Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis has been a successful matchmaker for over 50 years. Her secret? She teaches free Torah classes at the Jewish center she founded on the Upper West Side (hineni.org), gets to know the single people in her community, and puts them together based on her instincts. She believes that having a good heart is key to being strong marriage material. Her story (she's matched thousands of couples) is so romantic, and her methodsputting people with something in common together in the same room to discuss spirituality-seem personal, deep, and, well, a little bit old-fashioned. These days, relying on a matchmaking rebbetzin, going to a singles event, or getting set up on a blind date seem downright antiquated. Technology and television have revolutionized the way people meet potential mates. A good heart is one thing, but a DSL connection and a nice head shot may get you a lot farther.
People aren't just surfing for news and porn, they're cruising the Web for dates, and plenty of sites are more than happy to help, like popular personals destinations yahoo.com, match.com, and lavalife.com. It's widely known that the "cool" kids hang out on Spring Street (springstreetnetworks.com), a personals network that originated on nerve.com and now appears on dozens of different sites, and on friendster.com, which has turned out to be a little less platonic than its name implies. While search engines make it possible to select the age, location, and even hobbies of Mr. or Ms. Right, these sites offer little additional information that's useful (unless you count a person's astrological sign and favorite on-screen sex scene).
One company that takes online matchmaking very seriously is eharmony.com. In television commercials, founder Dr. Neil Clark Warren earnestly plugs his service, emphasizing that it makes matches based on important things, like personality, character, and values. I skipped the sentimental "I found my soul mate" testimonials, and went straight to the free, super-thorough personality test to see just how well Dr. Warren & Co. could get to know me. It took over half an hour to fill out the extensive questionnaire, where I answered true-false questions like "I always read all of the warning literature on side-effects before taking any medication" (true). I also rated my own personality traits and characteristics from zero (not at all) to seven (very much), like "I'm an under-achiever " (zero), "I take pleasure in working out" (four), and "I tend to think 'outside the box' " (seven). I found the site's assessment of my personality surprisingly accurate, describing me with statements like "You tend to be influential in decision-making situations. Others often turn to you for advice." The next step, of course, would be to sign up (pay) to be matched, but since I am not single, I didn't want to mislead all the overachieving exercise-ambivalent, indecisive rebels out there who might fall in love with me.
A faster-paced alternative to online personals, with less paperwork, is the reality TV dating show. We have the creators of Love Connection to thank for this innovation. They were clearly thinking outside the box in 1983, because two decades later, producers have taken the concept to the next level. The Bachelor was one of the first to get into the televised matchmaking game; now in its fourth installment, it's one of my guilty pleasures. Maybe it's because Bob Guiney rose from the ashes of The Bachelorette rejection (he was originally one of Trista's potential suitors) thinner and with more hair product to give TV love another shot. Or maybe it's that he is not dashingly handsome, unbelievably wealthy, or annoyingly stupid like his three predecessors. Perhaps it's the fact that every single woman who showed up to meet Bob already felt like she "knew" him from watching him on television ("He has all the qualities I am looking for in a husband"). They had crushes on him, and some, I suspect, were even already in love with him before they met. Which is just weird and unprecedented, but makes good television.
When I watch The Bachelor, one thing I find fascinating is this notion of "the group date" (a staple on this and other shows in the genre), where the leading man goes out with four or five women at once. (At first glance it may seem like men get to have their cake and eat it too, but there are just as many shows where one chick gets to have all the beaux.) It is a moment when the concept of the monogamous couple becomes disrupted, and a radical vision of consensual non-monogamy briefly has some one-on-one time with the audience: Our hero dates multiple people at the same time, everyone knows each other and has agreed to the arrangement, and they have to deal with the feelings that the situation engenders. But faster than you can say "rose ceremony," I am reminded of two painful truths: (1) Bob's the only one who gets to have multiple partners, which makes it polygamy, not polyamory; and (2) each week he rejects one or more women because the ultimate goal is to find the one for monogamy and marriage.
There are plenty of others in the poolor, more appropriately in this case, the hot tubof dating shows. They represent our collective fears, fantasies, and myths about love and marriage: What if looks really didn't matter (Mr. Personality, Average Joe)? Is wealth the ultimate babe-magnet, or are women gold diggers (Joe Millionaire, For Love or Money)? Can your family find your perfect partner (Who Wants to Marry My Dad?, Meet My Folks)? What about your friends or complete strangers (Cupid, Married by America)? Whether a show pits the prince against a paycheck or relies on other kinds of secrets and scheming, each has its own gimmick. The individual premises say a lot about courtship in America. They stroke our appetite for romance-novel dates (moonlit beach walks, anyone?), reinforce unrealistic expectations (on our third date, we went to a private island off the coast of Belize!), and ultimately hammer home the importance of monogamous heterosexual marriage. Can someone find true love on television? A few couples claim to have done it, while most have split once the cameras stopped rollingnot exactly the fairy-tale ending Hollywood wants to sell us.
Each time Bob the Bachelor says he has strong feelings for his final two girls, Kelli Jo and Estella, I want to call him up and say, "Choose them both! Maybe those two really like each other, too, and you can all form a triad relationship!" I know, I know, searching for subversiveness on network television is like looking for that sharp, shiny needle in the hopelessly dull and uniform haystack.
Please visit my website at puckerup.com.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.