Deranged Marriage

By mocking a practice that has such deep cultural significance, "Married by America" dismisses much that is good about arranged marriages -- and non-Western cultures.
When I was a girl, the notion of arranged marriage symbolized the vast difference between India, land of birth, and America, land of the independent. If we could adapt our image and actions to blend in with the pale landscape of suburban life, then we could escape the trap of family obligation and expectations. The idea that such assimilation counteracts true independence doesn't occur to a 10-year-old immigrant smarty-pants.

I channeled my adolescent racial anxiety into fighting with my parents about the backwardness of the arranged marriage and asserting (unsuccessfully) my right to date. Dating was American and modern; parental arrangement was archaic and oppressive. When you're 7, you want to eat hotdogs for dinner to prove you're American. When you're 15, you want to go on a date. But instead of dating, my sister and I watched our cousins' passport-style photos make the rounds of daughter-in-law seeking families, feeling grateful that we were too young to be publicly assessed for color, weight, talent and beauty.

This season, the Fox network turned its greedy reality TV eye toward the enduring practice of arranged marriage through an eight-week series called "Married by America, " which came to a predictable anticlimax last Monday night. Naively, I thought this must be some new form of cultural flattery or appropriation, like Madonna and her bindi, or the image of Krishna on a $20 T-shirt.

During Episode 1, I realized that appropriation would be an improvement. A quick comparison of the show to my own family's arrangements revealed a mountain of insulting simplifications.

While the show reproduces one or two elements of the Indian-style arrangement, such as the family meeting the prospective partner first, the Americanization of the process dumbs it down until all that's left is sex and pop psychology. The consumer audience replaces the family as the central decision-maker, and no one benefits from the shift.

Produced by the same three men who brought you "Joe Millionaire," "Married by America" banks on the nutty premise that exhausted, heartsick daters will try anything -- even letting their families and the viewing public choose their mates. The winners are meant to split $100,000 and a luxury car. If they stay married, though it's not clear for how long, they get a $500,000 house. The usual reality things happen. Aspiring brides, grooms and actors audition. Experts screen them for psychoses, STDs, poverty and existing spouses.

Five people are chosen as eligible brides and grooms, for whom the audience will choose partners. Each eligible bachelor(ette)'s panel of three family members/friends questions and eliminates potential mates, narrowing the field to two with help from the audience, while the eligibles sit in sound-proof booths. After hearing a plea from the bachelor(ette) to look under the surface for a kind heart, big boobs and other such requirements, viewers call in their choices to 1-800-I-WANT.

The couples meet and get engaged in the same 30 seconds. They drive off in SUVs to North Copper Ranch, where they live together for six weeks. We get the porn-lite benefit of watching them make out on the couch and roll around under the covers. They endure interviews with three experts, who eliminate one couple per week.

Every bachelor(ette) and potential mate is white. The only exception is Cortez, a Mexican-American woman from San Jose who provides the show's cultural credentials by claiming to know something about arranged marriage from her grandparents whose union lasted 50 years. The audience buys this and fixes up Cortez with Matt, to whom she says two weeks later, "You shouldn't have to make a relationship work. It either does or it doesn't."

Finally, by Episode 7, we're down to two couples. Kevin and Jill look the most likely. He's a former minor league baseball player; she's a hostess for the New York Islanders hockey team. But there are problems. She won't promise not to pose for Playboy again and he's unemployed.

Then there's couple number two. Billie Jeanne is a bartender and Tony sells used cars. The audience thinks he's gay, and she's a party girl whose favorite toast is "cheers to beers and queers." These two earn Episode 4 a parental advisory with their sex-in-the bathroom scene. After bachelor(ette) parties in Vegas that featured female strippers (yes, at both parties), the audience has two hours to vote for the best match.

If these are the ins and outs of arranged marriage, the viewer has to think, no wonder the 60 percent of the globe that still practices it can't beat back the almighty, all-knowing American culture.

Fox reality TV executive Mike Darnell told Variety last year that, although arranged marriage is prevalent in most of the world, in America, "most people like to find love and relationships the traditional way." To him, the individualistic dating mode is traditional and an arrangement is innovative. By contrast, but with no less idiocy, the arch conservative Christian group Focus on the Family reviewed the show on its website and quoted Ed Vitagliano of the American Family Foundation saying that the show trivializes the institution: "This is not like arranged marriages 400 years ago when marriage was still considered something worthwhile."

Actually, this is not even like arranged marriage yesterday.

