As someone who has spent bar far the larger portion of my adult life responding to questions about whether I’ve managed to find another human to put up with me yet with a cynical ‘ha!’ or a quip about how I’m keeping myself free in case Bellatrix Lestrange decides that she is no longer fictional or a psychopath, it’s fair to say that I have a vested interest in the representation of single women in the media.
The aforementioned lack of a relationship means that the time I am not required to spend on having sex, being a bit smug and arguing in public can be used on more intellectually stimulating and emotionally fulfilling pursuits such as eating chocolate, wearing pyjamas and watching trashy TV. And what better way is there to meet other single women from the comfort of my own living room than by watching dating shows?
Take Me Out has been a guilty pleasure of mine for some time. For those of you not familiar with the premise: 30 single women get to know one single man by hearing him talk about himself, and then either hearing someone who knows him say a bit more about him or watching him show off some kind of talent. It generally goes along the lines of a man coming out who is loved all the way through until the second round, when his sister reveals that he sometimes wears her dresses. Anyway, the women all have a light in front of them, which they switch off if they hear or see something which means that they don’t want to go on a date with the man any more. If there are any lights still on at the end of the two rounds, the man gets to pick which woman he goes on a date with.
The Year of Making Love is a series which has recently started on BBC3, and it’s a different kind of dating show. It’s essentially a social experiment in which a few hundred single people were brought together in January 2012 and matched using ‘science’ (I haven’t seen an explanation of what that science is… it seems to be some sort of personality profiling) with someone who is theoretically a compatible partner. Each programme then follows the stories of a few of the couples for a year, to see if any of them stayed together.
The main problem with Take Me Out is the way women are reduced to being virtually identical, with the representation stripping them of both their intellectual and physical individuality. The men know very little about from their looks. There is often a sense that women are being ‘dumbed down’ in order to provide entertainment. Their physical appearances are also generally very similar, or made to be so. With a few exceptions, they are young, slim, white women, wearing short dresses and heels and fake nails. The older and black and minority ethnic women they do have on the show are still presented the same in terms of their make-up, clothing and accessories. The women who fall outside of this standard appearance are generally the ones that don’t get dates.
This is not to say, however, that the women on Take Me Out are actually as generic as they are made out to be. There are instances when real personality shines through, most notably at the stage when the man is about to pick he who is going to take on a date out of the two remaining women, and the presenter reveals an interesting fact about one of the two women, but doesn’t say who it is about. Sure, sometimes the facts are things like ‘one of these girls once kissed her boyfriend’s twin brother because she couldn’t tell them apart’, which further perpetuate the idea that the women are stupid. Often, though, they’re quite funny things, like that a woman won a competition for how many grapes she could get into her mouth at one time, or that she named her cat after a character in Fireman Sam – things that make the woman they are about stand out, make her more than her appearance, basically identical to the woman standing next to her.
In contrast, The Year of Making Love has a bit more emphasis on variety, and concentrates more on personality than Take Me Out does. There is not the same presentation of women as stupid or so desperate for a date that who they are doesn’t matter. The more flexible format means that it is much less heterosexist, with gay couples being included in the same way as heterosexual couples, and not being sidelined to their own show, as is the case with Take Me Out.
It still has its fair share of horrific, with one guy on the show using the chat up line “if you were a car door, I’d slam you,” when talking to the girl he’d been matched with, but generally watching it is far less alienating than watching Take Me Out. There have been women I can identify with, which I guess is what I was unconsciously looking for in representations of single women.
I wouldn’t say that the women on The Year of Making Love are necessarily really any more or less articulate and interesting than the women on Take Me Out, but what’s refreshing about it is the way it shows that it is not necessary to represent single women as stupid.
I appreciate that a lot of these differences stem from the different remits and audiences of the two shows. Take Me Out is pure entertainment where it’s all about the ‘game’ of the selection process, whereas The Year of Making Love presents itself as an experiment, and, at least on the face of it, aspires to create long-term relationships.
However, despite the differences in their representations of single women, what both shows do, deliberately or not, is reveal that single women can be intelligent, interesting and attractive. Single women are not ‘defective’ (as I think is so often a cultural assumption) – they are just single. And with that in mind; populated with all kinds of women (some of whom can name all 52 original Pokémon characters), the ‘shelf’ feels like a much less shameful place to be.
This is a guest post by SFN committee member Kirsty, originally published in the SFN zine Pandora Press #5.