Near the end of the first season of Netflix’s Too Hot to Handle, a reality TV show that premiered in April 2020, Francesca and Harry—the couple who’d created the most drama—are given a chance to redeem themselves. Up to that point, they hadn’t excelled at following the show’s rules: In order to win $100,000, a group of “hot” people, all living in a single house, must refrain from all sexual activity for one month. Each time they get physical, Lana, the show’s host, subtracts money from that total; the goal is to teach these housemates how to build “genuine” connections. Late in the game, the collective pot is less than half of what it was at the start, primarily because of Francesca and Harry’s lack of restraint. So it comes as a bit of a surprise when Lana grants them a night alone in a private suite, offering a chance to win back the money they’ve lost and to prove their growth to the group.
It’s worth noting that Lana, the one doling out these punishments and rewards, is a small, white device that sits in every room of the house and observes the contestants 24-7. In a world where people are not only addicted to Tinder, but are also accustomed to voice assistants named Alexa and Siri, it doesn’t come as a surprise that the contestants willingly take relationship advice from the friendly AI and embrace its role as the all-seeing rule of law. Even Harry and Francesca eventually learn their lesson, deepen their connection (with Harry ultimately proposing in a reunion episode), and win back money for the group. In the end, Lana has ostensibly shown them how to love. Netflix released at least two other shows in 2020—The Circle and Love is Blind—that also feature beautiful people blissfully succumbing to, and being transformed by, the power of being watched. According to data from PeerLogix, an advertising and data company, dating shows were especially hot while people in the United States adapted to the global pandemic, consumed by 23 percent more people in May 2020 than they were in December 2019.
During a time when many people were becoming even more reliant on their devices to communicate, hundreds of thousands of people around the world began dying from COVID-19, and governments around the world ramped up efforts to “trace” the spread of the disease, some of our most popular television shows were selling surveillance as a path to safety and love. These shows join a long history, one in which reality TV colludes in narratives that benefit the law enforcement agencies and tech companies that dominate our society and the people of color within it. Rachel E. Dubrofsky, a University of South Florida professor who studies reality television, told Bitch that the genre “reflects and contributes to cultural shifts in how we engage surveillance.” She points to the period directly after the September 11, 2001, attacks, which coincided with the astronomical rise of Survivor, Big Brother, and The Bachelor. Dubrofsky says it’s not a coincidence that these shows “became popular around the same time that the government was increasing the development and funding for, and use of surveillance technologies” (as exemplified by the racist and anti-Muslim Patriot Act, passed in 2001).
“Situations like 9/11 and a pandemic…provide the perfect opportunity for emergency measures that erode our right to privacy to be quickly and easily implemented, with little consideration for the implications,” Dubrofsky said. When the aforementioned Netflix shows premiered, either right before or during the period in which much of the United States was adjusting to a life of video chats, the parallels between our new realities and the “realities” on these TV experiments became apparent. On The Circle, for instance, a group of young people competing for a cash prize meet, flirt, and build friendships through a social media platform. On Love is Blind, singles show up looking for life partners, go on dates where they can only speak to one another through walls, and ultimately decide whom to marry before seeing them in person. Yet, while internet memes and articles lightheartedly compared being stuck at home to these TV scenarios, the broader context was more disturbing.
Framing “True” Love
Reality TV shows, particularly dating shows, have long been critiqued for being overwhelmingly white and heteronormative, misogynistic, fatphobic, and ableist. Though this recent crop of shows include a few more people of color and some queer cast members, they’re not much different than their predecessors. In fact, reality television series may be more diverse than other genres, but this isn’t because they’re challenging the status quo. Instead, as Steven Renderos, executive director of MediaJustice (full disclosure: I worked at this organization for two years), points out, shows like Cops, one of the longest-running reality shows, have historically reaffirmed racist and classist narratives about the assumed criminality of Black and Brown people. “Just think of the theme song, ‘Bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do?’, [followed by] images [of] Black and Brown people,” Renderos says. Attaching the word “reality” to the genre implies there will be more honesty and more emotional openness than you might get with trained actors. Thus, on recent dating shows, authenticity and whiteness are further linked in the cultural imagination to technology—trustworthiness is facilitated by digital voice assistants, social media apps, or facial recognition devices.
Harry and Francesca, who certainly fit a popular ideal of white beauty, might annoy their castmates, but their disrespect for others only contributes to their “realness”—their love story is worth watching. “If we see a racist stereotype in a scripted series, we can call out the producers, the writers, the makers of the show for creating this character,” Dubrofsky explains. “But, when it comes to this same situation on a reality show, the makers of the show are easily let off the hook since they can say: We’re only showing you what the person actually did.” Like most mainstream television, reality TV celebrates the power wielded by those in front of and behind the camera. This is emphasized by the integration of modern surveillance technology. Simone Browne, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, writes in Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness (2015) that border-control devices, like airport security scanners, reinforce a category of “trusted traveller.” This is a “traveling subject” who is “meant to produce herself as trusted” but is unlikely to qualify if she doesn’t fit a preexisting notion of safety. (Browne cites a 2000 report, which found that Black women had “the highest likelihood of being strip-searched” at the airport and “were nine times more likely than white women who were U.S. citizens to be x-rayed after being frisked or patted down.”)
