The Sociological Realities of Dating Shows
Dean Angela Onwuachi-Willig shares reality TV shows that engage and entertain.
My days as dean have always been long, but they have become much longer since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. When I am not working, I often will veg out with my family, read interesting articles, write, play Scrabble (which I never really played before), and try to clear my mind.
My television choices may come as a surprise to some, but I love reality TV. And, I am very old school. I do not really binge-watch television programs. I tend to watch them when they come on the air.
I watch reality TV, in particular, as a means of escape and a way to connect with my husband, my children, and my friends, and, even more so, as an intellectual exercise. Competition shows like Survivor and MTV’s The Challenge are my favorites. The racial, gender, and other dynamics that shape the alliances that are formed on the shows, as well as the voting patterns among their contestants, over the years, are fascinating.
Since we all have been spending more time at home these days, I thought I would recommend a few other programs that have been at the top of my list lately. I hope they engage and entertain you as they have me these past months.
Married at First Sight
Really, the least-compelling part of Married at First Sight is that these people are willing to marry perfect strangers. Much more interesting is that the hosts not only engage in racial matching but also skin-tone matching in bringing couples together. Despite several years of programming, there has never been a Black-white interracial couple on the show, and the hosts have never matched a dark-skinned Black person with a light-skinned Black person. The couples tend to be either all white or all Black—with very few Asian Americans and Latinx individuals.
The first time I watched the show, I was surprised to see the expert matchmakers put people with diametrically opposed personality types together. For instance, they would place someone who is clearly a dominant personality type with someone who is an empathetic personality type. The literature tells us such individuals would rarely form a good match; yet, these learned matchmakers would place them together as a perfect match. Such pairings make for great television—lots of fights and disagreements—but usually not a good marriage. Each season, the recipe seems the same: one couple that gets along easily, one that has a chance of making it, and all others that are simply doomed. It’s a recipe that works. Even hopeless romantics find the perfect couple boring after a while; they are needed to inspire hope for true love, but no one tunes in to watch them. It’s the drama of the other couples that brings viewers back for more episodes.
Love Is Blind
One show that I have actually binge-watched is Love Is Blind—incredibly fascinating for a critical race theorist who happens to love pop culture. The show illustrates how race is a social construction in so many ways. You can see how people understand and figure out race, even when they cannot “see” it. Watching the question, answer, and dialogue process between the contestants actually showed how one can “see” race, broadly defined, and still discriminate (or not) simply by voice or accent, by knowing where one lives, by learning what music or television they like (in some cases), through any other conceptions of race they may have, and more.
I am fascinated by productions of race, gender, sexuality, class—identity in general—even when programs do not view themselves as performing that type of work.
I have also binge-watched parts of Love Island with my family. The racial and gender dynamics on that program are captivating. Who gets picked and pursued, and who does not—it all falls in line with the research about cross-racial dating and racialized hierarchies of beauty in terms of who is considered beautiful or not across intersectional race and gender lines. And, of course, these shows presume heterosexuality. All the pairings are men and women. There also is an engaging cultural aspect, as I learn new slang words from across the pond, like “fit,” “bev,” “do bits,” and “innit.”
I am fascinated by productions of race, gender, sexuality, class—identity in general—even when programs do not view themselves as performing that type of work. I also am mesmerized by popular conceptions of compatibility. It is a topic I have examined in depth in my book, According to Our Hearts, and one that continues to intrigue me. People often talk about reality TV as if it is mindless entertainment, but I disagree. Maybe next time you catch one of these shows, you will appreciate it not only for the escape it can provide, but also for what it can tell us about ourselves.