Family Matters

From my own family, I was most fascinated with stories of long marriages with little or no contact before the wedding.

In 1964, my parents married after a two-hour meeting during which Ma didn't even know that Baba was the guy. They were connected by eldest siblings in each family, who were connected by a neighborhood bank manager. They lived happily until my father died in 1993.

In 1972, my aunt Dolly met her husband at their wedding, after my grandfather saw the ad that my uncle's father had placed in a neighborhood paper. Their 28-year-old son will soon marry a woman he met on an Indian marriage website.

In 1991, my cousin Mahua's future mother-in-law discovered her singing at a neighborhood function in Calcutta. After the usual couple of months of inquiries and a few more sightings, Mahua married her artistic husband, who lived in the States, without having met him. Now they live happily in Houston with their 9-year-old. In all three cases, there was plenty of correspondence and discussion between the families; it just didn't involve the bride and groom much. Extensive asking around within the extended family and social networks is meant to surface any problems.

But, by my calculation, only about half of my generation of the family married this way. I have cousins who found their own partners. I have another who made a "love match" and waited seven years for her father to agree to let her marry a non-Bengali. Some of us have made more "scandalous" choices, including sex outside of marriage, and the families have adjusted.

Arrangements are worked out in the context of tight family units, in which parents involve themselves in pre- and post-marriage agreements. The important factors shaping a match include financial and social status, education, looks, family history, geography, chastity, religion and ethnicity. If we're honest, we will admit that these are the same factors that influence Western romance.

The idea behind arrangement is to take care of a bunch of things couples have to negotiate on the front end, so that after the marriage they can concentrate on getting along, producing children and contributing to the larger family. The success or failure of the marriage is considered not just the couples' responsibility, but also that of their families and communities.

Because the camera's main purpose is to titillate the audience, "Married by America" warps the family's role into an unrecognizable mess. The distortion appears clearly in Jill's father's confusion. When Kevin asks him for his daughter's hand in Episode 5, he gives his blessing in spite of his reservations. "She might really like him, and he might really like her," he says. "Who am I to stand in the way?"

The father is no one. The TV audience has usurped his power and responsibility to decide anything.

Caste Call

Marriage in general is designed to keep people in their social class, the proper spot in a religious hierarchy or caste identity. Couples are designed by family in most of Asia, the Middle East and parts of Africa, but such arrangements were once endemic to every culture in the world, including upper-class Western societies. If you can stomach the idea of marriage at all, then arranged marriages provide both protections and dangers. Like most traditions, it works well for many and horrifically for others.

Most of the time, the individuals being matched up can turn down an offer from another family. In Islam and Hinduism, for example, the marriage is considered a sham unless both individuals consent freely.

From my modest international survey, what stands out is the sheer complexity of the system. The tradition of arranged marriage reveals the best and worst implications of family unity. The family includes microcosms of all other social relations. There's the parent/child, certainly, but also elements of teacher/student, owner/property, abuser/victim, producer/consumer and boss/worker. Any arranged marriage might involve all of these identities. The practice also changes constantly. It looks different, if only by a degree, with each generation.

America's inability to grasp this complexity matters. In a time of unprecedented global migration and wars on terrorism, marriage takes on racialized political meaning. The arranged marriage, and other attitudes about sex and relationships contribute to the American impression of Africans, Asians and Arabs as exotic, unassimilable and primitive.

"Married by America" will never convince viewers that an arranged marriage might work. It ultimately reinforces the notion that love comes from individualized sexual attraction and romance that's thoroughly tested and developed before the wedding. In the end, neither of the last two couples completed their "I do's." Kevin and Jill, and Tony and Billie Jeanne just couldn't suspend their certainty that they should be in love before, rather than after the wedding. By mocking a practice that has such deep cultural significance, the show dismisses the ideas that your family can help you make an excellent, long-lasting match, or that you might in time grow to love your choice.

When I told my aunt Dolly about "Married by America" I thought she'd be upset with all the pre-marital sexual activity. But she's a tolerant, contemporary woman, able to concede that modern couples might hit the sheets before the wedding, in the event they actually meet first. It was the role of non-family, the expert panels and the audience, that she found crazy. "Who are these experts?" she wanted to know. "It's absurd that a parent would ever let strangers pick their kid's husband or wife. Better to let the kid pick his own."

Rinku Sen is the publisher of ColorLines magazine and the author of "Stir It Up: Lessons in Community Organizing and Advocacy."