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It's 1997, and Jenny McCarthy appears behind a crowd of several dozen men in an MTV studio, wearing a tan lace-up shirt and grabbing her own ass. "Hey! Hey! Hey! Are you slabs of meat ready to be cooked and eaten?!" she howls into the microphone.
The men erupt into a chorus of "Yeah!"s. Jenny casually gyrates on a guy wearing a straw hat, while a woman in a masquerade mask is paraded in front of the group by a man in a Cupid costume, complete with saggy white briefs.
This is Singled Out, MTV's very first dating show. When it premiered in 1995, it was nothing like any show that had preceded it. Singled Out was raunchy, loud, over-the-top. The setup was simple, but seemingly supersized: 50 men compete for a chance to go on a date with one woman, and 50 women compete for a date with one man.
The first round eliminated large swaths of contestants based on a questionnaire they filled out before appearing on-screen; men could be removed because of their "package size," and women could be banished due to the size of their breasts. Other categories included hair color and "bedroom style," and "brains" for good measure. After two more rounds, one that was stunt-based and another that was question-and-answer, a "couple" was born.
To understand dating-as-sport TV, we have to start with the date itself. Dates as we know them first became popular about a hundred years ago, when courtship rituals moved outside the home and into the public arena. According to historian and University of Kansas professor Beth Bailey, the word "date" was first used in the late 1800s in lower-class communities to signify an act of prostitution.
By the time the word made it into middle-class usage in the early 20th century, dating began to look a lot more like it does now: two people doing some sort of activity together with the possibility of a romantic outcome. It was still an economic exchange — men, after all, were still footing the bill — but the trade-off for dollars spent was companionship, not (necessarily) sex.
In the 1920s and ‘30s, the concept of "dating and rating" — in which a woman's popularity, or rating, was determined by the amount of dates she had and the quality of men they were with — took hold on college campuses. In her book From Front Porch to Back Seat: Courtship in Twentieth-Century America, Bailey explains that women would strive to go on multiple dates a week to climb the social ranks. This wasn't husband hunting.
"For women involved in this early model of dating — where success was having two dates in one night, and if you didn't have any, you were sitting in your room with the lights off on Saturday so nobody could tell you weren't popular — they were walking a really difficult line between being what was considered sexually alluring and attractive and not ruining their reputations," Bailey tells me over the phone.
"The popular culture was a world within which people formed their understandings of what romance was like and what the conventions of dating were."
An increase in the activities available to young people played just as important a role in the rise of dating. The Oxford Companion to United States History explains that "especially in urban areas, new public diversions like dance halls, amusement parks, theaters, and parks enticed courting couples away from the safety of their parlors." Courtship had officially transformed into a public act.
Television, which became a familiar device in people's homes in the 1950s and ‘60s, further contributed to our understanding of what a date should be. Everyone watched the same shows, and those programs inevitably depicted characters dating.
"There were three or four shows you could watch on network television, and movies were aimed at a broad general audience in a way that they aren't today," says Bailey. "The popular culture was a world within which people formed their understandings of how to behave, and what romance was like, and what the conventions of dating were."
It makes sense then that TV execs would realize a show solely devoted to dating could be hugely successful. Which brings us to: The Dating Game.
The Dating Game began its initial run in 1965 and ended in 1973, followed by several different syndication revivals (including one in the ‘90s that was presented back-to-back with The Newlywed Game for "The Dating-Newlywed Hour"). Leading up to The Dating Game, competition-based series like What's My Line? and The $64,000 Question, wherein the prizes were monetary, had become commonplace. Here, people had the chance to compete for people.
The Dating Game was simple: three contestants would compete for a date with a person of the opposite sex. Each contestant was introduced to the audience before the bachelor or bachelorette (way before The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, this is how dating shows referred to those seeking love on TV) was brought to the stage, seated out of his or her eyesight behind a rotating wall. After several rounds of questions, the bachelor or bachelorette would make a decision. There wasn't much more to it than that.
One of the more memorable episodes of The Dating Game starred Farrah Fawcett as the bachelorette in March 1969, just a few days before April Fool's Day. After a sleepy question-and-answer round, a fake brawl broke out between the male suitors, all of whom were actually professional stuntmen. It was weird.
