Illustration by Hannah Robinson

Masterfully dropping on the eve before Valentine’s Day, Love is Blind has since snowballed in popularity.  Perhaps this is unsurprising, it is the televisual equivalent of mashed potato: inoffensive, comforting, uncomplicated and easily digestible.  The perfect fodder for helping us see out these last few dark, cold weeks of winter.

So, there were never any illusions of edification with Love is Blind.  Yet, unlike its more belligerent bedfellows, Love Island and The Bachelor, it cast a more wholesome, benign ambience.  These were not merely young, beautiful people pitted against each other in the pursuit of love (or money), but young, beautiful people shown to approach the opportunity of finding love with sincerity and earnestness.  Well, as much sincerity, at least, as can be sustained when these people are shown proposing to someone they have known for two weeks through the opaque walls of a pod.

Despite its generally unproblematic tone, however, I was unsettled by its subtle characterisation of its female contestants, many of whom were depicted in a way that shunted them lazily into tired and well-worn female stereotypes.

 Jessica is, perhaps, the most obvious example of this: the older woman with the pressures of the ‘ticking biological clock’ looming over her who was shown as increasingly feverish in her desire to find a man.  One got the impression that if her ‘journey’ had been successful and she had found a suitable partner all the chaos that bubbled around her throughout the series would instantly settle.  Of course, the end point for all contestants was to find a loved one, but for Jessica it seemed as if it would be character completion, the end-arc of her increasingly desperate experience.  Arguably, she didn’t necessarily help herself, with the relentless fixations on the age gap between herself and her partner Mark and their various wine-fuelled antics.  Yet, it was only in the recently filmed reunion show that she seemed able to reclaim her agency, expressing her regret and embarrassment at how she was presented within the show, a display that seemed almost uncomfortably raw and tender amid the otherwise rather superficial and silly mood.

Typically, given that the two were initially both vying for the attention of the same man, Amber was positioned as the antithesis of Jessica.  Whereas Jessica was fraught, high maintenance and girly (let’s not even go into the infantile flirting voice), Amber was laidback, assured and keen to declare her tomboy credentials as a former tank mechanic.  Amber was the show’s ‘cool girl’.

For those unfamiliar with Gillian Flynn’s book ‘Gone Girl’, in which the ‘cool girl’ is conceptualised, I’ll briefly paraphrase: the cool girl is hot, sexually liberated but not a slut, a girl who eats like a man but looks like a super-model, who burps openly and drinks beer with her boyfriend’s friends, who is always incredibly laidback[1].  The ‘cool girl’, let’s be clear, is an impossibility, a figment of imagination that has been born of and nurtured by the patriarchy.  In casting Amber as the ‘cool girl’, Love is Blind legitimised one of the great and ineluctable female stereotypes of the 21st century.

Next, there is Lauren: the beautiful and wholesome girl next door, everyone is rooting for.  Never mind her pretty incisive comments about dating as a black woman in a nation mired by racism (although I am somewhat impressed that they aired these discussions at all), she was shown as most fulfilled when she had settled into her cosy relationship with Cameron. Whilst the show allowed a slither of time to show Lauren contemplating her loss of independence upon moving in with a man she had known for a matter of weeks, much like her uncertainties about the pressures of dating outside her race, this was skipped over as a minor, inconsequential hurdle on the path to happiness.  It was when discussing the rooms for prospective children and docilely indulging her partner Cameron’s outdoor proclivities and hunkering down in a treehouse in the woods for the night, that Lauren was shown as a woman completing her inevitable and tacitly commendable journey to girl-meets-boy fulfilment.  Any messy ends which frayed outside of the narrow bounds of the uncomplicated and obliging girl-next-door narrative were briskly tied up and forgotten about and Lauren’s strong voice was somehow muted by the strongly conventional narrative trajectory that the programme found for her.

Of course, it is naïve to expect reality TV to be reflective of reality, particularly when the programme is quite as ludicrous in premise as Love is Blind.  Yet, by continuing to provide its audience with tightly circumscribed female narratives the producers seem to be giving us what we tell them we want and we continue to want what we’re continually given. We are forced to ask, is what makes the show so palatable the fact that it condenses its female contestants into easily digestible stereotypes?  Can we only handle women in one-dimensional form?

[1] Flynn, G. (2012). Gone Girl. Crown Publishing Group.