Why are we so obsessed with watching dating shows?

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Kate Leaver
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From Blind Date to Love Island, Stylist analyses why we fall so hard for reality dating shows

Love is on the air. At nine each night, a great chunk of the British public switches over to ITV2 to watch tanned, toned individuals find romance (and possibly future sponsorship deals) in a Mallorcan villa. Some 4.1 million people caught the first episode of Love Island 2018, up two million from last year. Add those viewing on ITV Hub and the figures rise to 5.1 million.

That’s 56 Wembley stadiums full of people. The Love Island app has been downloaded 1.2 million times and the podcast has been in the top 10 since it launched. Watching strangers pursue, shag and reject one another is truly one of the UK’s favourite hobbies.

We keep coming back to programmes such as Take Me Out, Dinner Date, First Dates and Married At First Sight. Even Naked Attraction, where contestants appear entirely nude, was criticised at first, but eventually praised for celebrating non-airbrushed bodies. It’s back for a second series next month. So what is it about these shows? Do we like them because love is relatable? Or is it just, as the palm trees and lithe bodies might suggest, escapism?

Back in 1965, The Dating Game aired in America. It ran on the ABC network for nine years and had three revivals. It was also the first television programme to turn finding romance into a game. In it, a bachelor or bachelorette would ask three questions to three suitors hidden behind a screen, before choosing one and heading off on a glamorous date paid for by the television show. It probably sounds very familiar (and, if not, here’s our Graham with a quick reminder). In the UK, Blind Date used the same format to remain one of ITV’s most popular shows from 1985 to 2003. Host Cilla Black reigned unchallenged as our TV dating queen, even seeing three pairs of contestants get married (and Cilla, as she often said on the show, bought a new hat for every wedding).

Then, in 1998, Davina McCall came sprinting down the high street, matching up unsuspecting members of the public by delivering pep talks and high-octane encouragement in Streetmate. “If you think he’s fit, go and talk to him!” she’d shout. The show felt more spontaneous than Blind Date’s laboured answers, filled with terrible puns, and captured the cheerful, cheeky way that sex was talked about in the late Nineties. It only lasted three years in its first iteration but has been revived twice – once in 2007 with Holly Willoughby, and the version we have now, hosted by former Gogglebox-er, Scarlett Moffatt.

It’s no surprise Streetmate is back again. We’re currently in a golden age of TV dating games. Angela Jain, managing director of ITV Studios Entertainment, the team behind Love Island, says that when executives look at commissioning a dating show they want a point of difference, the thing that will make it stand out in a currently crowded field. For Love Island, it’s the wit of the voiceover commentary and the relatability. First Dates has its sweetness and its professional matchmakers, Naked Attraction has nudity, Take Me Out has Paddy McGuinness. But there is one thing they all have in common: emotional resonance.

Love Island strikes a chord with people and captures nuanced conversations about relationships,” says Jain. “We’re hearing men articulate feelings, we’re seeing them be open and vulnerable. We’re hearing women discuss love. I think they forget about the cameras so we get these genuine conversations.” Scroll through the #LoveIsland hashtag and it’s obvious from the volume and breadth of the conversations being had: we’re using this show to develop and articulate our own feelings about relationships. It’s a type of cultural catharsis that brings us back to the sofa every night.

Watching beautiful strangers search for romance is entertainment, obviously – and we’ve always craved love stories (research shows that watching character-driven narratives unfold on screen causes the brain to release the feel-good hormone oxytocin). But it’s also a powerful way for us to set our own standards when it comes to relationships. “Even though Love Island is ostensibly a group of people parading around in swimwear, there’s plenty for us to relate to: the intensity of emotion, the alliances, the rejection.

These are all things that happen to us on our dates – it’s just more dramatic on TV,” says behavioural psychologist and dating coach Jo Hemmings, who has worked as a consultant psychologist on reality TV shows such as Celebrity Big Brother and Looking For Love.

Watching something like First Dates also enables us to test out our own fantasies in a safe way, refining what we want in a romantic partner. “My clients struggle to get past ‘tall, dark and handsome’ as a descriptor for what they want in a person,” says Hemmings. “These shows allow us to sit on the sofa and learn about ourselves without actually dating someone. They help us understand who we want to be.”

