Jewish World Review Jan. 10, 2001 / 15 Teves, 5761
Consider, for example, the thunderous denunciations of the new Fox series, Temptation Island - indictments that began appearing in the media long before anyone had even seen the controversial show, which premieres tonight .
The premise of the program involves four unmarried but "committed" couples, separated for several weeks on a tropical island near Belize with 26 gorgeous and flirtatious singles. As the cameras roll, the voyeuristic audience learns which contestants will resist and which competitors will succumb to temptation.
The titillating promotional materials for this elevating ornament to American civilization provoked my friend Brent Bozell, founder of the Parents Television Council, to reach for such words as "sickening," "horrible" and "debaucherous" in reference to a show he hadn't seen. He also declared that shareholders of corporations considering buying ad time on such a program "should be outraged at the mere thought of funding this trash."
Meanwhile, Rabbi Kenneth D. Roseman of Temple Shalom in Dallas found himself so offended by the on-air ads in advance of the show that he urged members of his congregation to write to Fox in protest.
"Should we be complacent about a program that says it is sport to see how far we can go to break up relationships?" he asked a reporter. He suggested that the concept for the show violates "everything that our society holds sacred."
With all due respect, the rabbi is precisely wrong. Our society never has seen anything sacred in romantic relationships that occur outside of marriage.
In every religious tradition, we hold marriage sacred --- not sexual attachments, or even non-marital "commitments," between single adults. By definition, the couples who participate in Temptation Island already are involved in a sexual relationship outside of marriage. If the show leads them to participate in an additional sexual relationship outside of marriage, or even a substitute relationship, the process may not prove honorable or uplifting, but why is it especially "horrible" or "debaucherous?"
Divorce, especially where children are involved, is always a tragedy and a blow to social stability. But if two people who haven't yet managed to make a marital commitment to one another happen to call off their relationship, why is this a threat to the larger community?
Rabbi Roseman and most other critics of Temptation Island fail to emphasize the crucial distinction between holy matrimony and non-marital romantic relationships - and thereby highlight our cultural confusion more clearly than any example of trash TV.
Our grandparents understood a profound but simple truth that we have fudged or forgotten: Marriage matters. The legal, communal binding of two individuals in a permanent family partnership transforms their relationship from a private pleasure to a public investment. We cry and sing and drink and dance at the weddings of friends and family members because the act of marriage impacts all of society, not just the two people involved.
Since the 1960s, baby boomers have challenged this traditional understanding. As pop poetess Joni Mitchell crooned in her ballad, My Old Man: "We don't need no piece of paper from the city hall/keepin' us tied and true." Many Hollywood celebrities (including Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins, and so forth) choose to live under this new dispensation. They produce children and share lives, but make a solemn point of avoiding matrimony. Outside the entertainment industry, many ordinary Americans uphold the same idea: Almost a third of all American births now occur out of wedlock. The common substitution of the terms "partner" or "significant other" for the old words "husband," "wife" or "spouse," demonstrates the tendency we now have to obliterate the distinction between marriage and non-marital relationships.
Ironically, the producers of Temptation Island (a production company named - honest to goodness - Rocket Science Laboratories) recognize the significance of marriage more clearly than the show's critics. The program's creators apparently considered including married couples in their televised experiment but rejected the idea as unacceptable and outrageous.
In fact, the show comes at an odd moment in popular culture when enthusiasm for the institution of marriage and for big public weddings has begun to make a modest comeback. In recent weeks, Madonna and Guy Ritchie, as well as Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, celebrated huge, festive weddings, with their newborn babies proudly displayed as fashionable wedding accessories. Even feminist icon Gloria Steinem, noted for popularizing the phrase "a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle," surrendered in her 60s to traditional wedlock. She happily cooed to the media: "Being married is like having somebody permanently in your corner. It feels limitless, not limited."
The honchos at Fox , perpetrators of Temptation Island, unmistakably recognize this fresh fascination with the old institution of matrimony. For all of its cheesiness and superficiality, Fox's notorious Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? still traded on an old-fashioned belief in marriage magic. The five nervous finalists, each decked out in traditional wedding gowns, seemed to nourish the forlorn, girlish hope that in that transforming "I do" moment the purportedly wealthy Rick Rockwell might just be the answer to their hopes and prayers.
In another Fox special, Surprise Wedding, five females took their unwitting boyfriends before a studio audience and told them to either get married on the spot or drop the relationship. All five gentlemen, to the satisfaction of the sentimental crowd, proposed in public and were married by the end of the show.
None of this makes Fox , the possible purveyor of future shows named Town Slut and Love Cruise, into a stalwart defender of traditional values --- nor should Temptation Island receive acclaim for good taste, solid substance and artistic restraint.
Obviously, the new reality series appeals to sadistic instincts on the
part of the viewers, with its wanton attempt to lure contestants into
reckless cruelty. The breakup of a non-marital association may be far
less serious than divorce, but it nevertheless can produce an abundance
of pain and humiliation. Temptation Island surely deserves criticism on
that basis, but the show's detractors should resist the temptation of
overreacting and, in the process, inadvertently slighting the
JWR contributor, author and film critic
Michael Medved, a "survivor" of his own family with three
hosts a daily three-hour radio talk show
broadcast in more than 120 cities throughout the United States. His latest book, written together with his wife, is Saving Childhood : Protecting Our Children from the National Assault on Innocence . He also participated as a conspicuously successful competitor on The GE College Bowl in 1968 on NBC.
You may contact him by clicking here.
10/06/00: Hollywood's contempt for its audience