Searching for “The One” in the Age of Social Media and Reality TV
Julia Argy’s debut novel reminds us that identity is hard to grapple with when it has to be declared online
In the summer of 2018, my friends and I established a ritual. On Monday nights at 8 pm, we gathered in my sweaty living room in Brooklyn, drank cheap wine, and watched Becca Kufrin as she embarked upon her journey to find love in front of millions. We were joining the ranks of a long-storied tradition: Bachelor Mondays. I was newly out of a particularly terrible breakup — a breakup that had sent me careening into my bed, watching 14 seasons of Grey’s Anatomy in four months. The dramas of The Bachelorette were a welcome distraction to fold myself into, my friends’ laughter a balm, and at least, (I told myself) I wasn’t broken up with on national television.
After one of these wine-fueled nights, a friend nominated me for The Bachelor. He wrote up my sob story, submitted photos pulled from my Instagram, and we laughed as we imagined the ludicrous possibility that I would ever go on reality TV. But amidst my vehement denial that I would “never, ever” say yes if producers approached me, the question remained in my mind: would they approach me? And what would I say if they did?
This is the question that Emily, the protagonist of Julia Argy’s debut novel The One, finds herself answering. Recently fired from her uninspiring job as an administrative assistant at a biotech startup, she is recruited off the street to join a reality dating show called The One, a fictionalized version of The Bachelor. She is 24, has never had a serious boyfriend, and, in her own words, “had no reason to say no.” Four days later she is on the plane to LA, her phone taken from her, and her bag packed with shiny evening gowns, ready to woo a midwestern man named Dylan with “strong family values.”
At 24, I was like Emily. I had no attachments: no budding relationship or full-time job I couldn’t bear to leave (unless you count helping teenagers on the Upper East Side get into the Ivy of their choice). It could be fun. It could be something to do. It could prove that I, Grace Kennedy, yet another aimless 20-something, was a person worthy of admiration and love, or at the very least, someone worth turning on your television for.
Like many millennials, I grew up on scripted reality romance: I watched Lauren forgo a trip to Paris for a boy on The Hills before I had my first kiss and discussed the breakups and makeups on The Jersey Shore with my classmates as we walked from AP History to lunch. As I got older, I graduated to The Bachelor and the UK’s Love Island, arguing with friends over who we thought would “win,” our lips stuck in a smirk while our eyes welled with tears.
The Bachelor producers never approached me, and I’ve since aged out of my chance to compete on a dating show (28 is nearing geriatric on reality TV), but their cultural dominance still holds. The Bachelor has been on the air for over 20 years, launched numerous questionable spin-offs, and premiered local versions in 37 countries. Its success has inspired countless entries into the dating show category, each based on slightly different versions of the same premise: throw a bunch of strangers together, tell them to fall in love, and make good TV.
Most of these shows are aggressively heteronormative, patriarchal, and white, and it wouldn’t be much of a leap to call The Bachelor a Christian dating show. We watch these shows (close to 3.5 million people watched the most recent Bachelor finale), and while we know they’re scripted, manipulative, and utterly absurd, we can’t seem to turn them off. Why?
My sister-in-law says it is at least half our fetishization of youth. The 2022 season of UK’s Love Island had a 19-year-old contestant searching for true love – something very few people of that age end up realistically finding – and audiences barely batted an eye. Another friend says it is “escapism at its finest.” Netflix has an entire watch list devoted to “Escapist Reality TV,” which includes Love Island, Indian Matchmaking, and a bafflingly titled show ‘Dated & Related’. During the early days of the pandemic, a friend and I communicated exclusively about the most recent Bachelor episodes, sending videos back and forth with long-winded opinions and theories. A few months later after reuniting in person, she confessed she had been fighting with her partner the whole time, while I had been single, living at my parent’s house, and falling into a depression. The dramas of The Bachelor, so far removed from our own, had been easier to talk about.
In a recent and much-discussed New Yorker profile of philosopher Agness Callard, the author, Rachel Aviv, references Phyllis Rose’s study of Victorian marriages. Gossip is often looked down upon, Rose remarks, “but gossip may be the beginning of moral inquiry, the low end of the platonic ladder which leads to self-understanding. We are desperate for information about how other people live because we want to know how to live ourselves, yet we are taught to see this desire as an illegitimate form of prying.”
Reality TV as a medium has, in many ways, provided us with a legitimized form of gossip, a way to peek into the lives of others without the shame traditionally associated with prying. This gossip can feed into our proclivity for finger-pointing, separating the good from the bad, but I think it stems from something more innocent — a question: how are we to live our lives? Are they bad? Am I good? And though we may blush to earnestly ask it, does true love exist?
But maybe why we watch is less important than the fact that we do. They got us; we’re hooked. There can be no denying that our fixation on semi-scripted reality romance and the glossy figures it produces has affected our romantic relationships and the identities we form within them. We choose photos for our dating apps as if we are applying to be on TV ourselves, and it is embarrassing to admit how many times I’ve combed through my Instagram page, considering how I would appear in the eyes of an outsider. Our lives are carefully curated, an online performance that bleeds into the mundanity of our day-to-day. Our homes are no longer spaces to live in, but spaces to be captured; our lives are not ours to inhabit, but the Internet’s to consume. The leap from the identities we curate on Instagram to the performances we watch on reality TV is not as large as we like to think. In a Vulture write-up of a recent Bachelor episode, the author wrote, “The older I get, the more I understand why The Bachelor is an appealing choice. The chance to date an emotionally available man and get free housing?” I understand the sentiment: is meeting someone on reality TV any less random and improbable than meeting someone on Tinder?