Another infamous episode featured serial killer Rodney Alcala as a contestant. It's unclear what kind of background check protocol was in place back in 1978, but according to Stella Sands, author of The Dating Game Killer, by the time Alcala was on the show, he had been on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list, and served nearly three years in jail for child molestation and then another two and a half years for violating his parole and providing drugs to a minor. He was also a registered sex offender.
On the show, he was introduced as "a successful photographer who got his start when his father found him in the darkroom at the age of thirteen, fully developed." Alcala won his episode of The Dating Game, telling the bachelorette, "We're going to have a great time together, Cheryl." Fortunately for Cheryl, they never went on that date. In 1977 and 1978, the years prior to and of his appearance, Alcala would kill Ellen Hover, Georgia Wixted, and Jill Barcomb; his final body count is unknown, but several sources say it could be as high as 130 women.
'The Dating Game' wasn't the most accurate portrayal of romance. Instead, it felt like an idealized version of the not-too-distant past.
Despite its popularity, The Dating Game wasn't the most accurate portrayal of romance. Instead, it felt like an idealized version of the not-too-distant past. More women were entering the workforce in the 1960s, and the second-wave feminist movement was well underway. By 1972, all women could obtain a prescription for birth control, regardless of marital status. "The freewheeling 1970s made shows like The Dating Game seem downright chaste," proclaimed Katie Couric in a 2005 Today Show segment. "No one felt the need for a marriage license to have sex and the pickup scene at bars stayed in full swing throughout the next decade."
The next major television dating show was Love Connection, which debuted in 1983 and followed a different format. Instead of watching the matchmaking process, the TV audience would meet a couple for the first time after they had already gone on a prearranged date. The episode was a combination of recap and testimonial from both singles.
"Welcome to Love Connection, where old-fashioned romance meets modern-day technology!" declared the show's intro. "Where you hear all the intimate details of a first date! Sometimes our dates have a happy ending! And some other times, there's just an ending!" The show would kick into gear with an interview from the main bachelor or bachelorette, with commentary from the other person on the date shown in the upper left-hand corner of the screen. If there was indeed a love connection, the couple would be reunited onstage.
Blind Date, which premiered in 1999 and ran through 2006, took yet another angle: the bulk of the show involved watching actual dates, most of which were comically bad (two of the three Blind Date DVDs you can buy on Amazon are "Dates From Hell" and "Freaks & Weirdos"). Each segment started with an introduction of the contestants and interview clips in which they outline unrealistic expectations for what they hope to find in a mate.
The dates themselves were activity-based (surfing lessons! dance classes! face-painting! sitting in hot tubs!), and overlaid with Pop Up Video-style commentary that appeared onscreen. The couple would typically go to a few different locations throughout the course of the date (outfit changes were also fairly common), which provided plenty of time for awkward car conversations while the pair drove between spots. A countdown clock was often displayed leading up to the worst part of the date.
It wasn't unusual for people to appear on the show more than once, nor was it unusual for men and women of color to only be paired up with other men and women of color (there were either no same-sex couples on the show, or so few that extensive internet research yielded zero results). The show leaned heavily on gender stereotypes, insinuating via caption that any woman looking to "settle down" was obsessive and psychotic. In one recap segment, a male contestant said that he would probably go on a second date with his companion, but only if she would come over and meet his "physical needs."
For better or worse, some of this dialogue was probably scripted. In a piece for Mandatory, K. Thor Jensen wrote that his appearance on the show was largely managed by the producers:
One thing about Blind Date and other syndicated shows is that they are very, very controlling about what you talk about on camera. We were sat down and given a list of things that weren't allowed to discuss: movies, music, TV shows, politics — basically anything that would set the date in a specific period of time. Because Blind Date will be shown eternally in syndication, they want people to be able to relate to the daters without missing any current cultural references. We were also forbidden from speaking with each other when the cameras weren't on, which was pretty weird. It's difficult to try to make a connection with somebody when you'll be forced to stand next to each other without saying a word for 20 minutes while the crew sets up.
