Can reality TV dating shows teach us any positive lessons about love? We asked the experts.
On Jan. 11, millions of people tuned into the new season premiere of MTV’s dating show Are You The One? It’s estimated that even more — 6.5 million, to be specific — watched the new season premiere of The Bachelor the previous week. While it’s no Superbowl, it’s not nothing.
The popularity of such dating reality TV shows illustrates a distinct trend in our media consumption. But can these shows teach us any positive lessons about love?
As far as dating and life coach Lindsay Chrisler sees it, the main value in watching reality TV shows for viewers is to learn what not to do in their own relationships. “The only way I could see it going well is if it polarized people into wanting a different, more positive experience,” she told A Plus. Just like experiencing a bad relationship can teach someone how to make their next relationship better, she thinks watching one on TV could have a similar effect.
To have a good relationship, however, Chrisler thinks viewers gain little to nothing from dating reality TV shows. “I think any show that shows competition of women is really toxic for anyone’s love life,” she said. “Women get in good relationships with men because they have good relationships with women.”
Essentially all modern dating reality TV shows have shown the opposite, but that must be because someone — and in this genre that “someone” is overwhelmingly heterosexual women — wants to see it. While all adults in the 18–49 demographic give The Bachelor an average rating of 2.7, the show registers a 4.0 among women in the “dollar demo” age group. Without its devoted female following, The Bachelor, and shows like it, wouldn’t survive the first rose ceremony.
As the viewing crowd with the greatest power of attraction — to advertisers, anyway — women are in (remote) control. “Millions and millions and millions of people are fascinated to watch heterosexuals acting badly, stupidly, and abusively — with a romantic veneer … Women are vicious to one another; the men are all ‘bros’ looking to exploit the women,” says Michael Bronski, Professor of Practice in Media and Activism in Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Harvard University. “These shows are really the underside of what we might consider the worst of heterosexuality, put up for entertainment.”
Despite their inherent and obvious flaws, dating reality TV shows are entertaining — particularly to women. And that’s why they have the most to gain, or lose, from watching them.
Dating coach and founder of eflirt, a digital dating service, Laurie Davis Edwards believes the appeal is rooted in dating reality TV shows’ role as “the modern equivalent of Disney princess movies” that so many young girls were taught to idealize. “But the problem is that life is not a Disney princess movie, and it is not The Bachelor,” Edwards explains. That fantasy is probably the biggest thing stopping women from getting into healthy relationships,” Chrisler concurs.
To escape their far-from-Disney-perfect dating realities, viewers are prescribed a heavy dose of escapism, taken once weekly.
Unsurprisingly, no dating show better exemplifies this fantasy than The Bachelor franchise. As any viewer who’s gazed upon the glittering ball gowns, picturesque horse back rides, and romantic getaways knows, The Bachelor has perfected the very idea of perfection.
Edwards worries such pervasive fantasy elements can raise viewers’ romantic expectations to unrealistic heights. “While it’s great that they bring love to so many people’s lives, it’s not reality in that this isn’t the way the viewers are going to be dating,” she says.
Though these reality dating shows unfold against a fairytale backdrop, Edwards must admit there are some striking similarities between dating reality TV shows and dating in reality. The foremost one being the tendency to go out with multiple people simultaneously and the surge of emotions that comes with that. “People who are dating now go through that same thing, just on a less dramatic scale,” she affirms. “Part of the reason I would imagine why people want to watch and why people want to believe, too, is because they see themselves in that.”
By enabling this sort of virtual self-reflection, Edwards also thinks these shows can help normalize the concept of casual dating to those who have never attempted it before, particularly middle-aged viewers who find themselves newly single. “It lets them know that dating multiple people isn’t a bad thing or makes you a bad person,” she adds. According to Edwards, many have found their newfound ability to date several people surprisingly empowering because they’re taking greater control of their love life.
And while no modern daters give or withhold actual roses at the end of a first date, they do essentially make the same decision about who they want to keep dating.
Rather than the literal rose ceremony, Edwards encourages daters to sit down and consider where each person stands in their life. “Managing those emotions becomes really tricky, but making conscious decisions with your heart, not your head… is really important,” she says.
Though Edwards believes viewers can find positive aspects in the models of “The Bachelor,” Chrisler cautions viewers to take those models with a grain of salt — as well as the requisite glass of wine.
Chrisler believes single viewers to be the most susceptible to whatever negative messages dating reality shows may have, versus those who are attached. “Either way, I think these shows are toxic, but I think for people who are already in a relationship it’s more entertainment,” Chrisler explains. “There’s something different with single women watching these shows.”
Single women, specifically those who want to be a relationship, “are in a vulnerable position,” according to Chrisler who works with many of them every day. Because dating reality shows often showcase and exploit the vulnerabilities of their single female contestants, viewers can see their own vulnerabilities dramatized — and in HD, no less.
Edwards, however, believes there are some healthy messages to glean from these dating reality TV shows. “The biggest thing I think it brings to viewers is that love exists,” she says, regardless of whether that love resembles anything they may experience in their own lives or not. “Because there’s so many singles that I work with who just feel like maybe it doesn’t for them anymore.”
If nothing else, she thinks dating reality TV shows can encourage viewers to prioritize the relationships they currently have and hope to have in their lives. “Everyone on those shows gives up so much of their time and their normal life to be on it, and that is a way that they are making love such a huge priority in their lives,” she explained. Though she acknowledges the contestants’s actual intentions often vary, she still believes viewers can take away something from their example.
As with relationships, we get the television programming we think we deserve. “I think if anyone wants to actually find love, they have to do whatever it takes to stop inputting into their brain unloving messages from TV, magazines, family, friends,” Chrisler concludes. “If you don’t turn these shows on … maybe you’ll go for a walk, maybe you’ll call a friend, maybe you’ll take this class you’ve always wanted to take, or maybe you’ll meet somebody.”
As hundreds of people who have subjected themselves to romantic rejection on national television know all too well, you can’t accept a rose you weren’t given. Perhaps the better lesson is not to wait around for a single rose, but to go out and smell as many as you want.
Take it from the experts: You don’t have to give up your favorite show, so long as you remember to give your real life the spotlight it deserves.