In the decades since The Dating Game debuted, dating show contestants have become increasingly fanatical subscribers to such logic. Daters on Sexy Beasts appear to regard visual input as at best a red herring, at worst an impediment to finding true love. In introductory interviews, they express guilt that their attraction to other people can be influenced in any way by physical appearance.
“I would hope I could fall for someone without knowing what they look like but, honestly, just knowing me, I don’t know if I can,” laments one “Sexy Beasts” participant on the show.
The nobility of this aspiration is unchallenged. Sacrificing knowledge of a partner’s appearance, the reasoning goes, is an act indicative of an openhearted and honorable spirit.
But is love blind, as heavily suggested by the title of Netflix’s 2020 dating show juggernaut Love Is Blind, in which 30 men and women spent 10 days conversing in various combinations while individually sequestered in adjoining womb-like pods that allowed them to hear but not see their interlocutors? (Couples were not permitted to see one another until a proposal of marriage had been offered and accepted, after which the engaged pairs were whisked off on a group vacation to Mexico, then forced to live for a month in the same Atlanta apartment complex as their fellow contestants — who were also their former potential romantic partners, or former competition for romantic partners — and then made to plan their weddings and decide on camera whether to enter a legal union with the person to whom they had become engaged weeks earlier. One contestant gave her dog wine.)
Or, if love is not blind, is blind love, at least, truly more noble?
Fern Lulham, a radio broadcaster whose TEDx talk recounts her experience online dating as a blind woman, finds the idea nonsensical.
“It sort of assumes that you would be so bowled over by the way somebody looked that nothing else would matter,” says Lulham. “This idea that you’re going to see someone who’s drop-dead gorgeous, who completely blindsides you, and you don’t care about anything else.”
Lulham’s inability to see does not increase her ability to assess someone’s character or potential compatibility, she says — nor does it decrease her curiosity about their appearance.
“People always say, ‘It must be so great because you’re not superficial.’ It’s like, no, I’m still superficial. I hate to break it to you,” says Lulham. Blindness, she says, is “not like a magic pill that makes you not care” about the way your date looks.
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Lulham uses techniques other than sight to assess physical characteristics. In taking someone’s arm for guidance, she says, “You can very quickly tell if they have a nice muscly, bicep-y arm, or not so much. Straight away, you know their physicality, you know their body type.” Sometimes, she says, she forms impressions of people based on their conversation but: “As soon as I give them a hug or something like that, which — you engineer these situations; when you’re blind, you find ways around it, let’s just say that — And then you go, ‘Oh, you don’t look anything like I thought!’
Assuming that physical attraction is irrelevant for those who cannot see “does a disservice to blind people,” Lulham says. “If anything, it makes us more alien to everyone else.”
“You’re still you in every other aspect, apart from the fact that you can’t see,” she says. “You’d still have the same type, if you have a type. You’d still like the same sort of person.”
For what it’s worth, Welton’s original idea for a prosthetics-based dating reality show required participants to obscure their identities too. In his vision, which he called “Mrs. Datefire,” a man hoping to date a woman would first meet her while dressed in Mrs Doubtfire-style prosthetics.
It was canned, he says, partly because human prosthetics look realer on camera than they do to the naked eye — in person, Welton says, “you can kind of feel something’s wrong” — and partly because the men in the test footage could not convincingly portray elderly women.
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The implied risk of any show that deprives contestants of the sight of their potential love matches is disappointment when appearances are revealed. In short: someone might be ugly.
This unspoken threat, combined with the high stakes of legal marriage, is what made Netflix’s Love Is Blind perhaps the most addictively compelling version of the blind-date format.
While the pairings on that show may have appeared to viewers to be the result of a phenomenon not unlike Stockholm syndrome, they exuded a whiff of believability. By the time they met on-screen, contestants had spent several days doing nothing but convincing themselves and one another of the validity of their connections. To walk back their decision immediately would not only require them to admit that they had deeply, earnestly misunderstood themselves, and to forsake an all-expenses-paid holiday to Mexico — it would also reveal them as guilty of the sin of using appearance to evaluate a potential partner.
At least one participant on Sexy Beasts, a comely American who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid leaking her identity before her episode aired, braced herself for what she assumed was the producers’ goal: to prove that unattractive people can have winning personalities. She figured, she says in an interview, that the contestants would consist of a mix of “models” and “people who aren’t so model-like” — a delicate euphemism for the unattractive. This was her second appearance on a dating show.
“I was like, ‘Oh my God. I’m going to pick somebody, and he’s going to be hideous, and that’s going to be the whole point,‘” says the contestant. “People who I normally wouldn’t go for, you know?”
But the reality of Sexy Beasts is laid bare in its name. The show is not called “Possibly Sexy Beasts” or “Sexy and the Beasts” or “A Mixed Bag of Beasts, Including Some Sexy”. To say it more specifically: many of the contestants in the first six episodes are models — actor/models, aspiring models, a “model and former scientist”, but models nonetheless.
The most inexplicable aspect of the show is the intended pretence of why the people involved are competing for a date at all. It is not because the potential paramour with whom they have been presented is necessarily a desirable partner, or an unusually good match, or all that stands between them and a trip to Playa del Carmen. They seem to be taking part in an outlandish concealed identity television dating scenario as a form of penance. (In practical terms — deftly swept aside because they do not make for good TV — modeling ambitions may also have been a factor.)
The most authentic expression of human drive in Sexy Beasts is neither the contestants’ longing for love nor even their apparent convictions that they must go to such preposterous lengths to locate and deserve it.
It is the man who, his face fully obscured by a fur-covered foam latex beaver head, calmly explains to the camera that he evaluates dating partners based on the quality of their buttocks first, “personality second”.
Sexy Beasts is on Netflix.
The New York Times.