On Bustle, Natalia Lusinski described her own Blind Date experience: "We arrived at a Mexican restaurant and were told to quickly change into our nice clothes in the bathroom. (Do you know how awkward that was, diners and crew people alike waiting for you?) While practicing being Superwoman, a producer spoke to me under the door, saying to think of three racy questions."
One network looms largest when it comes to TV dating shows, and that network is MTV. MTV first dipped its toes in the dating show waters with Singled Out, which was hosted by Chris Hardwick and Jenny McCarthy. (McCarthy was later replaced by Carmen Electra when she left Singled Out to star in her own sketch comedy show on MTV.)
"Jenny was a huge part of what made Singled Out so fun," says longtime executive producer Kallissa Miller, who worked on Singled Out, as well as MTV's Next and Dismissed. "Now, we have Amy Schumer and Amy Poehler and Tina Fey, so it's hard to remember that pretty women weren't funny back then. It was like, ‘Oh my gosh. She's a Playboy Playmate and she'll stick her tongue out and pick a booger and whatever.' It was breaking down that stereotype that you either had to have a funny, mediocre-looking girl or you have a hot dumb girl."
"It was all about fun," agrees MTV's head of unscripted programming Lauren Dolgen, who worked on other dating shows for the network, including Date My Mom, Taildaters, and Parental Control. "Singled Out was such an experience. People just wanted to be there and be a part of that, whether it was in the audience or on the actual show."
As Lisa Berger, one of the original executive producers of Singled Out, told the Deseret News back in 1996, "Just the fact that you have 50 single guys and 50 single girls on the set at the same time, with sort of this party atmosphere, makes people look at it and want to be part of the party."
And it was a party. Before each bachelor or bachelorette was brought out, that massive group of singles was crammed into the back portion of the set. The camera would pan across this sea of contestants — all yelling and cheering — during particularly rowdy portions of the show, and before and after commercial breaks. The group competing for the bachelor or bachelorette's affection had to perform silly stunts (like making up a song, or pretending to be a frog or a professional wrestler) to get the attention and approval of their potential mate. In the end, the newly-formed couple got to hang out on the Singled Out couch and watch the next round unfold.
Contestants on Singled Out definitely weren't looking for soulmates. The question-and-answer round wasn't particularly deep or thought-probing, and the idea of long-term commitment certainly wasn't addressed when contestants were weeded out based on how well they filled out a bra. This was all about hookups, facilitated by MTV.
To be cast on Singled Out, you had to be a college student; if you weren't, you'd have to settle for watching it on TV — or picking up a copy of The Singled Out Guide to Dating, a paperback published in 1996.
Contestants on 'Singled Out' definitely weren't looking for soulmates. This was all about hookups, facilitated by MTV.
It included a quiz on how to "build your dreamboat," an entire chapter on how to pick up guys at a party (unsurprisingly, it's a pretty heteronormative book â there was actually only one same-sex episode of Singled Out, and it aired at 11 p.m., as opposed to the show's typically earlier timeslot), and "The Calling Calendar," which breaks down when it's "psycho" and when it's "fair game" to call a man after you've met (the Singled Out recommendation: five days).
Singled Out did little for the gay and lesbian population, but it was notable in how diverse it was in terms of race. In his book Rules of the Game: Quiz Shows and American Culture, author Olaf Hoerschelmann writes, "The taboo of interracial dating that plagued earlier dating shows was often reversed on Singled Out. Because the picker does not see the contestants, guessing the race or ethnicity of the candidates in the dating pool was difficult. Additionally, the predetermined categories for the selection in the first round of the game were adjusted during the first season of the show to avoid any criteria that might eliminate candidates."
While Singled Out set the tone for a whole generation of dating shows, it's Next that most closely aligns with how we used to, and still continue to, date. On the show, which aired on MTV from 2005 to 2008, five people waited in a bus to meet an eligible bachelor or bachelorette. As each made their way out, they introduced themselves with a painfully cheesy, sexually-charged tagline ("I'm a pre-med student, so I really know my way around a naked body!" "I'll just go ahead and say it: curvy girls make my junk twitch") as mostly irrelevant stats about them flashed across the screen ("hates when people dress their dogs," "eats chocolate three times a day").
