Are Reality Dating Shows Problematic?

Illustration by Katelin Godbold

Lauren Luna
Staff Writer

Quarantine has given students ample time to catch up on unfinished projects, books, and most notably, TV shows. Many of us have found ourselves bingeing TV shows like “The Bachelor,” “90 Day Fiancée,” “Love Island,” and Netflix’s most recent series, “Love is Blind.”

People enjoy a sweet story where two strangers fall in love, even if the conditions in which it happens are completely fantastical. Generally, we understand that while many couples on dating shows will not stay together, watching them get together and seeing the drama that unravels along the way is still entertaining.

The romance genre itself has been criticized for the toxic conventions it suggests to impressionable audiences. But, compounding the realm of reality television with the romance genre creates even more potential for turbulence. 

Dating shows can be harmless fun, but there is a caveat. Shows like “Love Island” differ from other dating dramas in that they have self-awareness. The ultimate goal of the show is not only to fall in love; contrary to what the show’s name suggests, love is a potential benefit to be gained along the way. “Love Island” has all its contestants couple up to compete, whether it be for love, friendship, or only to win the final cash prize.

But, other shows like “Love is Blind” lack this same self-awareness in that they market the show as an opportunity exclusively to find love. While the time crunch in most dating shows already makes the possibilities of finding love slim, the eerily sterile environment in “Love is Blind” makes these possibilities even more absurd. If the show was more self-aware and didn’t point to the idea of marriage so suddenly, it would be more watchable.

While this applies more to reality television in general, villainizing characters also has problematic consequences when depicting real personalities. While cast members must be ready for anything when being depicted on television, pigeonholing real people as antagonists can potentially be dangerous. “The Bachelor: Australia” villain Jen Hawke even received death threats after the show’s airtime.

“I’ve blocked a few people online and I’ve had death threats — people out there are wishing I’d die,” said Hawke in an interview with Australian Now to Love Magazine. 

Villainizing characters make a storyline easier to follow, but the production teams of dating shows need to be mindful of how audiences react to “villains” and be careful to not completely distort a contestant’s image. Generally, viewers should be able to draw their own conclusions about the casts of these shows.

Audiences have also criticized dating shows for their casting choices — namely, the lack of diversity in the cast. Dating shows naturalize white cishet dating culture, which decreases visibility for any relationships which fall outside the mold. “The Bachelor” specifically has been called out for its casting choices, which haven’t changed much in the past few seasons.

While LGBTQ+ representation has made some progress in dating television in shows like “Are You the One?” and Netflix’s “Dating Around,” it still has a long way to go; the first same-sex couple only appeared on “Love Island” four years ago. When people think of dating shows, the image of a thirty-something bearded guy in a tux dishing out roses to a gaggle of anxious girls still comes to mind most often. 

As for people of color, the casts of many dating shows include them, but still have a majority of white actors. From what I’ve seen, white people generally take up lead roles while people of color come in every once a while. Many people of color, unfortunately, get typecast in reality television, and “The Bachelorette” only had its first Black bachelorette — Rachel Lindsay — in 2017. By putting more people of color and more people from the queer community in lead roles rather than supporting roles, dating shows can mitigate this problem.

The critiques surrounding dating shows do have some truth linked to them, but ultimately, there’s no harm in keeping up with a series or two during quarantine. The ups and downs of dating offer audiences a source of relatability, and watching drama unfurl within a dynamic cast are ultimately the point of reality television. 

Some couples even end up staying together, so who’s to say that dating shows don’t do some good? Dating shows are salvageable, but the producers of these shows need to gain self-awareness, understand the implications of cast portrayals, and generally be more inclusive to different sexualities and ethnicities.