'Finding Love' on Reality TV
Today on the subway I was sitting next to K, goofing off in the way we do, even in public, and a man sitting across from us smiled and said, "I've seen you two before, and you always look so happy. What's your secret?" That gave us both pause, to which I could only brush off an answer, jokingly: "It's only been six months...and it's all a façade!" Joking aside, it made us stop and muse about serendipity, human connection and the small ways in which the universe organizes itself to confirm things that feel right (or that we just make things into signs of that rightness by the power of our own will).
These small moments of kismet come in direct opposition to a theme in summer's reality TV, which seems overrun by programs in which people attempt to 'find love' on camera. There are three in particular on this trend that I've been consuming with abject fascination and just a little guilt lately: "Bachelor in Paradise," "Finding Prince Charming," and "Married at First Sight." The first takes former "Bachelor" contestants and puts them on a beach together with enough competition to pair off that the pressure is on to find a mate. "Finding Prince Charming" takes the "Bachelor" concept and mixes it up with all-gay contestants, and "Married at First Sight" does exactly what its title indicates: matching two strangers in a legally binding marriage, at the alter, and seeing what unfolds for six weeks, after which they choose to stay together or divorce.
meet Finding Prince Charming's (mostly basic) "gay Bachelor" and his suitors
These three shows are deeply formulaic in their orchestration of connection, yet their conflicts are vastly different, even though they all involve the almost desperate
by participants, and some sort of achievement or competition that enforces compliance with the formula. With something so variant and unpredictable as love, why do these shows win us (or me, an ever-sappy consumer of romantic stories) over with their formula? Have we come to believe that the trappings of romance, and the repetitive way its stories play out in media, are legitimate enough to be mistaken for actual connection? Are butterflies enough to go on? The contestants on these shows seem to think so, judging by how often they utter the word 'connection' as the token or proof of something promising, and legitimate.
I actually don't think it's just a matter of enjoying these stories because our hearts have been pumped full of romantic comedies. I am legitimately interested in how we 'perform' love in conjunction with our expectations for it, and reality TV is a perfect medium to explore this phenomenon. Think about it: assuming we all desire romantic human connection, what better way is there than consuming it vicariously, sped up, on TV, as it happens to 'real' people? But we must remember the artifice of the concept of reality TV love, which may or may not have any realness involved, and here's where it gets juicy. You get to see people's emotional baggage affect their behavior, their dispositions create conflict, and their expectations for the future either enhance or sabotage their search for connection (or just fame), all under the pressure of performance. Also, if you're introspective like I am, you may be able to turn the camera's lens on yourself in the process and think of how your own history would inform your performance of love on TV; would you be able to stay authentic or exaggerate yourself as you get sucked up into the 15 minutes of fame? Furthermore, how do you, yourself, perform love in your life?
If I were still well-versed in film theory I might be able to dig up some scholar's argument about the documentary film's inherent alteration of its subject, but broad strokes may suffice here: reality TV either has verisimilitude, or it doesn't at all. My question is, does the performance of love on TV, or even the audience's consumption of that performance, give it some sort of validity if there is even a smidgen of real feelings involved? The love doesn't have to be of the mind-altering, love-of-your-life caliber, but just the enacting of an inkling of chemistry, and the television's documentation of it, perhaps makes it so, because it creates a trope much like how romantic comedies encourage us to buy roses and chocolate for our loved ones. In clearer terms, the love might not last, or withstand real-world circumstances, but in showing us an example of how we
act in our pursuit of love, we end up playing the part in our own lives too -- looking for 'a connection' on OKCupid, listening to the fluttering of our stomachs on a first date, or even dramatizing a conflict "like they do on TV." It's like the Kardashians, who've achieved truly blurred lines between their TV selves and their authentic ones.
Any good story has a conflict, too, and in an attempt to spin a story out of 'reality,' reality TV love consumes conflict like wind to a fire for the sake of storytelling. Conflicts go from fabricated to authentic back to fabricated in the pursuit of a story arc; Chris Harrison arrives with a new 'date card' for the player who's just kissed someone else, or the gay bachelor conceals himself as a contestant to get 'true' first impressions of his suitors. I love this finagling of reality to produce conflict, because we watch as artifice has the potential to spur on actual conflict between actual humans. The humans may ham it up on camera, but I believe anger and jealousy are hard to fake.Yet the key difference between your own conflicts and the ones televised on these reality programs is that the camera has the power to change the performance and content of them, as the behavior triggered by the problem becomes more important than the root of it. I would say that most of us value equilibrium over conflict in our relationships, so we try to resolve issues, while reality TV contestants are perhaps emotional masochists in which they mine the circumstances for conflict, hence enhancing it.
It's so easy to get disillusioned, though, about love when we watch too many of these shows, because the formula becomes too prescriptive. The danger of reality TV is that it goes for sweeping gestures, romantic or dramatic, instead of mundane ones that have the potential to be so much more powerful. I, for one, am learning to recognize the small moments that build upon the big stuff in my relationship with K, and trying to silence that desire for broad, symbolic moments that fit so nicely into a crafted, neat story about love. The funny thing is, in recognizing a promise to love the moment for what it is, you are inherently building it into a story you tell yourselves, warts and all.