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Is Reality Dating Dead?


The various Bachelor-based franchises and knock-offs show no sign of slowing anytime soon, but we can't help but wonder: Are viewers tuning in to see true love — or engage in schadenfraude?

By Jennifer Armstrong

"Real people" finding "real love" on TV is hardly a new idea. As far back as the 1965 premiere of The Dating Game, TV audiences have been gleefully tuning in to watch wannabe stars — ahem, romantics looking for their soul mates — fail, flail, and occasionally even succeed at the game of
The Bachelor franchise has taken its share of heat for its dismal failure rate.
love. But 2000's Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? jump-started the modern craze for shows that pit potentially dozens of hopefuls against each other to win one (usually) conventionally attractive heart. Led by The Bachelor/Bachelorette franchise and supplemented by a slew of knock-offs for 20 seasons now, we've been watching by the millions as "contestants" fall in love, Survivor style — and for the most part, follow their romances with quick, brutal post-show splits.

Which couples found lasting love?
The Bachelor franchise has taken its share of heat for its dismal failure rate, having successfully matched just two couples who eventually made it to the altar (Bachelorette's Trista Rehn and her hubby Ryan Sutter; Bachelor's Jason Mesnick and his controversial trade-in of his first choice, Melissa, for runner-up Molly Malaney), and one couple who's still engaged several months after their finale aired (congrats for sticking with it, Bachelorette lovebirds Ashley Hebert and J.P. Rosenbaum!). And don't even get us started on the success rates for the likes of knock-offs like Average Joe, Joe Millionaire, Flavor of Love, or More to Love — because there aren't any.

Now, reality couples are breaking up more publicly and bitterly than ever before. Former Bachelor Jake Pavelka and his freshly dumped ex Vienna Girardi gave an incendiary joint TV interview to dissect their dissolution with the show's host, Chris Harrison, in 2010; recently jilted Bachelor fiancée Emily Maynard also sat down with Harrison to talk about splitting from Brad Womack in 2011. Does this mounting evidence against couples finding their "happily ever after" endings mean the reality dating phenomenon is finally over? The simple answer is yes, for the few hopeless romantic viewers who watch hoping to see real love bloom.

Why viewers keep tuning in…
But alas, it appears the vast majority of cynics who tune in for a hit of schadenfreude are hardly about to stop watching just because the bloom has long been off the rose — in fact, if ratings and tabloid attention are any indication, they're more intrigued by reality "love" than ever before. The summer of 2011's season of The Bachelorette was its second-most-watched ever, and the franchise has done well enough for ABC that the network launched spinoff Bachelor Pad last year, which features several seasons' worth of former contestants living in a house together (including lovers-turned-enemies Jake and Vienna during the 2011 summer edition). The fact is, few of people watching seem to care about happy endings — and, in fact, the lack thereof may be increasing the shows' overall appeal.

"If they always ended in marriage, it would get dull after a while," says Robert Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse
Perhaps that's our (very sad) version of a real modern love story.
University. "Relationships that are going well aren't that interesting." Anna David, editor of the essay collection Reality Matters: 19 Writers Come Clean About the Shows We Can't Stop Watching, echoes Thompson's sentiments, saying: "It's boring to watch people fall in love. Trista and Ryan? Who cares? But Vienna and Jake feuding is great television."

The experts' view on reality romance
In such treacherous terrain, it's no surprise to most relationship experts that reality romance shows have emerged as one of the modern world's worst matchmaking services. Southern California marriage counselor Randi Gunther, author of When Love Stumbles and Relationship Saboteurs, says the heightened experience of being on a television show is "like being on cocaine. If you meet in a drug state, it's not going to work. What are you going to follow it with? You're meeting performer-to-performer. Expecting a relationship to work after the show ends is like putting someone on Viagra and then asking them to [perform] without it [later]."

Of course, most of us are watching these shows, not participating as "contestants." And we must be getting something out of the experience if we continue to tune in. We can convince ourselves that we're observing important "lessons" about "relationships," of course: "If you can watch a reality TV show and see how it's connected to you, you can learn something," says Gunther. "But usually it's hard to connect to it. I mean, who's going to have a Kardashian-style wedding?"

In fact, it's just this kind of disconnection that makes reality love not only unsuccessful for those involved, but potentially harmful to those watching at home. Taking in such made-for-TV constructs of coupling total strangers can warp audiences' own ideas about romance: "It's all part of this commercial construction of what love is supposed to be," says Jennifer L. Pozner, author of Reality Bites Back. "Women are supposed to be princesses — pretty, passive, waiting for rescue. The princes are supposed to be handsome and rich and nothing else. It's kind of a raw deal for everybody."

Of course, that set-up probably seemed a little bit more palatable back in the days of traditional fairy tales, when we were at least getting guaranteed happy endings out of enduring such sexism. "When The Bachelor first came out, there was a kind of innocent expectation that we could watch this dopey show and it could still have a Cinderella ending," Thompson says. "But it quickly became clear that while this makes deliciously silly entertainment, it isn't a very efficient way to meet someone." And while we continue to watch these shows long after our illusions have been dashed, we now know there's only one true takeaway from the whole experience, as Thompson says: "a long weekly catalog of very stupid mistakes." Perhaps that's our (very sad) version of a real modern love story.


Jennifer Armstrong covers television for Entertainment Weekly, a job that includes faithfully chronicling the ups and downs of reality dating via meticulous Bachelorette recaps. She also co-founded feminist lifestyle site SexyFeminist.com and can be found online at JenniferMArmstrong.com.
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