These technologies work in the same way on TV: Even on the almost-polyamorous eighth season of MTV’s Are You the One?, which has been championed for its all-queer cast, the contestants’ dating decisions are ruled by an algorithm that promises to find their “perfect match.” In order to win a cash prize, they search for who among them is “the one,” as predetermined by MTV’s use of a combination of “data and experience.” They quite literally subject themselves to full-body computer scans, which promise to tell them if their pairing is legitimate. On dating shows, those who have nothing to hide are presented as most deserving of love. Dating in the real world, however, is ruled by different equations: Those at the greatest risk of being deemed criminal threats—after being tracked online, seen by surveillance cameras, or recorded by video doorbells like Amazon’s Ring—are queer, working-class, fat, Black, women and gender-nonconforming people. Renderos points out that, “as much as the technology is new, and the potential for harm is at a scale that’s different [than in the past]” the predatory relationship “between companies and consumers of color” is longstanding.
In the last year alone, there have been countless examples of the dangers posed by the link between online dating apps and high-tech surveillance. The New York Times reported in January 2020 that Grindr “transmitted user-tracking codes and the app’s name to more than a dozen companies, essentially tagging individuals with their sexual orientation.” That same report also named OkCupid and Tinder as platforms that share their user’s data with hundreds of third-party companies. Facebook, which launched Facebook Dating in 2019, has a long history of cooperating with law enforcement, and they also sell a home-video calling device, which they have admitted surveils its users. Meanwhile, Zoom—the default way to date for many during the pandemic—admitted to giving law enforcement access to its back end. In 2020, the Verge reported that Peter Thiel’s software company Palantir, infamous for developing tools for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, was working with the Trump administration to build HHS Protect Now—a tool designed to track the spread of the novel coronavirus. Like the fantasy of ABC’s famously white megahit The Bachelor, which cast the first Black lead in its 25th season, “contact tracing” initiatives like HHS Protect Now promise to show us the truth, yet withhold crucial information like the fact that a disproportionate number of those who have died from COVID-19 in the United States have been working-class Black, Brown, and Indigenous people. Almost on cue, police began using these same surveillance technologies to track protestors, utilizing contact tracing “as a model for criminal investigations,” according to CNET.
These measures are supported by cultural narratives that are amplified by media companies that have a vested interest in invading our privacy. This shows up not only on propaganda TV like Cops, but also on reality TV dating shows that romanticize and expand what Princeton professor Ruha Benjamin calls “the carceral imagination.” In the introduction to Captivating Technology: Race, Carceral Technoscience, and Liberatory Imagination in Everyday Life, Benjamin writes that technologies presented as innovative “fixes” to social problems—à la Lana, the digital dating expert—usually just replicate an underlying structure designed for “the management, control, and ‘correction’ of poor and racialized people.”
While reality shows may present surveillance as a useful tool for helping to determine “authenticity” and for helping couples reach an ideal state of love, being watched by corporations and the state has never made people of color safer.
Turning the Camera Around
While reality shows may present surveillance as a useful tool for helping to determine “authenticity” and for helping couples reach an ideal state of love, being watched by corporations and the state has never made people of color safer. Instead, there has long been a demand for Black people to make themselves visible to law enforcement in ways that reinforce their assumed criminality. In Dark Matters, Browne calls this “Black luminosity” and ties it back to surveillance of enslaved people on plantations: The 18th-century lantern laws in New York “marked Black, mixed-race, and Indigenous people as security risks” and forced them to carry candle lanterns when walking around after dark unaccompanied by a white person. Stacy Suh, a cofounder of Survived and Punished—a coalition working to “decriminalize efforts to survive domestic and sexual violence”—links police surveillance to the modern treatment of survivors, who “are still punished [even] when there’s ample evidence” of abuse.
Suh points to the case of Nikki Addimando, who shot her partner in self-defense after years of physical and sexual abuse. Despite photos, emails, and even video footage of what she’d endured, a New Jersey judge ruled against Addimando in 2020 and sentenced her to 19 years to life in prison. As the buzz around The Circle and Love is Blind fizzled out in June 2020 and major cities started to reopen and allow more social gatherings, the global uprisings over the murder of Black people by law enforcement—including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade—were just beginning. Supercuts of police violence, created by activists on the ground, went viral across social media and were followed by montages of joyful abolitionist protests—Black people dancing in the streets and on top of cop cars. Often set to triumphant music, these videos amplified a powerful counter-narrative to policing and surveillance. Black organizers, using their own cameras to document the actions of the police—not only the murders that sparked the protests but also how the protesters were being treated—upended the myth behind the so-called reality of shows like Cops.
Browne refers to this as “dark sousveillance,” or when the watched become the watchers—“mobiliz[ing] a critique of racializ[ed] surveillance.” In the 2017 documentary Whose Streets?, filmmakers Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis use their camera to expose the power structures behind policing from the perspective of Black people in Ferguson, Missouri. One of the central figures in that film, which captures the 2014 uprisings following the murder of Michael Brown Jr. by the police, is Brittany Ferrell, a young woman who cofounded Millennial Activists United. Ferrell is shown organizing her community, leading chants in front of the police, and bringing her daughter to protests. We also see her relationship with her partner Alexis Templeton, a fellow Black organizer whom she met during the uprising and ultimately married. Watching Ferrell and Templeton’s queer romance blossom while they organize against white supremacy calls forth a history of Black media capturing acts of antisurveillance, rooted in love, including, as Browne notes, the narratives of enslaved people like Ellen Craft, who escaped “to Philadelphia in 1848 with her husband, William, by posing as a white man and as William’s owner.” Unlike those centered on most reality TV dating shows, the relationship arcs in media such as Whose Streets?, are subversive—they’re about speaking truth to power, rather than accepting power over others as truth. In these works, created by and for Black people, we see glimpses of what a world filled with love might truly look like—a reality free of the dominator’s gaze.