At any point in the date, the bachelor or bachelorette could "next" someone, and a new contestant would arrive on the scene; also at any point, they could tell the contestant they were with that they'd like to go on a second date with them. If the contestant didn't want to, they would receive $1 cash for every minute they spent on the date. Something else that set Next apart from all the other dating shows before it was the camaraderie, competition, and occasional sexual tension between contestants on the bus.
Next was inspired by speed-dating, which itself was inspired by game shows. Kallissa Miller remembers coming up with the concept: "We were like, ‘What if we were able to take the speed-dating aesthetic and make it mobile?' Because, obviously, watching people talk across a table isn't interesting for TV."
"What was really fun about Next is it speaks to almost being greedy, but not too greedy," she continues. "You don't want to say ‘next' too quickly, but then there's the grass-is-always-greener mentality. Even if you're having fun with somebody on a date, you're like, ‘Hmm, but there are four more people I still have left.'"
The concept of speed-dating can be traced back to New Year's Calling, a 19th-century phenomenon in which women hosted eligible bachelors all day long in their homes. According to NPR, "If the woman wanted the man to stay for a while, she could ask him to remove his hat and coat. Otherwise, she was to offer refreshments and conversation while he remained dressed for the cold." Men would stay for no longer than 15 minutes.
New Year's Calling fell out of favor by the 1920s, and it would be another seven decades before speed-dating was formally introduced by an Orthodox rabbi in Los Angeles named Deyo Yaacov. The New York Times Magazine summed up its origin story in 2013:
Deyo invited a group of friends to convene in his living room and brainstorm about how he could best serve the local Jewish community. This being L.A., Deyo's group included several entertainment-industry people, including someone who produced game shows. The rabbi and his think tank decided that Jewish singles needed to identify marriage partners with maximum efficiency, and they designed a wacky game in which participants would table-hop their way through a dozen dates in a night. Soon they began their experiment (under the auspices of American Friends of Aish HaTorah, the nonprofit group that employed Deyo), using an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of the singles and their responses on feedback cards. Within a year or so, the speed-dating idea had gone viral, with imitators around the country.
Speed-dating was, and still is, all about choice, and modern dating apps are basically digital forms of speed-dating. They both have the same founding principal, the same one that also made dating and rating so popular on college campuses nearly a century ago: the more choices, the better. Speed-dating is Next is Tinder.
"When I look at the show Next, that was basically Tinder before there was Tinder," says Jessica Zalkind, a senior vice president of talent at MTV. "I think everyone was so obsessed with that show because it was so crazy, and that concept just wasn't around then. Now, that's how our audience dates, through these apps." Other just-as-wacky series in the MTV dating show canon include Dismissed, Room Raiders, Parental Control, and Date My Mom. The network clearly found a genre that worked for them in the aughts.
On Dismissed (which debuted in 2001), two contestants would both go on a singular date with a bachelor or bachelorette, with one of them eventually being asked to leave. On Room Raiders (which arrived in the middle of the decade), three contestants were dramatically abducted from their homes and had their bedrooms searched by the bachelor or bachelorette (a blacklight was involved). On Date My Mom (2004 to 2006), mothers went on dates with single men or women to represent and advocate for her son or daughter. And on Parental Control (2006 to 2010), men and women who were already in relationships would go on a date with a stranger, while their parents and current significant other were taped as they watched it unfold on TV.
We identify a villain and hope they fail. We see ourselves in one of the contestants and hope they win.
When they were on the air, half-hour shows like Next and Dismissed were shown in the afternoon. Today's dating shows like MTV's Are You the One? and ABC's The Bachelor, with their hours-long episodes and season-long dramatic arcs, are on during primetime.
What differentiates these shows from their myriad predecessors is the amount of time the audience has to get to know each contestant, form an opinion about what the ultimate outcome should be, and become consumed by a rich, linear plot. We pick favorites. We identify a villain and hope they fail. We see ourselves in one of the contestants and hope they win.
