The surprising conservatism of reality dating series

The fact that more people marry later in life has changed the institution, and by extension, the stakes around courtship, says Stephanie Coontz, a professor emeritus at The Evergreen State College and the author of Marriage, a History. Older singles are likelier to already be financially independent and to prefer a union with an equal — which means they often have higher standards for a potential spouse. For singles surveying the landscape, “that gets very anxiety-producing,” Coontz says.

Reality TV showcases those modern anxieties in a place where the old-fashioned rules still apply. It’s a porthole to a universe where every woman harbors dreams of a floor-length white dress, every man earnestly asks for his girlfriend’s father’s blessing, and — notwithstanding a handful of shows like Logo’s gay-themed “Fire Island” — heteronormative, cis-gendered pairings are the only ones that exist.

If reality TV reflects actual desires, then these shows are a telling statement about the culture wars — a suggestion that the dream of traditional marriage, the kind that leads to starter homes, little league games, joint IRA accounts and the attendant political priorities, is still very much alive, no matter your political persuasion. In reality TV land, singlehood isn’t a newly desirable state, but rather a purgatory that people will exit as soon as their finances allow, or they meet the right partner, or an army of TV producers steps in to intervene. And these shows aren’t an anachronism as much as a cry for a roadmap — a shortcut to getting married once and for all.