Netflix dating shows are going faceless — but conventional beauty remains the norm
Sexy Beasts, which premieres Wednesday, conceals contestants' faces with animal-like prosthetics
Looks aren't everything, says Netflix's new blind dating show, Sexy Beasts — but experts say that on television, beauty is still skin deep.
The series, which premiered Wednesday, is the latest in a long line of gimmick-driven dating shows. In this case, the faces of contestants are obscured by ultra-realistic prosthetics so that they look like various animals or fairytale creatures when meeting each other for dates.
Like previous Netflix hit Love is Blind and the 1965 ABC series The Dating Game, where contestants were divided by a partition, Sexy Beasts tries to convince viewers that looks don't need to be a factor when falling in love.
But CBC News spoke to three experts who say that's just a pretty idea that masks truths about the psychology of dating, the rules of television and even the way pop culture deals with race.
Dating show genre values appearance in its cast
The revived trend could be a reaction to the perception that reality television is contrived, said Cheryl Thompson, an assistant professor at Ryerson University's School of Creative Industries in Toronto.
"If you see a show like The Bachelor, you know that the really good-looking blond is probably going to win," Thompson said. "So it's … trying to eliminate that idea of the show being superficial and that, no no no, these people are really falling for each other, and they're not basing their decision purely on their looks."
But Jessica O'Reilly, a Toronto-based sexologist and podcast host, told CBC News that concealing a contestant's face like Sexy Beasts does doesn't take away the potential to judge someone based on physical attributes.
"It could be a fun approach to dating, but it's not going to revolutionize our tendency to see appearances first," O'Reilly said in an email.
Sexy Beasts layers on the makeup and prosthetics, but that quirk only extends to their faces: contestants still get to meet each other in person, converse in close proximity and get a sense of the other's physical demeanour.
Facial expressions, body language and eye contact are a few things that can't be concealed by prosthetics, and all of these are components in building attraction and connection, she said.
The psychology behind faceless dating
Love is Blind was a huge hit for Netflix last year, with Variety reporting in April 2020 that the show had been sampled by 30 million membership households since its first five episodes premiered in February 2020.
Steve Joordens, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto Scarborough, said the show brings to mind the anonymity — and liberation — of internet chat rooms.
But in real life, the stakes are higher, he said.
"If you really had no idea who you were talking to and there was a chance that you could be horrified, physically, by the looks of a person, then I think there would be a lot more trepidation," Joordens said.
"So I think it is a safe way to do that, you know, to do a blind date, because it's not really as blind as a true blind date."
Most dating shows are cast according to Eurocentric beauty standards and non-disabled bodies, O'Reilly said. That means many contestants are white or light-skinned, thin and young, with straight, blond hair and blue eyes.
"The idea that beauty, skin tone, race, age and size could potentially be rendered irrelevant simply isn't realistic," she said.
"[Contestants] talk about their appearances, make reference to their muscles, refer to the fact that folks only see them for their beauty, and in some show formats, [others] can see their bodies."
Racialized contestants sidelined on dating shows
These "blind" dating shows are also coming at a contentious time for reality television, as viewers take notice of the way that people of colour are treated on various series.
On Love Island U.K., a show where island-bound contestants must couple up in order to "survive" and win a cash prize, a person of colour was chosen last during the show's coupling ceremony for six seasons in a row.
And Rachel Lindsay, of The Bachelor franchise, has repeatedly criticized the show, saying that as the show's first Black bachelorette she was depicted as "an angry black female."
O'Reilly said that traditional dating shows often intentionally highlight microaggressions or play into blatantly racist stereotypes.
"It's embedded in casting, scripting, producing and editing, as racism is embedded in our culture," she said.
"Obviously, we see more representation in front of the camera as of late, which is good, but who is at the table where the real decisions are being made — from the production team to network executives? It's still overwhelmingly white."
Thompson, who researches media representations and visual culture as they relate to Blackness, agrees.
"The contestants might change," she said. "But the tone and the focus doesn't."