Anthropologist Scott Frank argues that watching a coupling unfold on TV is more than just entertaining: it helps us find meaning in our own partnerships, or lack thereof. "Real relationships don't actually necessarily have a narrative," says Frank. "We take the experiences we've had when we dated somebody and we probably placed them into a narrative in our head, but in reality they're just events that have happened. These shows very clearly show a beginning, a middle, and an end. There's plot development. It helps viewers narrative-ize their own experiences."
The Bachelor has been on the air since 2002. In the early days, episodes were 60 minutes; after four years, they crept up to 90 minutes; and from 2009 onward, episodes have clocked in at two hours. There have been 20 seasons (which doesn't count any of the spinoffs, like The Bachelorette and Bachelor in Paradise) and over 200 episodes. A given season involves an introductory cocktail party, group dates, one-on-one dates, two-on-one dates, hometown visits, exotic vacations, many rose ceremonies, and even more confessional moments. Most end with proposals.
Very few of these things are involved in traditional budding relationships. "Do dating shows reflect the reality of dating culture? I would strongly suspect they do not," says Frank. "That said, they do reflect things that are somehow part of what we expect in dating. They have to, or people wouldn't watch them."
In fact, these shows offer an antidote to what some consider an impending dating-app burnout. "I think we're kind of at a major fucking crisis in love and romance, and I think it's a worldwide phenomenon," says New York City matchmaker and Modern Love Club founder Amy Van Doran. "There's a hyper-focus on our individual course of self-realization, and it parallels with people being so blinded by their media and their cell phone and Facebook. They're not critically engaging with their own life."
This is perhaps why MTV moved on from Next and onto Are You the One?, now in its third season. The show is about linking up soulmates, not one-off hookups. However, there are some additional incentives. First, it's set on an island. Second, if a couple is able to correctly identify the perfect matches that were prescreened for them, they get to split a million dollars.
"I feel like the show Are You the One? is the opposite of what's going on in their dating lives, and that's why it's so appealing to them," says Zalkind. "It's that true romance and meeting people face-to-face."
"I feel like the show 'Are You the One?' is the opposite of what's going on in their dating lives, and that's why it's so appealing to them."
"Nobody expects that dating is actually like The Bachelor, where a man or a woman goes out and they've got 15 roses," echoes Frank. "That said, there are very clear aspects of dating that are familiar to everybody. Everybody's gone on a date. Everybody has somebody that they like. Everybody has, at some point, played some of the little games that you play with people in relationships. While the overall setup of those shows is not reflective of actual dating, what occurs within them, the micro-sections, absolutely is."
This, frustratingly, includes interracial dating (or the lack thereof) on TV. In its 20-season run, there has never been a black Bachelor or Bachelorette. (An ABC executive would only go as far as telling Entertainment Weekly that the upcoming season of The Bachelorette will be "diverse," though it seems unlikely that a woman of color will be cast as the lead.) This month, commercial producer Karen X. Cheng put together a chart outlining when, exactly, each minority contestant was eliminated on The Bachelor from 2009 to the current season. Interestingly enough, there was an increase in minorities that were cast in the 2013 seasons of each show — six per cast — a year after a class action racial discrimination lawsuit was filed against the franchise (the suit was ultimately dismissed).
The book Dataclysm: Love, Sex, Race and Identity — What Our Online Lives Tell Us About Our Offline Selves, written by OkCupid cofounder Christian Rudder, demonstrates just how much our racial biases affect who we match with. He writes:
On OkCupid, one of the easiest ways to compare a black person and a white person (or any two people of any race) is to look at their "match percentage." That's the site's term for compatibility. It asks users a bunch of questions, they give answers, and an algorithm predicts how well any two of them would get along over, say, a beer or dinner. Unlike other features on OKCupid, there is no visual component to match percentage. The number between two people only reflects what you might call their inner selves — everything about what they believe, need, and want, even what they think is funny, but nothing about what they look like. Judging by just this compatibility measure, the four largest racial groups on OkCupid — Asian, black, Latino, and white — all get along about the same. In fact, race has less effect on match percentage than religion, politics, or education.
[...] But this racial neutrality is only in theory; things change once the users' own opinions, and not just the color-blind workings of an algorithm, come into play.
