If watching trashy TV is your guilty pleasure, you’re not alone.
I myself have been riding the recent wave of reality dating shows on Netflix. Part of a subgenre of reality television, these shows aim to show unscripted real-life situations but often do not accurately reflect reality for the sake of entertainment and viewership. From South Korea’s Singles Inferno to America’s Dated & Related that features pairs of siblings who awkwardly help each other to find love, dating becomes survival of the “hottest”. Handpicked by the production crew, the contestants are usually conventionally attractive and successful. These strangers battle each other out in games to earn dates, and no reality dating show would be complete if they didn’t do it in swimsuits. With their purposely handpicked selection of personalities, they come into conflict with each other in difficult situations, and the drama unfurls. This competitive environment that divides winners and losers had me thinking, what rules and expectations were these shows establishing about dating and relationships as a whole?
For better or for worse, we learn about love and romance through the media we consume on a daily basis. Most dating shows lack body diversity and representation, sending out the message that only those who are a certain size, with certain proportions, are desirable and deserving of finding love. It is a great source of shame and anxiety for some audiences, triggering body image issues. Not to mention, dating shows tend to promote a toxic culture of oversexualisation. In Too Hot to Handle, contestants are incentivised to be celibate for most of the show, but the setup of the show requires them to constantly obsess over sex. Of course, sex positivity and physical compatibility are important today. There isn’t anything innately wrong with casual hookups, as long as you feel safe and comfortable to experiment.
However, these shows promote problematic ideals of relationships and might even pressure some viewers to consent to sexual activity long before they feel ready to. As contestants talk about their sexual experiences and desires, they inevitably encourage comparison and shape viewer expectations. Sex becomes social and performative, rather than personal and intimate. Relationships are also cheapened as they become superficial and conditional.
I was also fascinated by the detailed attention we pay to reality dating shows. Today, they have gone global, even reaching local entertainment. My friends and I are personally guilty of camping for the release of each episode of One Week Love, a Singaporean dating reality show produced by The Smart Local. Like many others in the comments section, we scrutinise the behaviour of each contestant and eagerly share our first thoughts and opinions. Everyone was nitpicked on and met with criticism, one way or another, and I noticed that the general sentiments surrounding an individual could shift rapidly and drastically over the course of an episode.
Whether it be deliberate editing, staged scenes, or assigned characters, we must continually remind ourselves that there is a great deal of production that goes into these shows to make them incredibly addictive and binge-worthy, and shapes our perceptions of the contestants. After all, all publicity is good publicity. More drama equals more hype – this is the golden formula that reality television relies on and it pays off at the expense of the cast.
To make debate easy and convenient, reality shows often separate participants into good and bad guys. The Japanese reality show Terrace House documents the simple lives of six strangers and for the most part, gives off an air of authenticity. In reality, every moment was highly scripted and carefully edited. Hana Kimura, a participant on the show, became a victim of its production strategies as she was instructed to play the villain in a staged argument. Soon, she became the target of severe cyberbullying which eventually caused her to take her own life. One perpetrator even admitted that he wanted to get back at Kimura after seeing her act violently against another member on the show. It’s clear that these fake on-screen moments have real-life consequences, however big or small. If you were on social media during the 90 Day Fiancé craze, you would have stumbled upon countless memes that spawned of “No Neck” Ed, who was ridiculed in a similar fashion. From a distant standpoint, it’s easy for viewers to be reckless with their words and forget that these are real people with real feelings.
Of course, that is not to say reality dating shows add no value to our lives as viewers continue to find comfort in them. At first glance, these participants seem absolutely perfect but clumsily struggle to find love, a sincere and humbling experience that viewers can relate to. These shows could also start uncomfortable conversations about love and relationships as we define acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. Moreover, reality dating shows continue to shift and evolve: Love is Blind focuses on emotional, rather than physical connection by having men and women first go on dates without actually seeing each other.
We’re not going to stop watching dating shows, but I hope this article reminds you of the reality behind it all. Where should we draw the line between what sells and what’s real?