They also help us to establish what shouldn’t be happening in our own romances. “It enables us to call out bad behaviour in a way we can’t always in real life,” says Hemmings. There are thousands of tweets and several serious think pieces, for example, dedicated to Adam’s worrying behaviour on Love Island this year. Domestic abuse charity Women’s Aid has even stepped in to condemn his ‘gaslighting’ as emotional abuse. This is an important issue highlighted by a show that many label ‘trivial’. 

There’s a sense of community to it too. As the nation collectively watches these shows, they produce watercooler moments – which have become less and less frequent with the sheer breadth of choice on screen – that are discussed across desks, analysed during work meetings and furiously debated in specially allocated WhatsApp groups. Psychologist Honey Langcaster-James, who worked on the second season of Love Island, adds that while the public voting element might be brutal for contestants, it’s unifying for us. “We tend to like people who are similar to us, so we choose to support the contestants who make us feel better about ourselves and our value system,” she says. “We get a vicarious sense of validation and enjoyment in seeing other people vote the same way as us – it makes us feel part of a collective and that’s reassuring.”

But more than that, we’ve become used to being communal voyeurs – to blithely consuming the intimacies of others’ lives as we scroll through our social media feeds, witnessing Shakespearean tragedies in 140 characters and people laying bare their vulnerabilities on glossy Instagram posts. So it makes sense that we seek this sort of voyeurism in our TV shows too. It’s simply how we’ve learnt to consume the emotions of other people.

“It’s not a huge leap between putting your heartache on Facebook and doing it in front of a whole TV audience,” says Professor Helen K Wood, head of media and communication at the University of Leicester and co-author of Reacting To Reality Television. “This is Tinder as a TV programme. It’s showing us our own anxiety over hook-up culture and exposing our interest in melodrama. Recoupling [when Love Island contestants choose who they want to be their partner] is like swiping left – economical, cruel, but familiar.”

There’s also, it could be argued, something inherently unifying about love. It’s a universal currency; a language spoken around the world. Whether you’re in Clapham or Caracas the quest to find a partner is something we can all relate to – it’s part of the human condition. So it’s no surprise it should form part of some of the most popular TV shows across the planet. And who could blame us for turning to something so reassuringly human while the Trump-addled-Brexit-laced-world around us slowly crumbles.

Love creates a very special sort of comfort TV. In a more general sense, we enjoy these shows because they are, at their essence, an in-focus representation of life itself. Last year, author and historian Ben Macintyre wrote in The Times that Love Island was “a look at how isolated communities swiftly evolve unique forms of behaviour”. The contestants are cut off from friends and family, taken off social media and banned from having personal mobile phones. They are stranded with a group of strangers, which inspires a sort-of ‘survival of the fittest’ mentality. People form and break alliances, manipulate one another and present the best version of themselves, in a bid to avoid getting voted off (and hopefully, find love). They also develop their own lingo, a mish-mash of pre-existing slang, like a tribe: think “muggy”, “prangy” and “chirpse”. In doing all this, they reveal a lot about human nature, class, power dynamics and the whims of the British public.

These tribes become hosts to different types of people: maybe not different body types, but certainly different accents, professions and backgrounds. “It would be dangerous to think that groups like those on Love Island represent British society,” says Professor Wood. “But there are definitely things we can learn. This series, when Hayley spoke about Brexit, for example, was about class. There are so many people like Hayley, disenfranchised from politics and more interested in consumer culture. It’s about the poverty of the education system and youth disenfranchisement.”

There have been other criticisms, too. This year, we’ve seen only the second-ever black female contestant, Samira, which is a long overdue representation, and there is virtually no body diversity (something that has long been underrepresented in UK popular culture). “The downside to this show is that we’re seeing people in the top 1% looks-wise getting rejected and judged and that can make us feel intimidated,” says Langcaster-James. “When we compare ourselves to these people, it can lead to negative self-perception and we focus on where we don’t measure up. It can affect our body image and self-esteem.” Other dating shows do a better job of reflecting the real world. The couples on First Dates represent a wide spectrum of ages, sexualities and social classes. Naked Attraction welcomes trans contestants and embraces pansexuality.

These shows are never perfect – but neither is humanity. We watch something like Love Island (or First Dates or Take Me Out) for a dose of voyeurism, romance, escapism and community. We use it to invest in other people and understand ourselves. That’s our type of show on paper.

Images: Peter Quinnell