"Joe Millionaire" turns the familiar fairy tale on its head: Kiss your prince and -- poof! -- he turns into a frog. Or rather, fraud.
Romancing 20 young women at "his" French chateau, "Joe," allegedly the young heir to a $50-million fortune, is in fact Evan Marriott, a $19,000-a-year construction worker and sometime underwear model. Over seven episodes, Joe winnows the field by giving his favored females necklaces of increasing value (bite those pearls, girls) until only one would-be wife remains. Wildly popular even by the standards of staged "reality" programs, the show drew nearly 19 million viewers its first night.
So what gives? Maybe just brilliant marketing or the ultimate triumph of humiliation TV. But I suspect that what makes "Joe Millionaire" so exquisitely and embarrassingly fascinating is that even in its blatant deception, it brings more naked honesty to topics we prefer to cloak in romantic cliches, tasteful euphemisms or silent denial.
Fox's promotions promise to unmask the supposed mercenary motives of marriage-minded young women. "What will happen when the truth is finally revealed?" asks the network's Web site. "Which of these women are out for true love and which are just interested in [Joe's] bank account?"
Yet the test fails by its own premise. Which inner qualities are the women supposed to value over Joe's ersatz outer accouterments? His dishonesty? His eagerness to humiliate them before a prime-time audience?
If anything, the presentation of marriage as meal ticket seems quaintly anachronistic in an age when women have achieved financial independence in numbers unimaginable to previous generations. Today's young single woman is more likely than her male counterpart to hold at least a bachelor's degree. After graduation, her No. 1 goal is to secure some measure of economic security, usually by climbing the career ladder rather than marching down the aisle.
Still, "Joe Millionaire" strangely resonates with contemporary singles, not because they are part of a generation of would-be gold diggers but because the progress that has helped young women pay their own way has coincided with social changes that have made their search for a mate as daunting, depressing and debasing as, well, losing on an unscripted TV dating show.
This is the thesis of a provocative new book, "Why There Are No Good Men Left," by cultural historian Barbara Dafoe Whitehead. Documenting the dramatic rise in the percentage of single women in their 20s and 30s, Whitehead seeks to explain why so many of society's best-educated and most accomplished women feel lost on the unexpectedly arduous path to the altar.
One factor: The old-fashioned courtship system has been bulldozed to make room for what Whitehead calls the "Girl Project," which sought "to prepare young women for adult lives of economic self-sufficiency, social independence and sexual liberation." It worked, but at a price. Courtship has been replaced by "a series of relationships that form and break up" with no necessary momentum toward marriage. "The new system is nicely adapted to men's sexual and romantic self-interests," writes Whitehead. Indeed, today's single men "can count on a pool of attractive peer women who are willing to sleep with them, compete over them, take care of them, spend money on them and make no big demands of them. And many men now believe that they have no reciprocal responsibility to her beyond her orgasm, if that."
In the new dating game, women have learned to muffle the marriage talk or risk being deemed either desperate or (as Fox would have it) devious. Getting honest about the romantic plight of the new single woman may earn the ire of feminists who still equate domesticity with incarceration. But until women are willing to step forward and reclaim their romantic destinies, they remain passive participants in a game rigged against them, trading their dignity, wasting their time and watching their hopes for a happy ending dim with every passing episode.