Love is … on Netflix

So this was originally going to be the last entry on my recent “things I liked” post but the more I thought about it the less comfortable I was describing the show as something I actually liked. Which is to say it’s watchable as fuck, but I felt a little bit bad for watching it. And the thing is, I don’t really believe in guilty pleasures. I’ll sometimes get asked the “what’s your guilty pleasure” question in interviews, and I really won’t know how to answer it because what I understand people tend to mean when they say “guilty pleasure” is “thing I like but am embarrassed about liking”. And maybe I’m just way too British about these things but that’s not what guilty means to me. I don’t feel guilty about liking cheesy music or lowbrow humour or terrible movies. I like what I like and I don’t see the sense in feeling bad about the fact that given the choice, most evenings I’d rather stay home on the sofa and watch Avengers Endgame on Amazon than get dressed up, hoi into London and watch Samuel Beckett’s Endgame at the Old Vic.

Having said all of which, what I do consider “guilty pleasures” are things that I enjoy but suspect might actually be harmful to people. And some (but not all) reality TV slips into that category for me. Some of it I think is broadly fine—like whatever you think of the Got Talent series, these days it’s mostly professional performers who go into it with their eyes wide open as a way of advertising their shows—but some of it, well, some of it seems to genuinely mislead and exploit people. And obviously one of the things that makes reality TV harmful and exploitative in the first place is that it’s so easy for TV audiences to forget that the people on it are real human beings, and to take it on myself to decide whether the contestants on Love is Blind were misled or exploited would be to commit the same error. So … yeah. Take all of this with a giant flashing “this is just my personal reaction” over the top.

Let’s start with the least important but most annoying thing. When the fuck did we decide that we were going to start pretending reality TV shows were “social experiments” again? Like, you could get away with it in 1997 when it was all Big Brother and supposedly serious documentaries about airports. But it’s a genre now, a well-established entertainment genre, and we know that it’s just fucking made-up. If you sincerely wanted to test the hypothesis “is love blind” you’d need to define your fucking terms, set up a randomised controlled fucking trial, and most importantly not do it on national fucking television. Love is Blind is not a social experiment. It’s a reality TV show about a bunch of conventionally attractive people dating. It’s like a more conservative Love Island.

I think what makes the show watchable (and also arguably what makes it utter bollocks as an “experiment”) is that it switches up its format very very quickly. It’s much like The Voice, which is sold entirely on the premise that contestants are judged only by what they sound like and not what they look like, but then for most of the series the judges can see them and the audience always can. Love Is Blind has about two episodes where its contestants are in pods and are supposed to be forming “deep emotional connections” sight unseen, and then a further … I want to say six-to-eight episodes where they’re just hanging out like normal with a wedding at the end of it. And, yes, technically you only get to progress to the bit where you have a cool holiday or the bit where you meet the family if you’ve already proposed marriage in the pods but, like, it’s a reality TV show? The contestants know how it works. Saying will you marry me in the context of the show really is just code for will you go through to the next stage of this totally artificial process with me, on the understanding that we can both pull out at any time, right up to the moment of the actual wedding. It’s no more meaningful than “coupling up” on Love Island. Hell, sometimes the contestants even call each other out on this very fact (one contestant explicitly accuses her “fiancé” of only being in it for the holiday). And the show presents the question of whether the couples will go through with the weddings at the end of the series as a big will-they-won’t-they moment which surely, surely highlights what bullshit the “proposals” in the pods are. When was the last time you went to a wedding in real life and there was any actual tension about whether either of them would say “I do” when the time came? If your wedding vows are an actual cliffhanger, you’re doing relationships wrong.

