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"He's just not what I ordered"

Sophie Burton explores how our favourite dating shows can become vehicles for toxic ideologies

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Image Credit: Love Island 2017 - ITV

As Brits, we love nothing more than a night in front of the telly. Whether it’s a classic film or the latest tantalising drama, we’re a nation of avid viewers. It would seem that the reality dating show is no exception to this rule, with evermore shows making their way to our screens, their rising popularity continues to grow. However, as we continue to tune in to these shows, what exactly is it that we are engaging with?

As our relationship with technology develops, many have raised important questions about the impact it has on our attitudes and behaviour. There has been copious amounts of research over the years into whether exposure to video games and films that depict graphic violence can encourage resonant patterns in real life.

Though dating culture has naturally evolved a long way from what our grandparents may remember, social media often encourages a shift from relationships being an element of our private life to becoming a much more public affair. It’s interesting to unpick some of these changes and interrogate the correlation between what we digest about love in the media, and how it impacts our attitudes towards relationships, specifically the impact of dating shows.

Though clearly popular enough amongst viewers to warrant their production, the reality dating show category is growing rapidly, with more and more being created every year. Each show has a different premise and format, but it would seem the ideas they promote all stem from the same problematic tropes. As with most reality shows, each new season or show tends to bring a new twist, but as viewing figures rise, more and more issues begin to emerge.

Whilst physical attraction and chemistry are undoubtedly important in any romantic relationship, they should be balanced with other elements; things like trust, communication and respect. Yet, many dating shows promote a hypersexual culture which borders dangerously on objectification. The current hypersexual atmosphere that we live in is highlighted through shows like Too Hot to Handle on Netflix. Though on the surface it claims to encourage meaningful connection by prohibiting physical contact and punishing rulebreakers by reducing the prize money, the ‘entertainment factor’ of the show is the contestant’s inability to put aside sexual desire for more than five minutes. All this so called ‘experiment’ presents is the idea that sexual gratification is so integral to today that it is a burden to give up - is this a message we should really be sending?

Particularly in the media, sex is everywhere, and at the centre of everything. You only need to look at the age-old catch-phrase ‘sex sells’ to work out where these shows make their money... (I think the producers of Naked Attraction may have taken this idea a bit too literally though!) Though sex shouldn't be something we are ashamed of, the problematic elements come from the hyper-sexualisation of the female body, but particularly in dating shows, men can also be subject to this too. On Love Island, for example, the contestants’ first impressions of each other are when they each enter in skimpy swimwear – think Joey and Chandler watching Baywatch in Friends... And as the show goes on, things don’t get any better. The question-able nature of the challenges often make tabloid headlines, with tasks such as sucking each other's fingers and licking someone’s neck or giving your best sexy dance. Being ‘sexy’ is often the aspiration and the focus at the heart of these shows, for men and for women, but what does it mean to be ‘sexy’? Therein lies another problem.

Not only do these shows promote this hypersexualized culture and the concept that sexiness equals success, but in the process of doing so lies a reinforcement of stereotypes of what it means to be beautiful in the modern age. It’s no coincidence that most of the contestants from Love Islandbecomeinfluencers on social media. A standard is set around what makes someone physically beautiful. The majority of the time for the women this is made out to be blonde hair and large cleavage, and for men, tall, toned and tanned. Dating shows aren’t the creators of these stereotypes – in fact, if you read Naomi Woolf’s book The Beauty Myth she argues that the concept of beauty has evolved as a hoop for women to jump through, a new social barrier for them. As they are no longer under the same strict oppression politically or by law, society prescribes they must be beautiful. Social media is a gold mine for these ridiculous stereotypes, every few months there’s a new trend or ‘look’ that is needed to make the cut and they don’t just affect women. Men are also subjected to the same harsh standards of judgement. On a platform where we’re encouraged to be our authentic sleeves, we’re judged against the highest standards that are impossible to reach.

Personally, I believe these stereotypes play a large role in the way that modern dating culture has become so cutthroat. On dating apps were encouraged to swipe through people’s profiles as though they’re a deck of cards and judge based on how they look in a photo. Though some dating shows claim to encourage people to look beyond physical appearance, in every one I’ve seen, you'll hear someone asked about ‘what they’re looking for and nine times out often the response given begins with a physical description.

Stereotypes and ideals regarding weight, height, hair and generic looks are pushed upon us from every angle of the media, therefore it’s not a coincidence that the most popular shows select people who are stereotypically ‘beautiful’ as stars, positing that to be successful in love, you must conform to these standards. Very rarely there’ll be someone who is different in some way, but often that becomes a point of discussion or a focus surrounding them, which is where shows such as The Undateables were born from. We live in a world where people are judged primarily on their appearance, and these shows only encourage this further.

The shows are not responsible for creating these societal rules and expectations, but the format of the shows themselves promotes the ruthless attitudes t dating that people are finding emulated in real life. Married At First Sight for instance was extremely popular when it recently aired in the UK, the premise being that couples were matched by experts who thought they were compatible, married and then live together and amongst the other couples, to then decide if they would stay or go. Though the experts matched people who they thought would be compatible following research and well-considered decisions, the contestants went in with their own wishlist for what they wanted in a partner. Naturally, the dream date and the realistic match didn’t always align. One contestant consistently complained about her match, “he’s just not what I ordered”... a phrase I believe is more suited to takeaway food than a potential partner. Similarly, in other shows such as Love Island, contestants often switch between couples throughout the competition, and in some other shows, contestants are asked to pick a partner from a lineup of options. I’m all for knowing what you want in life and standing by your values, but there's a line between having confidence in what you want and an insensitive culture of judgement and selectivity. It’s important to remember that the people on these shows are humans with feelings and not just pawns in a game or one option out of a hundred for someone to consider and discard.

Though these shows always advertise themselves around the concept of helping people find love, I counter that love is certainly not what motivates the makers and the contestants of these shows - the ideals promoted are not loving. Physical attraction is merely one element of a relationship and chemistry comes in many forms. Beauty comes in all shapes and sizes, it is not defined by Instagram followers or Tinder matches. It is concerning how widespread some of these beliefs have become and when watching these shows, I fear that love is being reduced to these trivial matters, especially as more and more people tune in.

Is it a coincidence that as the influence of the media continues to grow, more and more people struggle to form meaningful long-term relationships? The rise of ‘hook-up’ culture amongst young people mirrors the disposable and reck-less attitudes people bring towards dating in these shows and ‘swiping’ habits are beginning to move from apps to the real world. Breakups and short-lived romances are part of life, most will encounter them at some point, unless they’re lucky enough to find ‘the one’ at 16, but the frequent exposure to cheating and heartbreak in such a flippant manner along with casual objectification and sexualisation of contestants’ bodies, makes us emotionally removed from such things and believe that there is no need to think twice about the way we treat ourselves and others.

Though there is no harm in engaging with entertainment, it's important to remember that behind every contestant on these shows, there is a real person with real feelings, as with every hinge or bumble profile you swipe through. If you find yourself on a date anytime soon, even if it isn’t working out, remember to treat the other party with basic levels of respect. You may be able to customise your perfect takeaway, but you can't build a human being to order in the same way.

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