The Revealing and Disturbing Story of America, Told Through 20 Years of Reality Dating ShowsBreaking News
tags: gender, sexuality, popular culture, television, history of the family
If you are looking for the exact moment when American culture went off the rails that it has never managed to climb back on, may we offer a singular scene on television from Feb. 15, 2000: a man in a tuxedo, bent down on one knee, proposing to a total stranger in a wedding gown. She tearfully accepts while four other women, also wearing wedding dresses, shuffle off the stage.
The nearly 23 million viewers who tuned into “Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?” were simultaneously riveted and horrified. But most importantly, there were 23 million of them. This would not be a one-time phenomenon, but rather the origin story for a new genre, the “reality dating show.” (When the deep human need for companionship and money-hungry Hollywood executives love each other very much …)
Since then, millions upon millions of people have spent many hours of their lives enraptured by these shows, which continue to proliferate with no sign of slowing down, like an invasive species that has become part of our natural environment. How did this happen? And what has 20 years of watching these spectacles — singles hooking up, couples breaking up and aspiring Instagram influencers melting down, all in the name of finding “love” — done to us?
To find out, we chose one reality dating show that debuted every year from 2000 through 2020 — shows that were particularly popular, controversial, influential or taught us something unexpected. (Quite a few were left out … sorry, “Conveyor Belt of Love.”) We talked to dozens of people: Contestants who loved the experience and those who regret everything. Producers who are proud of the content they made and others who could never stomach to work in the genre again. Reality TV experts who appreciate the escapism and entertainment value, but also lament the negative influence of these shows, from perpetuating damaging stereotypes to fueling the lack of representation on our screens.
Sometimes, these series are surprisingly hopeful. But mostly, they are disturbing. Deeply disturbing. But no matter how many people decry that the shows are fake and/or feel like the downfall of society, the impact has been extremely real.
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