Of the many, many things that bugged me about Love Is Blind, I think the largest sub-category is unexamined assumptions about relationships. We’ll gloss over for now the fact that all the couples are opposite-sex because, fair enough, there are arguably logistical issues in that, if you had a mixture of sexualities you’d have to keep your exclusively gay people sort of segregated from your exclusively heterosexual people with your bi and pan people ping-ponging in-between both groups in a way that would not exactly avoid reinforcing stereotypes about bi and pan people. And we’ll almost completely gloss over the fact it was taken so much for granted that the men would be doing the proposals that when one woman wanted to do the proposal she had to wait for the guy to do the proposal first so she could tell him to stop in order that she could do it and then they called back to it in the reunion episode like the entirety of society had been shaken to its core by the notion that a woman could technically sort of ask a man to marry her as long as he got to do it first. I mean, for fuck’s sake, it is 2020. We live in the fucking future. I own multiple devices that are like things from Star Trek and we are presenting a slight deviation from gender norms circa 1957 as this massive watercooler moment. Actually what the actual fuck actually. I’m even going to gloss over the way the show in no way challenges (and, if my suspicions about how these things work behind the scenes are correct, somewhat reinforces) the idea that one of the contestants having a history of dating both sexes is a gigantic terrible relationship-wrecking secret. I mean, yes, he should probably have mentioned it before he proposed because he clearly knew it was going to be an issue for the woman he’d chosen. But also if you offered to bet me fifty dollars that nobody working behind the scenes had encouraged him to play it the way he played it I would take that bet. If you wanted to bet met a thousand dollars that they hadn’t known about his dating history in casting and consciously chosen to put him on the show because they knew it would introduce drama I’d take that bet in a fucking heartbeat.

Okay that’s a lot of glossing and I’m not even onto the thing I actually want to talk about. And, for what it’s worth, part of the reason I’ve glossed over the things I’ve glossed over, is that I suspect other people have talked about them in much more detail. The thing I do want to talk about and which maybe hasn’t been quite as beaten to death is the assumption the show makes about the relative value of emotional and physical connections. Because yes, it is broadly true  (although overwhelming less true than it was twenty years ago) that most people start a relationship with a physical attraction and build an emotional bond from there. But people talk about this like it’s some great revelation about a deep flaw in society when, to me, it’s more just sort of … a biological quirk. And I don’t me that in a bio-truther way, I mean it in a … okay it’s time for an AJH patented spurious analogy. One of my favourite linguistic observations is that “smelly” means “smells bad” and “tasty” means “tastes good.” And I have no proof of this but my strong suspicion is that the reason for that particular language quirk is that you have far more control over what you taste than what you smell. The majority of notable scents are unpleasant because it’s easier to make a bad smell than a good smell and you don’t get to control which ones go up your nose. Of course, it’s easier to make a bad taste than a good taste too, but you do get to control what goes in your mouth. So notable smells are things you can’t help smelling, notable tastes are things you choose to taste. Hence smelly is bad, tasty is good.

To me, that’s the kind of biological quirk that I think the physical/emotional thing comes down to. We absorb data from images by looking at them far more easily than we absorb data from words by reading or listening to them (for what it’s worth, this is also why learner styles are bullshit – everybody’s a visual learner). If you’re looking for someone to marry, or date, or fuck then that person should ideally (and, obviously, values vary here) be someone to whom you have both an emotional and a physical connection. And obviously if you’re just looking for a hook-up in a nightclub toilet you can pay far less attention to the emotional stuff and if it’s 1802 and your family’s estate is entailed away from the female line you could pay no attention to either and just look for someone with five thousand a year. But the point is, for most people looking for relationship, you want both and the physical stuff is a lot easier to work out quickly as a first filter. There is no point trying to build a deep emotional connection with someone who you just don’t fancy. And yes, this is slightly more complicated than I’m making out, because although I have, ironically, fallen into much the same emotional/physical reductionist binary that the show talks about, this stuff is actually incredibly messy and subjective and you absolutely can develop a physical attraction based on more abstract concepts. And you can fancy people because they’re kind of cool or charismatic in a way that doesn’t necessarily come across just from looking at them (I mean, Boris Johnson apparently gets laid, like, all the time). But the point is that the show takes as axiomatic that doing the emotional connection first is somehow better or purer or more laudable. And it, well, isn’t. It’s just the other way round from the way it’s usually easiest to do it (and, increasingly, not so much—like loads of people meet online through entirely text-based media, this is a thing, I’ve written a fucking romance novel about it).

