I don’t know how many of my readers will remember, or even know of, a Channel 4 dating show called God’s Gift that was on late-night TV in (I think) the late 1990s. If memory serves, Davina McCall hosted it. A selection of men would perform feats designed to test wit, sensuality and physique and the audience of women (or, in a few gay specials, men – these were my favourite episodes!) would periodically be invited to move around the studio floor to indicate which they would most like to go on a date with. After the final challenge, the guy with the most votes got to choose a date from those who voted for him.
Well, it’s back. Except now it’s called “Stand By Your Man” and it’s on Channel 5. The rounds are slightly different, but the format is basically the same in every significant detail. (They even found a presenter who looks like a long-haired Davina – perhaps the biggest difference is that now she’s got a male co-presenter.) For example, the “chat-up venue” game has become “questions in bed”, but the basis (a member of the audience joins the contestant on stage and they have a conversation) is similar. And so on. (Actually, the sensual technique element is much less obvious – I mean, God’s Gift had the guys give toejobs to willing volunteers from the audience!)
I’m amused that things have changed so little. Yes, the women are a bit more “Essex” stereotype than twenty years ago – some would call them “pornified”, I suppose – but the media fashions are reflected now as they were then, and in the same sexualised ways.
On the surface, the God’s Gift/Stand By Your Man format (I suppose a dishonourable mention for “Take Me Out” should be included here, as well) seems to flip the script. The standard dating model is that the women display, men choose which one(s) to approach and then the women choose from among their suitors. In this format, the guys are put on display, the women approach (by voting for whom they would like to date) and the guys choose. But both the 1990s and the 2010s versions manage to reinforce their preferred (i.e. sexualised) gender stereotypes for men and women. Gender as performed roles seems even stronger. It remains to be seen whether SBYM will buck the heteronormativity of the format in the way G’sG did, and have a gay or lesbian episode or two (how about a bisexual version: equal numbers of men and women contestants, and an equal number of men and women in the audience?), but somehow I’m sceptical. For all the advances in twenty years, it seems as though there is a reactionary element in the media when it comes to these issues, and plenty of ways in which social structures are forming to safeguard patriarchal norms while still allowing these advances grudging acceptance.
It seems odd for a sex-positive gender-liberation person like me to feel ill-at-ease with a show that, on paper, looks like it ought to be about celebrating sexually-liberated and empowered women being open about their desires; that seems to flip an outdated script of dating; that is open to the idea of sexual pleasure as an end in itself without necessarily wanting romance getting involved. And yet, something seems off about it. I’m not sure if this is exhaustive, but two points stand out.
Firstly, despite seeming to be about female liberation, the format has a deep vein of male entitlement and unavoidably ties into the “sex as men’s reward” trope of patriarchal gender/hetero normativity. However the game is dressed up, the men are contestants who aim to “win” a date with a woman. The audience, though they display their sexiness and are encouraged by the presenter to “banter” via single-entendres and innuendo, remain the gatekeepers who are asked to judge the worthiness of men. At least twice during SBYM tonight, the male presenter implied ridicule for those women who picked a guy who seemed to have messed up in the most recent challenge. These were women who were not doing the job as gatekeepers “properly”.
This leads me to my second problem with the format: it necessarily reinforces and rewards performance of the norm, of what you are “supposed” to do or be like to “get the girl”. To a certain extent it also does this for women, by generally displaying stereotypical ideas of female attractiveness. But there’s more variety in the audience, so this is less valid (and interestingly, the woman picked by the winner did not conform very closely to conventional beauty standards).
There was never a contestant on tonight’s show who had no women voting for him. I think there were a few examples throughout the run of G’sG where this happened after a particularly bad round for a guy, but not often. The cliché police will doubtless want a word if I go there, but there’s a saying about eyes, beholders and beauty that springs to mind. My point being that, in a “live” chat-up scenario, all the guys could have had a date if they’d fancied the women who picked them, and all of them could have been “winners” even though they did not perform “conventional” masculinity properly. What they did perform was “what turns those women on”, and that’s the measure of success at the early attraction stage. Put enough het women in the room, and eventually you will find mutual attraction for every guy.
So the women are punished for being attracted to the “wrong” guy, that is, a guy whom most other women are not attracted to, either by being ridiculed or by just not getting a date. And the guys are punished in a similar way for not performing the “right” masculinity (again, as measured by popularity). I see this idea repeated in so much dating and PUA advice, that to be successful one must approach the norm; often at the same time as the advisors are advocating an “abundance mentality”. True abundance would mean that there were people attracted to niche performances. This isn’t an excuse for not doing anything differently (basic hygiene and care over appearance is still a necessity, folks) but it does mean that if performing traditional masculinity makes you miserable, you can still believe in an abundance of women who find you attractive with your own version. (And vice versa, and for all combinations of genders.)
I enjoyed G’sG, and no doubt will enjoy watching SBYM, for the surface level “yay, empowerment!” buzz, while still being aware of the problems I’ve mentioned. I don’t know what a successful and genuinely sex-positive, feminist-friendly dating gameshow would look like, or even if it’s possible. I’ll leave that to experts in those areas.