, and, more importantly, to see the look on her face when she learned his true income.

The next week on The Bachelorette, a woman made her choice of who, among a crowd of suitors, she wanted to marry. This too proved to be a ratings bonanza, with the woman no doubt gaining sympathy since she had earlier been spurned on yet another reality TV show, The Bachelor.

The fantasy lived vicariously in some of the most popular reality TV shows involves finding someone to marry. This has become an increasingly difficult task in contemporary American culture. All of these programs purport to determine how "compatible" the potential couples might be, setting up various conversations and relationship tests, with the participants' feelings about them confided to millions of viewers.

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None of these matchmaking shows, for all of the apparent earnestness and sincerity of the participants, has led to an actual marriage. The pioneering Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? ended with a quick annulment -even though the groom really was a multi-millionaire-and Evan and Zora are reportedly already having problems, despite the million-dollar dowry they were awarded by their grateful network.

The next generation of reality relationship programs is going beyond matchmaking to try arranged marriages. In last summer's Meet My Folks, the parents chose from several contestants who would get to date their son or daughter. In the works is Who Wants to Marry My Mom? in which a woman's children will pick out a suitable stepfather.

In Race to the Altar, the viewing public will vote-American Idol style-on the couple that best deserves a "fantasy prime-time wedding" to be televised as the last episode. (The 16 competing couples are already engaged to each other. A program in which viewers decide who should marry whom instead of the ones actually getting married may be the next step.)

The enormous popularity of these matchmaking shows proves-despite the blight of divorce and live-togethers-that the institution of marriage is still the ideal and the dream. They also show how people today increasingly have no clue about what is necessary for a successful marriage. Marrying for money, for status, for looks, for personal gratification do not work even on reality TV.

A related but much more positive phenomenon is the unexpected runaway success of the movie and spinoffs of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. The film tells the story of Toula, a young woman who considered herself unmarriageable, but finally finds someone, a teacher named Ian, whereupon they must win the approval of her eccentric, smothering, Greek-nationalist family.

The comedy is hilarious, yet warm-hearted, showing that marriage is not merely a decision of two individuals, but the forming of a family, which itself takes its place as part of two larger extended families. The movie shows also that the bigger family, however strange and embarrassing it might sometimes seem, is something precious, a network of love and support that is priceless, and something to emulate in a new marriage.

An important, though understated theme in My Big Fat Greek Wedding is religion. Though her father wants nothing more than for his 30-year-old daughter who still lives at home to get married, he objects to the man she finally falls in love with because he is not Greek.

The actual problem in many real-life ethnically mixed marriages is not so much ethnic differences but religious differences. The turning point in the movie, where Ian changes from being an outsider to receiving the bear hugs of the whole family, is when he becomes baptized in the Greek Orthodox Church. Afterwards, he says, "Now I'm Greek." Actually, he is still not Greek, but he is Greek Orthodox. In accepting the religion of his bride-to-be, he is making possible a genuine family union.

The movie, for all of its charm, has only two faults: The couple consummate their relationship before marriage, and the Greek expression that Toula teaches her fiance means not just "Happy Easter" but "Christ is Risen!"

The film cost a mere $5 million to make, but it has already earned over $300 million, making My Big Fat Greek Wedding the highest-grossing independent film in history. The project of comedienne Nia Vardalos, who both wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay and stars as the bride, it is now also a TV show titled My Big Fat Greek Life.

Whereas the movie ended with their wedding, the TV show picks up the story with a similar couple beginning their life together. Chances are good that they will have more of a future than Evan and Zora.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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