To draw another spurious analogy because I do love them. If I want to decide where to eat then I will usually make that decision in the following way: I will decide what kind of food I want, I will check what places are near me, and then I will look at reviews. Which is to say, I will deal with the simple, instinctive, intuitive factors first and then move on to the more complicated questions that require me to pay attention to things. The way people chose their partners on Love Is Blind was basically the equivalent of me choosing a restaurant to have dinner at by reading reviews first without knowing what kind of food is being served or where the restaurant is. And, sure, maybe that means that I’ve developed a deeper insight into a wider a range of restaurants, and I might even be encouraged to try a restaurant that I might have otherwise overlooked. But it could also mean that I’ve wasted a tonne of time learning a bunch of information about restaurants in Scotland. Or that I’m going to turn up to eat, and find they only serve food I don’t like or am allergic to.

And to some extent this wouldn’t bother me (that’s a lie, it would totally bother me, I’m very easily bothered) except for how it actually played out on the show. Because, as you might expect (given that plenty of people fall in love sight unseen—like the internet is a thing, people falling in love with people they haven’t seen in person is only marginally more shocking than, well, a woman proposing to a man or pansexuals existing) for some couples it worked fine. Because some people hit the jackpot and it turned out the person they’d been forming a deep emotional bond with was also objectively a smoking hottie. And some people got the runner up prize of developing a physical attraction to someone with whom they’d already formed an emotional bond. But some people just legit seemed not to fancy the person they were suddenly engaged to. And even that that would be fine, if the whole premise of the show didn’t revolve around telling those people that they were shallow and wrong.

In a sense this comes back to my earliest complaint about the show constantly billing itself as an “experiment”. One of the absolute rules of an experiment (albeit one that real scientists break with problematic regularity) is that your goal should be to test a hypothesis not to prove a conclusion. The reunion show ends with the hosts asking the contestants if they think that “love is blind” and they unanimously say yes even though the actual results of the alleged experiment prove otherwise. From what I saw (again, I’ll point you to that big flashing sign) there were at least two contestants on the show who just plain did not find their fiancé physically attractive and that was in fact a dealbreaker. But the show consistently framed those contestant’s unwillingness to lie back and think of England for the sake of the “experiment” and their “deep emotional connection” as a flaw in those contestant’s thinking, not a flaw in the premise of the show.

I should say I’m going to stray out my lane here, which is not exactly an unusual position for me, because the people I felt bore the brunt of the “it’s not okay to not fancy this person” issue the strongest were Jessica and Kelly—both of whom, as the names suggest, were women. And I do think there was a difficult gendered aspect to the framing of their stories. As a side note I find it interesting that there’s this taken-for-granted assumption that women are more attracted to words and ideas and emotions, while men are more attracted to bodies, but the show’s two clearest examples of being put off your partner because you just didn’t fancy them when you saw them in real life came from female contestants. Of course, I do also wonder if that was partly because (and I should stress these things are subjective, and I’m not trying to be judgemental) the women did seem to have been chosen with more of an eye to their hotness than the men were. Like, I could not imagine anybody being disappointed to come out of the pods and see basically any of the women, including many of the women who nobody connected with. I couldn’t really say the same about a lot of the blokes—I mean some of them were genuinely hot but there were still (and this is problematic language that I am falling back on for the sake of a brevity I have since sacrificed with this parenthetical) a lot of 6s and 7s on the boys’ side, versus a lot of 8s and 9s on the girls’.

