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The Surprising Conservatism of Reality Dating Series

2 12 17

Follow conservative punditry over the past few years, and you might think America is becoming a nation of unrepentant singles. Last July, Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance warned a conservative think tank about a “civilizational crisis,” marked by declining marriage and birth rates, and promoted by the “childless left.” Census data that shows low marriage rates among millennials and Gen Z-ers — only 29 percent of 18-to-34-year-olds were married in 2018, compared to 59 percent in 1978 — begets headlines bemoaning a “marriage crisis” or predicting “the end of marriage in America.”

But if the dream of marriage is dead, you wouldn’t know it from the trailer for the upcoming season of ABC’s “The Bachelorette.” The three-minute video, released last week, features a single schoolteacher named Michelle Young, a herd of healthy male suitors vying for her hand and a shimmering word cloud of courtship cliches: “I’m looking for my soulmate.” “You give me goosebumps.” “When I’m with him, I feel fireworks.” Young declares that “I’m ready to fall in love,” and she wants more than just romance. “Miss Young,” one of her students says, “is looking for a husband.”

Young’s season, which premieres on October 19, will be the 18th installment of “The Bachelorette,” which launched in 2003. The show’s male-lead version, “The Bachelor,” premiered in 2002. In the early days of the franchise, TV matchmaking seemed shocking and subversive — a radical game imposed on a tried-and-true process of finding a mate. Since then, dating shows have evolved in ever more lurid permutations, including the UK’s “Love Island,” where contestants who fail to couple up with another are booted in each round; Netflix’s “Too Hot to Handle,” where attractive singles win money for not having sex with one another; and even HBO Max’s “FBOY Island,” which pits earnest suitors against “F-boys” — men who pride themselves on casual flings — in a cheeky battle for the island’s women.

All of this might seem terrifying to the conservatives worried that Tinder and liberals are destroying American marriage. Actually, collectively, they might be the most conservative shows on television. As a group, all the way to F-Boy island, they re-enact and reaffirm a dating process that has less to do with 21st century swipe-right apps than 19th-century courtship rituals. And for many years, viewers have lapped it up. One study from the data-tracking company PeerLogix found that dating show viewership spiked during the pandemic, even drawing viewers away from other genres.

The popularity of these matchmaking shows, which are watched at once ironically and aspirationally, suggests a different spin on the delayed-marriage stats. The census data, after all, doesn’t address the question of whether singlehood is driven by a “childless left” culture or harsh economic reality, or whether young people intend to put off marriage for awhile or opt out of........

© Politico

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