Love in the Age of Reality Television

Seeing my relationship reenacted on a Chinese dating show made me question how much of it was a performance in the first place.

Fei Cheng Wu Rao / Andrey_Popov / Shutterstock / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

My reality TV doppelgänger wears a slouchy hat and a pea coat. In a soft-focus flashback, she wanders alone through a generic cityscape, accompanied by somber piano music. She lounges outside a coffee shop, paging through highlighted books with her glittery fingernails, and crossing a bridge unsettlingly similar to one near where I live in Pittsburgh. She also nails one of my favorite docudramatic standards: contemplatively staring off into the sunset.

I never expected be on a reality dating show. Not only did I never plan to appear in person, but I also never expected to watch myself portrayed on one by an actress. Then, last winter, my college ex-boyfriend, David, appeared as a contestant on a popular Chinese dating show called Fei Cheng Wu Rao, or If You Are the One. He’s been living in Beijing for the past six years, having moved there the summer after our college graduation and our break-up. We keep in occasional contact, so I knew David had already been on TV a couple times before. American expats appearing on Chinese TV is not uncommon: As explained in a June 2012 episode of This American Life, seeing foreigners perform and do “silly” things on TV—speak Mandarin, wear traditional garb, dance—is novel and hugely popular. I’d seen David before on a talk show whose bare-bones set resembled something you’d see on an American public-access channel.

But unlike David’s past TV appearances, If You Are the One isn’t an obscure program: It’s the most-watched dating show in the Chinese-speaking world. When it premiered in 2010, it broke ratings records, boasting more than 50 million viewers. Its recent sixth season drew 36 million—about as many people as watched the last Oscars in the U.S. By comparison, its American prime-time counterpart, The Bachelor, brought in only 8.1 million viewers for its most recent season finale in July.

Knowing that the number of people who saw my appearance on If You Are the One equaled the population of some countries was only part of the embarrassment I experienced. The first time I saw the video clip of myself, I called a Mandarin-speaking friend at 11 p.m. to translate immediately. Reduced to pure vanity, I shouted into the phone, “Do I wear weird hats? Why do the books have to be used?” I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry as I watched the line between my inner and outer lives dissolve before my eyes, repossessed by a TV show I didn’t even know. As a student of cultural studies, I was intellectually fascinated: The philosopher Jean Baudrillard portentously wrote in 1986 that “everything is destined to reappear as a simulation”—even the events of your own life. But emotionally, I didn’t know how to confront my own repackaged image, or how to distinguish where I ended and a larger media agenda began.

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My confusion was further amplified by the fact that this was a love story.  For more than a decade now, reality dating shows like The Bachelor have run with the idea that few things are more performative than love and courtship. Even before watching myself on If You Are the One, I was no stranger to TV-produced romance and the tropes of looking for your One True Love (an avid Bachelor viewer, at that time I was plowing through the show’s 19th season). The Bachelor franchise, which refers to its fans as “Bachelor Nation,” encompasses some of the longest-running U.S. dating shows and has consistently produced some of the most-watched television across female viewers of all ages.

Compared to The Bachelor, If You Are the One’s format is more carnivalesque, modeled after an Australian show called Taken Out. The show isn’t serialized, but instead features multiple bachelors per 90-minute episode. Male contestants take the stage encircled by a panel of 24 female candidates—standing at individual podiums in a configuration known as “the avenue of love”—who use lights to indicate their interest. As the women listen to a suitor banter with the show’s host, reveal information about his life in video clips, and watch him perform in what amounts to a “talent” portion, they can elect to turn off their podium lights and clock out of the competition (similar to The Voice). The last women with their lights left on become finalists, and one of them—hopefully—becomes a match.

As the first contestant on the show’s season-six premiere, David sang and danced, solved a Rubik’s cube on stage, and responded to wisecracks about his resemblance to Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory. He also participated in the show’s “love resume” segment, where our relationship rehash came in. I was one of two ex-girlfriends portrayed by the same actress—who also portrayed David’s future ideal partner—all of us wearing different hats and subject to the same nauseatingly saccharine piano music. (I tried to imagine the conversation between David and the show’s producers about how to construct the story of our two-year relationship for a 30-second spot.) As the reality TV version of me gazes toward the sky in the style of a MySpace picture, David explains in voiceover that I was a student when we met, a bookworm, and an aspiring professor. But I was also the prototypical American woman: strong, independent, and not reliant on a man—the implied reason for our break-up. To my great vindication, seven women clock out after hearing this.

