Opinion: the majority of dating shows are hugely limited in their depictions of relationships

By Louise Ryan and Ellen ReidUniversity of Limerick

Keeping up with celebrities has become a fashionable hobby. From reality TV stars to Instagram influencers, we've all speculated about the 'real’ lives of people we’ve never met. But can our fascination with the interior lives of others affect our own beliefs?

Love Island might not be coming back to our screens until 2021, but the celebrity machine means that we don’t need a TV programme to have access to our favourite Love Island celebs and their personal lives. With almost five million Instagram followers and over 1 million YouTube subscribers, 2019 contestant Molly-Mae Hague is one of the most successful contests to have entered the Villa. She attracted headlines and viewers after she ‘coupled up’ with contestant Tommy Fury. Viewers and social media users doubted the authenticity of their relationship and, following their departure from the villa, a video uploaded to Molly’s channel dissecting their relationship and ‘the rumours’ had 2.2 million views.

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From ITV, Tommy and Molly-Mae's Love Island story

The Netflix series Too Hot To Handle also featured a couple whose ‘realness’ was the draw. Influencer Francesca Farago and Harry Jowsey made headlines following the conclusion of the series with their public on-again-off-again relationship status.

By casting contestants who already fit the micro-celebrity profile of social media influencers, there is a steady stream of clicks and swipes on Instagram posts and tweets to generate conversation around the series. Producers include the ‘status’ of contestants into a social media strategy that drives engagement with the show. This approach adopts a feedback loop where social media content drives audiences to the TV broadcasts or streaming platforms and vice versa.

The ‘realness’ of social media influencers mirrors the draw of reality TV. Cultivating an air of accessibility, intimacy and relatability, reality TV and the romantic partnerships it produces are attractive to audiences. Rather than carefully crafted Hollywood fantasies, viewers are served supposedly lived experiences of ‘real’ people. Audiences indulge in the guilty pleasure of reality dating shows and find enjoyment in attempting to uncover the ‘real’ from the scripted moments of reality TV. These moments of actual reality behind the staged ‘diary room confessions’ are what keep audiences watching.

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From RTÉ 2fm's Louise McSharry show, Cork native and Too Hot To Handle contestant Nicole O'Brien on taking part in the new Netflix show 

The challenge for producers and contestants is to present an audience with the intimate details they desire without seeming rehearsed. Contestants enter a celebrity world where the intimate is valuable. Their ability to manage the publicness of their private lives is informed by the rules of The Villa(s): be relatable, rakish and one half of the ideal romantic couple.

While reality dating shows such as Love Island are often dismissed as ‘trash TV’, the principles behind them – to be beautiful, authentic, and reflect the best version of a heterosexual relationship – come with a hefty price tag and one not limited to cash prizes and micro-celebrity fame. Looking past the glitz, glamour and gorgeousness of the contestants and their lifestyles, reality dating shows reveal how society rewards relationships that are focused on marriage, monogamy and market engagement.

While these shows present viewers with a seemingly authentic and empathetic look into the reality of dating, the majority of these dating programmes are limited in their depictions of relationships. Portrayals of LGBTI+ individuals, love and romances have been steadily growing since the 1990s, yet ‘normative’ sexual relationships and identities dominate, particularly those focusing on the lives of gay men and lesbians. Shows such as The L Word normalised gay and lesbian relationships, and the recent rise of LGBTI+ dating shows such as Are You The One? have opened up the alleged ‘reality’ of LGBTI+ affairs to a global audience.

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From MTV Reality, the best of Season 8 of Are You the One?

But despite this shift in media representation and visibility, the ‘bisexual boom’ remains quite limited, and often reinforces negative stereotypes about sexually-fluid people. Bisexualities are portrayed negatively in pop culture, often illustrated as ‘inauthentic’ sexualities, or as an ‘act’ to fulfil male fantasies of ‘lesbian’ encounters.

In Love Is Blind, Carlton's admission that he was bisexual to potential partner Diamond, resulted in a heated argument that disputed the authenticity of their relationship. Carlton’s bisexuality is framed as lying about his connection and attraction to Diamond, as well as being a serious psychological issue. While Love is Blind have been described as 'toxic’ and ‘dystopian’, these critiques do not take into account how the show privileges heterosexuality, and traditional forms of relationships that ‘progress’ into marriage.

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From Netflix, a collection of Live Is Blind WTF moments

The ideologies present in reality dating shows can be quite problematic, particularly in the framing of certain sexualities, relationships and lifestyles as ‘ideal’ or ‘authentic’. Images of the good life that contestants achieve shift from the big screen to social media, with corporate sponsorships and brand affiliations rewarding successful attempts at being relatable, as well as the ultimate heterosexual couple.

However, these media portrayals produce and reproduce harmful ideologies about sexual and gender minorities as inauthentic, invalid and incompatible with society. With recent political changes globally, there has been an increase in violence and harassment against marginalised communities. Now more than ever, it is important for us to critically engage with the media we consume and how it can reproduce harmful stereotypes, ultimately jeopardising the safety of minorities.

Louise Ryan is a PhD research fellow in Sociology at the University of LimerickEllen Reid is a PhD Research Fellow in Sociology at the University of Limerick


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