New Dating Shows, Who Dis?

I haven’t enjoyed watching dating reality shows in years. I don’t fill out Fantasy Bachelorette Brackets and I don’t get any satisfaction from watching young people spiral into self-delusional, camera-induced states of emotional oblivion.  But at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, I was desperate to momentarily leave the global woes behind for a few minutes. I didn’t have a whole lot of faith in the recent picks on Netflix, but everything was going to hell anyways- a dating show wouldn’t hurt anyone. I dove head first with my roommate into Neflix’s chart topping hits:  Love is Blind and Too Hot to Handle. I was immediately drawn in to the novel set-ups and the “touchy-feely” messages each show took up: dig for real connection, don’t use people for sex, and take time for personal growth. These sentiments were as subtle as a ninja in tap shoes.

After finishing both shows, I wondered what was driving Netflix to make this new unscripted content: the shows are absurd, but they’re not explicitly trashy and they’re not constantly pushing for cheap drama. They both drew from a wellspring of hope for healthy, functional relationships and young people. These shows have departed so much from the norm, and I began to wonder if the way my generation dates, has sex, and falls in love has played a part in this gigantic shift in dating-based unscripted content.

Netflix, the premiere streaming service, is probably more driven by profit rather than making an actual impact on people’s romantic endeavors. Their finger’s on the pulse of their millennial demographic and they’ve noticed something. Netflix is portraying a more complex, emotionally “in tune” dating reality because that’s what millennials are actually doing or craving for themselves. In spite of the emergence of dating apps and social media, millennials are no different than older generations. We’re seeking authenticity and real connection in our romantic lives. But we’re also using more emotionally competent language and ideas to accomplish our aims. Cue: the rise of therapy, asking someone what their love language is, and Brené Brown’s vulnerability revolution.

Love is Blind brands itself as a social experiment where our fearless contestants endure 10 days of speed dating with other singles in secluded rooms that are referred to as “pods”. The kicker is that these contestants can’t see their date. A large, sci-fi-esque wall ( a prettier version of Stranger Things’s gooey wall that demarcates Earth from The Upside Down) separates the two hotties. They can’t see each other. They can only… talk. The show asks the audience and contestants, “ Is Love Blind?” 

Eventually we find out. The couples that experienced a life-changing connection over the course of those ten days agree to get engaged. For the next three months, the couples live together and face the music of whether they’ll last and whether their partner is “the same person they met in the pod.” (The pod identity crisis is a big point of contention in most of the relationships). On their wedding day, the couples decide whether or not to actually get married under a generic archway, as an officiant they’ve never met before and their families look on. 

The show follows the real-life valleys and peaks of these relationships: situations like one person’s huge college debt causing their partner to pause or when one of the contestants patiently and calmly explains that he deserves better treatment from his partner. While the couples are hopeful for eternal love, most are shockingly pragmatic in how they assess their partners. Contestants look into the camera and come clean about their legitimate concerns regarding conflict-resolution, debt, age difference, and the role of physical attraction in relationships. Their evaluations run way deeper than the superficial, and they’re far more emotionally equipped than older generations to confess their real fears and excitement. The young adults tackle these issues head on with their partners, they consider its weight, and they make decisions based off of experience, observation, and their own convictions.

While there is much criticism and concern around millennial dating, there’s a noteworthy advocate: Dr. Helen Fisher, a relationship anthropologist, author, and senior research fellow at the Kinsey institute. She is quoted in an NYT article on her latest findings, saying, “I would like people to understand that while millennials are not marrying yet, and they are not having as much sex as my generation, the reasons for this are good.” In 2018, Dr. Fisher collected over 30,000 samples of data to determine salient features of modern habits of dating and marriage. She found a significant trend emerge from the data, which she calls “slow love”: an extended period of the pre-commitment stage. Essentially, singles are trying to find out as much as possible about a potential partner before they even move into a courtship phase. In Love is Blind, this “slow love” phenomenon shows up time and again as these young adults carefully evaluate each other while maintaining hope for their future.

The most arresting moments on this show aren’t the glossy ones; they’re the scenes that reflect back the stumbling blocks or forks in the road millennials face today. Debt and financial stability are key considerations to keep in mind. If you and your partner belong to different races, you can’t ignore that fact when there’s a culture clash. Are men still not allowed to cry in front of their partners? Love is Blind captures these millennial-specific traces of the economic, racial, and social realities and it’s eerily relatable.

Too Hot to Handle, on the other hand, makes Love is Blind’s premise seem like Sesame Street.  The show takes a traditional unscripted set-up of placing model-level hotties at an exotic destination and makes them compete for a cash prize. The show proceeds to take an extreme left turn with the rest of its premise; the contestants can’t have sex. Not only that, but there’s an A.I. quasi-lava lamp that acts as their host and guide, rewarding and deducting money from the prize when the contestants resist lustful preludes or succumb to their lesser selves. Throw in personal-growth-themed workshops and a narrator with a razor sharp wit, and you’ve got a bizarre grab bag of characters that end up being surprisingly human. While the show comes in a shiny, bikini-laden package, at the core, it wants better for the young adults.

One of the most touching scenes happened during a workshop catered specifically to the men. They were instructed by a strange, throaty-voiced man named Deva, to rub mud on each other and then write down the things in their life that were holding “ their hearts back” on a canvas. While this all sounds super cheesy, what the “blockages” revealed were commonalities that all men could relate to: fear, failure, pride, trust, broken family. Instead of pumping these men up with delusions of grandeur by giving them a choice of 30 women, the show invested in them as individuals. The men were then instructed to hold up their canvases showing off their blockages to each other, many of them tearing up.      

“Allow yourself to be seen,” Deva said as the men tentatively showed their canvases.  This scene gives the men permission to access their emotions, be vulnerable, and give them a vocabulary for the rumblings in their hearts. The results are transformative. These former horndogs act differently after this workshop. They courageously declare their feelings for some of the women. They open themselves up to rejection, to true emotional intimacy, and  ultimately, to love, whether it’s in a platonic or romantic context.

If that’s not revolutionary in the world of dating shows, then I don’t know what is. Relationship therapist and author Esther Perel has some profound insights relating specifically to this workshop.

In an interview with GQ  Perel says, “ Every gender is given license to seek its needs in a particular language. The language of men has been sex, and, through sex, they can request acceptance, longing, connection, tenderness, intimacy, abandon. Sex is the gateway for a host of forbidden emotions in men.” It calls into question the longing of these particular men. At the beginning of the series, they acted like sex-crazed monsters, but this workshop seemed to unveil aspects of Perel’s idea. Behind these Mens’ bravado, lays 10,000 leagues of fear, unmet needs, and a great desire to be seen and loved. Too Hot to Handle ends up sneakily normalizing emotions, intimacy, and self-development. The show mirrors the values of millennials who are seeking healthy relationships, and it’s reinforcing a collective desire for genuine connection. 

I knew these shows were different when I saw my own dating and relationship experiences in the complex, messy situations on screen. These unvarnished, enthralling investigations into other young adults’ romantic and self-explorative experiences is like none other. And yet, these experiences are playing out today, all over the world, in many young adults’ dating lives. For once, we get to see genuine depictions of our collective relationship rollercoasters played out in the dating unscripted space, with set-up’s, moments, and people who are using language and ideologies that once were strictly reserved for therapists. I feel an odd sense of freedom and validation after watching these shows. If reality show contestants are soul-searching and finding healthy relationships, who’s to stop any of us from doing the same? 

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