Couples therapist Esther Perel has described modern dating as “romantic consumerism.” We flick through dating apps like we’re shopping online for a new pair of shoes, looking for partners who will fulfill our list of requirements — too tall, too short, too bright, too bland. Reality TV is romantic consumerism in its most obvious form. One of Argy’s characters explains, “This is all a psychological experiment with a desired economic outcome: trap thirty people together as they fight for a limited quantity of something, something everyone wants, true love, and the results will be scintillating enough to attract millions of viewers to sell advertising.”
None of the contestants in The One (except for Emily), came on the show naively. They know the odds — more reality TV-created couples have broken up than stayed together — and yet, they wager, “Our odds are better here.” And even if they don’t walk away with love, if they stay on the show long enough, they might walk away with a few-hundred thousand Instagram followers and a slew of lucrative brand deals. Finding love (and marriage) on reality TV is as much of an economic exchange as it was for women in the Victorian era. Jane Austen’s Charlotte in Pride and Prejudice justifies her less-than-ideal choice to marry Mr. Collins by saying, “I’m 27 years old. I have no money and no prospects. I’m already a burden to my parents. And I’m frightened.” The average age of contestants on The Bachelor is 26. One of Argy’s characters puts it bluntly, “I need money — and to fall in love and have a husband, but also I need money.”
The followers and brand deals only come, however, to the contestants who prove themselves worthy — who win the hearts of the nation if not of the man. The producers of The One see a “winner” in Emily, the perfect blank canvas upon which viewers can project their hopes of story-book romance and happily-ever-afters. Emily is a “good girl” from a “good family,” so she does what she is told. She flirts, she smiles, and she becomes a woman worth marrying, worth watching, and worth following. Her performance is not unrecognizable; the cameras of TV only heighten a performance inherent to the experience of being a woman. In my 3rd grade journal, I wrote, “Sometimes boys are nice to me. Especially a boy named Adam. Other boys are nice to me but I just have to laugh at their jokes.” When Emily first steps out of the limo to meet Dylan, she thinks, “I can be desirable if I try hard enough.” She just has to laugh at his jokes.
Girls learn from a young age how to perform womanhood and the ways in which they are already doing it wrong. I used to sit on the toilet, squeezing my belly rolls, willing them to disappear overnight. To be an object of male desire is a form of power. And even if that power is ultimately meaningless, the dream of the prince plucking you from your tower is not so easy to untangle. To betray our aspiration to become a “desirable woman” is to let go of not only the power it brings but also the identity we form around it. I might complain about being cat-called on the street but there is a part of me that relishes in the affirmation: “I still exist. Men still want me.” I know it is a weak thread from which to hang my identity and my worth, but the rush of being seen, of being noticed, even if it is as an object, remains an enticing pull.
When Emily kisses Dylan for the first time, she is not thinking about how soft his lips are but rather the “fleeting sense of power” that comes with being chosen: “All I can imagine is the faces of the women watching me thrust my tongue down Dylan’s throat. It was like the rush of a selfie, posted in the seductive whirlwind of golden hour lighting.” When they’re done kissing, she goes to the bathroom. Under the harsh fluorescent lights, the flush of her performance stripped, she is left with the unsettling truth. She kissed a boy she is supposed to like, love, and marry, and yet she felt nothing: “I swish water through my teeth, regretting that I parted my lips for him.”
The first date I went on after my particularly terrible breakup was with a boy with whom I quickly realized I had no chemistry. Still, I played my part well: laughing, smiling, and accepting the free drinks pushed across the table. He walked me to the subway and pulled me in for what I’m sure he thought was a romantic kiss under the sprinkling of rain. The next day, when he asked to see me again, I politely declined, and he couldn’t understand: “I thought we got along so well?” And we did, or he got along well with the version of myself I presented to him: the one whose eyes did not roll when he told me he wrote his thesis on Infinite Jest. It was selfish, I know, to place my need for affirmation and attention over another person’s earnest attempt at connection. But maybe I’m giving him too much credit and myself a hard time — men have been known to equate a woman’s smile with a woman’s desire.
What happens when we step out of the spotlight of male attention? It is a relief, I think, but also a loss. Attention is a buoy even if it comes with a cost. In The One, Emily decides to let go, to pursue a version of herself that is more authentic, or at least trying to be. I don’t think I’m spoiling the book by saying she falls for a fellow contestant; as early as page 50 she mentions having to “look away from the crease where the tops of [Sam’s] thighs meet her hips.” Still, she hesitates: she does not want to be “The One” who comes out of the proverbial closet.
I started dating a woman last fall, and when I told my mom, I asked her to treat my new relationship as if I was dating anyone else. As if I was dating anyone else, meaning what I had done my entire adult life: date a man. I wanted no eyebrows raised or rainbow flags suddenly appearing on the lawn; I just wanted to date the woman I loved. I post pictures of us on my Instagram and friends respond with, “Soft launch??” Hard launch??” Identity is hard to grapple with when it has to be declared online. Still, I can admit it is not just Instagram holding me back: I am scared to shake how others have always defined me, to confront the shock in their voice when I refer to my partner as “she.”When the narratives we’re sold are packaged into 12-episode seasons with heroes, villains, and happy endings, it is easy to think that we too need to present a digestible story and a palatable performance. So how do we define ourselves in the age of Instagram and Reality TV? Maybe we don’t. Maybe we date who we love and plant a garden in our backyard, and when the finale of Love is Blind comes out, we sit on the couch, watch with our limbs intertwined, and laugh and smile and cringe and gasp. Maybe it’s as simple as that.