Welcome to my Ted Talk: Insights from a quarantined dating show aficionado

Wednesday, June 10, 2020 - 4:48pm

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Illustration byHibah Mirza

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I’m really bad at icebreakers. Like, embarrassingly bad. When I’m asked to give a fun fact about myself, all I can think to say is that I have never broken a bone, which is not particularly fun and only partially true (does fracturing count?). When I’m asked what my favorite ice cream flavor is, I want to say Haagen-Dazs Vanilla Chocolate Chip, but that feels too specific, so I usually just go with Rocky Road (my second favorite.) No matter what comes out of my mouth, my face turns bright red and my palms get rather sweaty. Clearly, these are not my shining moments. However, I do love the slightly more niche icebreaker question: if you could give a TED Talk on any topic, what would you choose? To me, it’s such an easy answer: “The Bachelor” franchise. Duh. Not to brag or anything, but some would say I am an encyclopedia of “Bachelor” knowledge. So without further ado, here is my TED talk about the many wonders of dating shows. 

During our senior year of high school, I finally convinced my close friends to watch “The Bachelor” with me. After years of receiving memes they didn’t understand, the group finally gave in. Our Monday night ritual contributed to some of my favorite memories from that year. At exactly 8:30 PM (we always recorded it so that we could skip the commercials — this isn’t amateur hour) my friends rang the doorbell. All six of us, as well as my entire family (including my dog) snuggled into the giant gray, U-shaped couch. Popcorn was popped and the pantry was raided, as we all prepared to scream at Colton while he jumped the infamous, undeserving fence. My friend Lizey would proceed to fall asleep about halfway through, during which we took pictures of her because she looked so cute. No matter what test was coming up, what college we got rejected from, or what boy troubles we were dealing with, the group dropped everything for an all-important viewing party. “The Bachelor” brought us together in a way that few shows could. 

Now that we can no longer cuddle up together, my friends and I, like many others, have turned to Zoom to catch up. But we continue to face an evident problem during these weekly hangouts: we run out of topics to talk about. With not a single exciting event in our lives to discuss, we breeze through the classic questions: 

“What’s everyone been up to?”

“What’s been your go-to workout?” 

“What are you having for dinner?” 

Sometimes the all important: 

“Which family member is annoying you the most right now?”

And finally… 

“What show have you been watching?”

This is the question that gets the people going. It is the ultimate icebreaker. We proceed to discuss a variety of dating shows for what feels like hours. We run through which guy is the hottest, which couple is our favorite, which girl needs to get eliminated, and on, and on and on. This unifying topic can satiate our need for conversation like no other. 

“These shows fulfill our need to engage with others about a common subject and are our new water cooler topics,” relationship researcher and coach Dr. Marisa T. Cohen said when asked about the subject. We may not have a water cooler to loiter around during quarantine, but we still find time to dissect every minute detail about the most creative dates and how the hell “The Bachelor” producers transported a hot tub to the middle of the desert. Dating shows can spur conversation from anyone, whether you love them or hate them. 

Like many others, quarantine has given me quite a bit of time to expand my repertoire and delve into new dating shows. Quarantine conveniently began while I was in the midst of watching Season 3 of “Love Island UK” with my roommate. I have since abandoned her and continued on my binge-watching journey alone. I now have a new vocabulary of British slang that I may sprinkle throughout this piece. We’ll see. 

Once I finished that, I started “Love Is Blind” after about a million people told me I had to watch it. I then moved on to “Too Hot To Handle,” and throughout the whole extravaganza I’ve been watching “Listen To Your Heart,” — arguably the best show to grace Bachelor Nation. And I’m not alone. It feels like everyone and their uncle’s hamster’s second cousin once removed is bingeing these TV shows. My TikTok and Twitter feeds are overflowing with content about Haley’s geography skills and Rudi’s unbelievable voice. My favorite pastime is everywhere — inescapable. 

But how did we get here? 

Before writing this article, I would have told you “The Bachelor” was the original dating show. It is iconic and transcends time and Chris Harrison never ages. But after doing some research, I now know that many came before it. The first ever dating show, “The Dating Game” premiered in 1965. It was essentially the precursor to “Love Is Blind”, where contestants were unable to see their suitors and could only make decisions based on answers to questions and their voices. If you can picture the “iCarly” episode iWin A Date (which you should definitely be able to), then you get the gist of “The Dating Game.” 

Next was another show that forever altered reality TV (according to my parents who had oddly strong opinions on this topic.) “The Real World” was not technically a dating show, but its 1992 premiere on MTV depicted a group of singles confined to a house together. Obviously, love followed. 

Most recent was “Temptation Island,” which premiered in 2001. Couples and singles were put together on an island. Apparently, there was a lot of temptation. If anyone knows where to binge this show, let me know. The long and rich history of successful dating shows is a testament to our fascination with other peoples’ relationships. This is not a new phenomenon, but it seems to be exacerbated by our current socially isolated situation. 

