But what’s clear reading Austen today, or watching one of the countless adaptations of her work, is how much the women in her novels have in common with so many of the women on reality television. Her female characters are defined by two primary qualities: their privilege and their powerlessness. Her writing focuses almost entirely on women searching for stability and status, deploying the very limited means available to them. Deprived of intellectual gratification or professional empowerment, they scheme, manipulate, and get bogged down in petty rivalries with each other. Their ultimate endgame is marriage, described by Charlotte Lucas in Pride and Prejudice as the “pleasantest preservation from want.” That they do nothing of much more substantive significance (except, some of them, on rare occasions, be kind sisters or daughters) is their flaw, but also, as Austen portrays it, their fate.
Isn’t it weird? It’s possible to imagine Austen, reincarnated with her bonnet and penchant for millinery, being moderately overwhelmed by the various cuts and colors of synthetic fabric worn by the contestants on The Bachelor. But the show’s premise would strike her as utterly familiar. Caroline Bingley, one of the least self-aware and most pathetically predatory characters in literature, would adapt in a matter of minutes to being cast in any one of the Real Housewives franchises. When Curtis Sittenfeld sought to write a modern version of Pride and Prejudice, it was almost inevitable that her novel, Eligible, would feature a reality show. Perhaps what’s even weirder is that recent adaptations of Austen’s work—Whit Stillman’s charming new movie Love and Friendship among them—don’t really feel like period pieces at all. Almost two and a quarter centuries later, a flourishing television genre peddling “reality,” and fantasy, promotes a vision of women if anything more retrograde than Austen’s, without any of her irony.
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In 2000, the first reality show on network television debuted on Fox. Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire was a two-hour special structured to mimic a beauty pageant, in which 50 contestants participated in a contest to marry a man whom none of them had ever met. There was a swimwear portion of the evening. There was a question-and-answer session. The winner, Darva Conger, received a three-carat diamond ring, a groom, Rick Rockwell, and a honeymoon in Barbados. Her husband, it soon emerged, had previously been issued a restraining order by a girlfriend who accused him of assault. On The Daily Show, Jon Stewart described the spectacle as “a televised dump on women’s rights.” The cover of People wondered if TV had “gone too far.”
The show was scandalous enough to be pulled without any attempt at a redo, but its creator, Mike Fleiss, sold a new show to ABC that debuted two years later: The Bachelor, which recently concluded its 20th season. According to Jennifer L. Pozner, a media-literacy educator and the author of Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV, The Bachelor took the essential principle behind Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire—that women will sacrifice their independence, their bodies, and their dignity to fulfill their ultimate goal of marrying a wealthy man—and wrapped it up in a gauzy veil of romance. This time, there were roses, and dates (sometimes with several women at once), and getting-to-know-you time. There were even visits with family members, surprisingly few of whom seemed nauseated by the idea that their daughters had made it to the final rounds of a televised interview to be someone’s wife. There was a “fantasy suite,” in which the final three women got to spend a night with their prospective husband without cameras being present, courteously allowing them the choice of whether or not to have sex with him.