Rudder also looked at how people responded to full profiles with photos. On OkCupid, users can rate other members using the site's "star system," with 1 being the least desirable, 3 being average, and 5 being the most desireable. According to the data, white men ranked black women 24 percent less attractive than the average, and found white women to be 11 percent better-looking than the average. He also found the same trend when comparing data at Match.com and DateHookup.
On Match, white men found black women 68 percent less attractive than the average, and white women found black men 39 percent less attractive than the average. Might the biases implicit in these numbers also account for producers' tendency to put together predominantly white casts?
UnREAL, Lifetime's critically-acclaimed dark Bachelor satire, beat the actual franchise to the punch when it cast a black lead for its second season. Co-creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro told EW, "In an era when driving while black is dangerous, there are few things more pressing than this conversation. We don't want to fall asleep at the wheel. We really want to keep talking about stuff that we're incredibly passionate about and we think is important." But where are we as a culture when a sendup of a show that's been on for 14 years casts a black bachelor before its prototype?
Other smaller reality shows are beginning to make waves though. Match Made in Heaven, a dating show that returned for its second season on WE last week, cast black real estate investor (and model/actor) Shawn Bullard as its lead, along with a diverse group of female contestants, in the first season.
In an interview last year, Bullard told VH1, "It's always a great platform to be the first of anything. I'm not going to be that guy to pull the race card; but the reality is, to be a black man in America you have to be twice as better to get half the credit. I've never used that as a crutch; maybe ABC didn't search long and hard enough to find that man of color that was exceptional enough to represent their brand. That's just how it is, but whether it was ABC or WE TV, I knew I was the man for the job."
There have been a slew of niche shows that have also popped up over the past few years, though diversity of contestants is not their goal. Instead, you'll find hyper-specific shows like Alaskan Women Looking for Love on TLC and 12 Corazones on Telemundo, where one of the co-hosts is an astrologer and contestants are identified by their zodiac signs.
"There are so many shows now," says Frank. "The networks are so specialized, and they can afford shows that have smaller audiences as long as the audience has the desired demo. You don't care who your overall audience is as long as you've got the demo audience."
"A big network like CBS, they may have 10 million viewers, but maybe only one million of those are in the demo," he continues. "A niche network will have far fewer viewers, but the percentage of them that are in your demo are so much higher."
In the introduction to her book, Beth Bailey recalls being on Phil Donahue's talk show in 1978, discussing the then-controversial topic of coed dormitories.
In retrospect it is clear to me that the controversy on Donahue that day was less about coed dorms than about the transformation of American courtship. The audience was mourning the dissolution of the dating system and the death of romance. Person after person rose to tell of her college days â the waiting and the telephone calls, nervous boys clutching corsages, the exciting moments of risky privacy, the rush to sign in on time. In memory, the dating system became pure mystery and romance.
And of course, as anyone who lived through the earlier part of the century would tell you, it wasn't. "I would say that pretty much every development in the history of dating, people were appalled by everything," Bailey tells me over the phone. "Going steady was something that dreadfully upset a lot of Americans."
In her book, she adds, "American popular culture is ripe with nostalgia for the old ways. In the midst of a heated debate about the future of American courtship, it is time to look more closely at its past. To what are we being asked to return?"
On the phone last month, Bailey tells me about her niece who just came back from Denmark. Frustrated with the dating scene here and abroad, she told her aunt that she wanted to go back to dating the old-fashioned way: meeting people at bars. Bailey, of course, reminded her that this is not the old-fashioned way; rather, meeting people at bars — and dating in general — is still a relatively new concept.
In the Modern Love Club office in New York City, Van Doran and I talk for an hour about the online dating burnout, Tinder vs. Bumble, ghosting, Netflix and chill, and all of the other things that define the current dating landscape. But we also talk about love. About the neurological explosion of meeting someone new and the anxiety that comes with it. About having our hearts broken, or ending relationships, one after the other, time and time again.
None of that means we're going to stop falling in love, or dating, or hooking up, or using Tinder. And we most certainly won't stop watching dating shows. "In general, people don't want to feel that events happen randomly," says Frank. "They want to feel that there's a purpose, a progression. Dating shows help us think that that exists."
Tiffany Yannetta is Racked's managing editor.
Editor: Julia Rubin