As a break-up made for Chinese TV, the story made sense. The cultural messaging in If You Are the One has been a source of controversy since its inception in 2010. The show’s creator, the veteran TV producer Wang Peijie, told The New York Times in 2011 that his original intention was to shed light on young professionals in contemporary China, where values are changing. Contestants were portrayed as urbane and glamorous and often more concerned with money and mobility than marriage and tradition. The show made international headlines in its first six months when a 20-year-old female contestant, Ma Nuo, famously declared that, when it came to dating, she would rather “cry in a BMW” than smile on a bicycle. Following the media firestorm, which for some in China pointed to the encroachment of Western materialism and “the degradation of Chinese social values,” the state-controlled TV network began censoring the show. Since then, Wang told the Times, If You Are the One has sought more marriage-minded participants—similar to the relentlessly traditional heteronormativity on The Bachelor.

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It would be easy for me to assume that the story of my relationship was completely subsumed by the larger cultural narratives at play—that it was serving a television show’s ideological ends that have nothing to do with me personally. It would also be easy for me to dismiss the whole absurd incident out of hand, as some friends advised me to do, and to simply declare that this portrayal of me wasn’t me. “She’s an actress in a relationship dramatized for reality TV,” a friend reassured me. And the easiest dodge would be to say that, even before it’s filtered through TV producers, the story of any relationship is an unreliable narrative, ultimately boiling down to two conflicting accounts. The experience is an essential part of being an ex, albeit on a mass-media scale: Your former partner constructs his or her own story about you to tell other people and potential partners—without you. It’s not worth worrying and trying to “set the record straight,” if I even believed such a thing were possible.

But as my embarrassment diminished at being broadcast to millions wearing a less-than-flattering hat, I still couldn’t shake the feeling of uncanniness. Is she me or is she not me? I kept asking. What really bothered me was that, despite my attempts to rationalize it otherwise, this wasn’t an unrecognizable version of myself. I am, after all, an American woman with American values. I do value my independence, where I tool around my city and write in coffee shops. I indulge and imagine myself as literary and cultured and try to project these things to others. Seeing my self-image hyper-realized and mirrored back to me—even my insecurities about being cold, too much in my own head—was much more humiliating than airing my break-up story. It was a pointer toward the performance in everything I do, and certainly the roles I’d played in that relationship.

I was recently confronted with this interplay of real versus acted watching Lifetime’s new drama UnREAL. The series, which debuted in June, is about making a reality dating show called Everlasting—a fictional stand-in for The Bachelor. Written by Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, UnREAL is based on Shapiro’s own real-life experiences working for the franchise. I was initially intrigued by how UnREAL offered an opportunity to peer behind the curtain and reveal what Bachelor viewers already suspect: The bachelor isn’t earnestly seeking true love, but is instead a princely playboy trying to rehab his public image. Most of the female contestants aren’t doting future wives, but aspiring starlets. Anyone invested in a love story is assumed to be naive, as it’s taken as a given that the show’s participants know what they signed on for: to be coached and manipulated to manufacture romance and maximize competitive drama.

But my true fascination with UnREAL was the portrayal of Everlasting’s producers. UnREAL captures beautifully how lost, disintegrated, and amoral they become while trying to sell love on TV. Though having editorial control should theoretically afford them some insight, they are as conniving as the show’s contestants and even more confused about the possibility of finding love in their own lives. In the season finale, against the backdrop of Everlasting’s own season finale, UnREAL’s two female protagonists and Everlasting producers (Constance Zimmer and Shiri Appleby) both suffer the fall-out from unstable on-set affairs. Zimmer’s character, Quinn, shaking her head at herself admits, “I think that I actually started to believe the crap that we sell here.”

It’s the larger venture of the show itself that swallows everyone; the effort invested in fabricating love leaves little room for genuine human emotion. In the case of the reality dating show, art not only imitates life, but infects it. Seeing myself as a character, reduced to clothing and gestures and tropes, made me wonder if performance was all there was in my relationship—if there was actually anything “real” to recover from it. I still can’t draw definitive lines, or figure out where I begin and where my doppelganger ends. But ultimately I know I have memories that can’t be recreated, and that are far richer and more complicated than any scene or image could be.