Anyway, I digress. Jessica and Kelly both, to me, (and I should stress that I am neither of these people, I live in neither of their heads, I’m aware they’re real human beings, and that all I know about them was presented to me through the inherently distorting medium of reality television) seemed to straight up not fancy the guys they were engaged to. And they also seemed to have got the idea from somewhere (spoiler: that somewhere was the entire fucking premise of the show) that not fancying this person was very much a flaw in their characters. And that … honestly creeps me out. There’s an episode about midway through where Jessica gets very very drunk and tells another contestant how into her (that is, the other contestant’s) fiancé she still is. This makes A+ TV but it also feels like incredibly irresponsible TV. One of the things I like to do on reality TV shows is to spot little things that give away the behind-the-scenes secrets that you know have to be there. Like, on The Apprentice I enjoy spotting the bits that show the candidates are picking ideas off lists and having to pretend they’ve come up with them themselves. More darkly, whenever alcohol appears on a reality show I always take a moment to remind myself that it came from somewhere and that behind the scenes there’s a whole chain of command in which somebody decided they’d get better footage if the contestants were drunk. So when on the reunion of Love is Blind, Jessica refers to that night where she got very, very drunk and made kind of a fool of herself, and she specifically uses the phrase “I was served whiskey” I immediately find myself asking “oh really, by whom exactly?”.

And … I mean … maybe the production company absolutely didn’t deliberately get her drunk, knowing she was desperately unhappy because she was kind of being pressured to have sex with a man who, however nice he was and however much he adored her, she wasn’t attracted to. Maybe it never occurred to anybody that it would be pretty cool if she had an excruciating conversation with the woman who was now engaged to the guy she was almost engaged to and clearly found more attractive than her own fiancé. Maybe it was just a complete coincidence that the set of circumstances that produced the most dramatic televisual moment, irrespective of how good they might be for the contestant’s mental health, just unfolded naturally. Maybe.

(Side note, from what I’ve picked up from reading around the show, it seems that Jessica did have sex with her fiancé at least once despite not wanting to and … that’s very much something that should never happen to anybody in any circumstances but especially not for the sake of a “social experiment” on a reality show).

Point is, she shouldn’t have been in that situation. Because, in any sensible world, you shouldn’t feel any pressure to marry and/or fuck a guy you don’t fancy just because you both have a golden retriever. Again, I’m going to stray outside my lane here, but one of the things just really troubled me about the show was that it seemed very inclined to judge the ways in which women go about choosing partners. And, obviously, half the contestants were men but they all wound up with people who looked like fucking models. There were guys who were uncertain about their choice, there were guys who didn’t feel compelled to propose to anybody, there was one guy who didn’t go through with the wedding at the end. But the men were never presented as failing to live up to a standard in a way that I personally felt Jessica and Kelly were. Notably, of the three couples who made it to the altar but didn’t go through with the wedding, Jessica and Kelly both strongly took responsibility on themselves for not being “ready” while Damien (the one man to call it off) put the blame squarely on his fiancée.

I should also mention that I’ve said a whole lot about Jessica here and not much about Kelly. This is partly, I think, because Kelly seems to have been largely edited out of the show. And I suspect (again, just suspicion, again speculation, and again outside my lane) that there was something more going on with Kelly that the producers really hoped would come out in a Big Dramatic Moment but it never did. There’s a bit about halfway through the series where she has a talk with her fiancé Kenny (yes it was Kenny and Kelly you can’t make this stuff up) about how she’s held off on having sex with him because in previous relationships she’s … then it gets a bit unclear … something about having always had trouble building a physical connection? And not wanting that to happen here? Looking at it through the LGBTQ+ filter it sounded a lot to me like she was basically saying she was ace or demi but that she didn’t have the language to articulate that. Then again, what we saw on TV was quite truncated so she could also have been describing a whole bunch of other things. She was also, interestingly, pretty much the only contestant whose friends seemed actively enthusiastic about the idea of her marrying a person that she’d met less than six weeks earlier on a television show. And I’m not sure what precisely I read into that, but I certainly read something.

All of which is to say, I sort of enjoyed watching Love is Blind in spite of myself, but the more I look back at it the more bothered I am by how much it reinforced ideas that I rather naively thought had gone out of fashion in the 1950s. Taking a step back, everybody on the show is an adult, and I’m sure they can take care of themselves (Kenny in particular seems to have gone on to be fine, although I was mostly just pleased that in the reunion show he attributed the success of his new relationship to “not doing it on television”), but the assumptions in which it is based are so jarringly alien to me that I couldn’t help feeling deeply uncomfortable by the end of the series.

And most importantly: it wasn’t a fucking experiment.

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