Last night's premiere of The Bachelor was, well, about the same as every other premiere of The Bachelor. Some things never change: there were, of course, no discernible women of color for bachelor Ben to choose from. There were women who inexplicably sobbed over losing the chance to marry a man they'd known for only a few hours. And there were, as always, a few women who drank a bit too much of the free-flowing champagne and engaged in the first of the season's "cat fights."
And, of course, there were all the trappings of wealth at play—the mansion, the evening gowns, the champagne flutes, the limousines, and the previews of jet-setting dates and $50,000 engagement rings. This, apparently, is what romance is supposed to look like: lavish displays rather than real connections. We all know ABC is not dabbling in actual matchmaking; if so, they would have gone out of business long ago given their abysmal success rate. But they do prop up the idea that this is what romance should look like. And I think that's why the show works—not in the sense that it forms real, lasting relationships (it doesn't), but in the sense that the opulent, manipulated fairy tale nearly always leads to (seemingly) typical adults agreeing to marry someone they've known for about two months and never dated exclusively. The luxurious dates are intoxicating, even if the person you're dating isn't.
While The Bachelor may be the epitome of dating in excess, it's clear that ABC is footing the bill for each of those dates. If you want the over-the-top dates to continue after the cameras stop rolling, you better visit Millionaire Matchmaker's Patti Stanger. She'll set you up with a millionaire, but, ladies, you'll pay the price: you'll have to "dumb it down a little" and remember that "you're not the leader in this situation; you let the man lead." (I should note that she sells men short, too—women have to play stupid because "men aren't that smart" and the men who want ambitious women "fail at chivalry" and need to "shut their mouth[s].")
In TV world, money can buy you a faux romance and gender hyperconformity, but surely real-world dating is something different? Perhaps not. These shows didn't invent the fairytale romance, or even the "gold digger" or "trophy wife" stereotypes—they just wrap them in modern accoutrements and capitalize on them. In an analysis of 1.5 million users, the dating site OKCupid found that people exaggerate their income by about 20 percent, with men exaggerating more than women and the exaggeration increasing with age. (They also found that people lie about their height and the recency of their profile pictures.) The clincher? Men with higher reported incomes receive more messages on the site (from both men and women, as far as I can tell). I'm not arguing that women are all money-hungry gold diggers (or that all women are interested in dating men), but I am suggesting that the age-old cultural narratives about female dependency, male financial responsibility, and importance of money in a romantic relationship are reinforced by these "reality" dating shows—and they're bad for both women and men.
All of this display, of course, masks the fact that social class difference can be a real challenge to romantic relationships. We might like to think that finding a partner with money is just a lucky windfall, but it's of course much more complicated. In 2005, the New York Times featured a series entitled "Class Matters" with a piece specifically on cross-class relationships:
Marriages that cross class boundaries may not present as obvious a set of challenges as those that cross the lines of race or nationality. But in a quiet way, people who marry across class lines are also moving outside their comfort zones, into the uncharted territory of partners with a different level of wealth and education, and often, a different set of assumptions about things like manners, food, child-rearing, gift-giving, and how to spend vacations. In cross-class marriages, one partner will usually have more money, more options and, almost inevitably, more power in the relationship.
Class difference, then, is not a boon for the less privileged person in the relationship, but a real challenge and potential source of conflict. Even those with a higher class background are denied real connection—while one may be "gold digging" the other is "slumming" and expected to move on to a more worthy (more privileged) partner once the novelty of the cross-class romance wears off. Of course, this power dynamic is particularly challenging when, in heterosexual relationships, the woman is the one with more money and a more privileged class background.
Shows like The Bachelor and Millionaire Matchmaker not only reduce romance to opulent displays of consumerism and gender conformity, but they distract us from actual consideration of the role of class in relationships and the need to negotiate those differences on a real, ongoing, interpersonal level.