Still, the dating shows we are watching are reaching new extremes. These trending programs are more similar to social experiments than attempts at lighthearted matchmaking. “Love is Blind” takes singles and puts them into “pods” or isolated rooms in which they speak to one another through a wall. The contestants are unable to see the person they are talking to until the two of them agree to get engaged. Once engaged, the couple moves in together, attempting to further their relationship until they ideally get married just a few weeks later. The premise of the show is to prove that love is not dependent on physical characteristics or outside influences. 

Similarly, “Too Hot To Handle” attempts to take physicality out of relationships, but in a much more brash way. The contestants are put in a villa together under the guise that they are going to have a wild vacation with other sexy singles. Their dream getaway is quickly interrupted by a robot who informs them that their prize money will be diminished any time they have sexual contact with one another. 

“Listen To Your Heart,” a program created by entertainment geniuses, combines the all-important pursuit of love with an “American Idol”-esque singing competition. Contestants couple up and go on music themed dates until they advance to the later rounds where they perform in front of live audiences with celebrity judges. Their performances are assessed based on their musical talent and compatibility with one another. 

These shows do not even remotely mirror our everyday lives. Even without isolation, you almost always know the physical features of someone you are entering a relationship with (unless you were catfished, in which case you now have an unbeatable story to tell your friends), you can kiss people without monetary repercussions and you do not have to harmonize to solidify a connection. OK, maybe you do want to harmonize. It seems like only good things can come from that. Regardless, these are extreme circumstances that most of us will never encounter in our daily lives. In quarantine, however, they make for the perfect distraction, while still being relatable enough to be socially fulfilling. 

We are not only physically isolated, but also socially isolated during this time, and reality dating shows bring us together to make us feel less alone. Your preferred dating show serves as a common conversation starter, but we also feel emotionally connected to our favorite characters. In an interview with Good Housekeeping, Dr. Helen Fisher, senior research fellow at the Kinsey Institute described how dating shows likely activate the neurological systems involved in sex drive, love, and attachment. Various hormones, like dopamine, testosterone, and oxytocin are released when watching reality dating shows, making viewers feel many of the sensations that the contestants feel, especially with these popular, yet extreme shows. These are feelings that many of us are lacking during quarantine. With limited real human interactions, reality dating shows are some of the only sources contributing to the neurological responses we receive from socializing. 

From the comfort of my bed, I had the opportunity to talk to LSA Associate Professor of Psychology Amie Gordon to further discuss some of the implications of our current situation. She explained what are known as parasocial relationships. These are relationships or connections we build with celebrities, TV characters, or other fictional beings.

“With dating shows or reality shows, often in those situations we develop what feels like a real relationship even if it’s with someone who is in a book or on TV,” she said. “I think having that and allowing that to fill that role right now is something people do, and it might potentially even be healthy in that way that you feel connected to people through those means of these fictional or TV characters.”

In our current social deprivation, many of us are turning to our TVs to gain some sort of social interaction. Furthermore, people’s need to belong is being threatened right now. Gordon said that social needs are some of our most central and important cravings contributing to our overall well being. Without feeling like we belong or are cared about by other people, our mental health can suffer serious detriments leading to  potential depression. According to Gordon, our need to belong can be satisfied by parasocial relationships, like watching reality TV. These relationships make people feel less alone in a time of isolation. 

My friend recently summed up our new socially deprived existences in a way I found somewhat eloquent: 

“I scold my siblings to feel something,” she said. 

That may sound a little harsh, but our monotonous routines provide few exciting interactions. 

You have these people who are more isolated than ever and are struggling to meet those basic needs and with that might come more depression or anxiety surrounding that sort of lack of social relationships or lack of human contact,” Gordon said.

Unfortunately, these feelings are cyclical. When people feel numb or depressed from lack of contact, we often do not want to engage in activities that will make us feel better, like reaching out to friends. Those tendencies to detach from relationships are exacerbated by the current perception that we have nothing to talk about. This is a weird time, and turning to TV shows to feel entertained or stimulated is not indicative of failing friendships, but instead serves as a healthy outlet to achieve our basic needs. 

Granted, achieving fulfillment from a dating show is a form of instant gratification. Ultimately, these forms of entertainment cannot replace actual relationships with our friends. Still, in this time of isolation, our parasocial relationships are supplementing the satisfaction we would normally gain from human interaction. And even better, these dating shows are serving as conversation topics that we can bring into other vital relationships. Instead of avoiding our friends for fear of having nothing to talk about and falling deeper into the cycle, we can utilize this universal pastime to relate to one another in an exciting way. 

What it comes down to is that getting fulfillment from dating shows is better than nothing. As long as we don’t become overly attached to characters and are able to recognize the absurdity of their “reality”, obsessing over dating shows is not a bad thing. So keep up the good work. The “Listen To Your Heart” season finale may have come and gone, but I have thorough trust in your ability to dive deep into Netflix’s archives and find a show that is just as absurd. With all of the time on our hands, we might as well find another franchise to give a hypothetical TED talk about.