Real Marriage, Real Life

Laughing at marriage, that age-old comedy staple, is trendy once again. The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, Joe Millionaire and the "reality" genre's latest entry, Married by America: Watching what fools these mortals be is setting Nielsen records. And why not? Unlike the terrifyingly high-stakes disputes over Iraq, smallpox vaccinations, airport security and secret detentions, marriage has an easy-to-follow story line -- one we're all sure we understand better than the players do.

But do these programs also reflect a new zeitgeist, a marrying mood? Are millions tuning in merely for distraction from the prospect of international thuggery? Or, given our scary times, are they ready to say goodbye to the commitment-free singles on Seinfeld, hoping to settle their own uncertain plotlines once and for all? If it's the latter, they'll be disappointed. Once upon a time, marriage could be life's answer. Because of capitalism, that can never be true again.

What's capitalism got to do with it? If you look closely, you'll find two ideas about marriage running through these reality shows. The first: The only moral reason to marry is for love. While that's the American philosophy of marriage today, it's a recent idea historically. The second: Money influences your choice of mate. That thought, currently taboo, is actually quite traditional.

With that in mind, consider Joe Millionaire. Twenty women competed to win the affections of a man they thought had inherited $50 million. But as the audience knew (and the women didn't during filming), "Joe" was actually Evan Marriott, a construction worker earning $19,000 a year, a fact he revealed only after choosing his prospective bride. Joe said he liked construction work better than college, and would rather be poor than unhappy. In good fairy-tale fashion, our simple hero selected -- from the seething pool of aspiring actresses and catty sophisticates hoping never to work again -- another simple peasant, er, impoverished substitute teacher doing what she loved. Viewer faith in true love was renewed. But finances are what triumphed: These two are a perfect socioeconomic match.

Or consider Married by America, now under way. After having mates chosen for them (first winnowed down by friends and families, final selections by viewer votes), five singles were "engaged" to five strangers on stage. Those couples who do marry after a month's onscreen cohabitation will win a list of consumer prizes, including that American dream, the single-family house -- the payoff for making love and war in front of the nation. Here's my bet: Those couples best matched socioeconomically are most likely to win the real estate.

Tying marriage to money may sound crass, but it's more traditional than today's desperation dating. Ketubah, dowry, bride-price, breach-of-contract suits: In most eras and cultures, finances have been negotiated up front. Arranged marriages, in which a person's friends and family selected a prospect of equivalent socioeconomic "worth," worked out just as well as (if not better than)

Today we still find love based on compatible finances. You can see it in The New York Times wedding pages: Marriages are financial mergers, although today's wealth comes in the form of a CV, a union card or a string of degrees. What is a college education fund but an updated dowry, an investment in a child's financial future? And when was the last time you knew a corporate lawyer to marry a postal worker or (except in a J. Lo movie) a maid to wed a future U.S. senator?

Here's what's historically new: Few couples today are yoked together in daily labor. Traditionally, husbands and wives were business partners; one brought in the fish, the other hawked them at the market. Working and sleeping together gave them a good shot at love -- and a reason to stay together when love wasn't there.

But capitalism turned us into workers as mobile as cellular phones, able to make a living one by one. There's no FDIC guarantee on today's marital investment; we don't have to stay together to stay alive -- even if, in these parlous times, it can seem as if we do.

After the international traumas of the 1930s and '40s, shell-shocked young people raced down the aisle -- and then, 20 years later, raced back out again. So far, almost no reality-show pair has made it more than a few minutes after the program's end. That's what makes it comedy. Don't you wish the mistakes in our international reality show could be so easily undone?