Despite its progressive facade, 'Love is Blind' still fixates on traditional ideas of marriage

Giannina admires her wedding dress on 'Love Is Blind.' ©Netflix

Like many people I know, I didn’t want to get hooked on Love Is Blind.

The premise of the Netflix reality show sounded awful: lonely singles who want to be loved for what’s inside, not what they look like, get engaged without ever seeing one another. Once they meet in person, they test their bond IRL to determine whether love is, truly, blind. The whole thing is hosted by famous married couple Nick and Vanessa Lachey, looking sinisterly shellacked, who appear at random times in the series espousing platitudes about acceptance and commitment to the gaggle of would-be husbands and wives.

Netflix keeps its viewership stats pretty close to the chest, but in the week-or-so leading up to the show’s über long wedding finale, Love Is Blind became a bonafide viral phenomenon. It was Netflix’s most-viewed program in the US the last week of February, and everyone seemed to be talking about it. As a pop culture critic, I felt compelled to see what all the fuss was about… And within ten minutes, I was irreparably hooked but also repulsed. “I think this show is the worst thing to happen to human civilization,” is how my editor, Jeff, put it when I pitched him this story.

Love Is Blind is captivating reality TV, but I bristled at the way it plays up marriage — notably, heteronormative marriage between a man and a woman — as something to achieve or a prize to be won. What’s more, the show perpetuates outdated, conservative ideas about race, gender, sexuality, age and social status — even as it purports to be forward-thinking. For better or worse, Love Is Blind is a cultural phenomenon, but for such a high-concept “experiment,” it’s pretty old-fashioned television.

One of the first things I clocked about Love Is Blind, as I watched strangers interact through an opaque glass wall, was how much it reminded me of arranged marriage. In reality, the singles spent upwards of 18 to 20 hours a day chatting with every other cast member, ranking each other afterwards to winnow down the dating pool, making “the experiment” more like data-driven matchmaking.

“The premise was really smart, because it tapped into these conversations that we hear in society all the time about love,” said Erica Chito-Childs, PhD, a leading researcher on issues of race, gender and sexuality, particularly in popular culture. It was surprisingly easy to find sociologists to interview for this piece who’d binged the series, by the way. Chito-Childs told me she’d already incorporated Love Is Blind into her academic lectures, though not enthusiastically. “To me, it's like a train wreck,” she said. “You don't want to turn off the TV.”

Lauren connected with Cameron in the "pods" without ever seeing him. ©Netflix

By contrast, Wendy Wang, PhD, Director of Research at the Institute for Family Studies, is a big fan. “I enjoyed watching it. Actually, my husband got me to watch,” she told me. “We were predicting which couples were going to make it.” I asked Wang what might drive a group of attractive 20-and-30-somethings to resort to blind dating on reality TV, and she said there’s more of an appetite for streamlined matchmaking than you might expect. “Overall, marriage trends are going down. But the desire for marriage is still pretty high, especially among never-married young adults,” she said. “The world feels too full of choices today. You go online, and there's a million people you could be interested in. You can pick and choose, but another person has to choose you, too. There's a lot of uncertainty there.”

Sure enough, the early episodes of Love Is Blind feature a lot of Tinder talk, with cast members decrying potential paramours for not giving them a chance based on looks. (Though nobody’s an ogre on Love Is Blind. Every cast member is conventionally attractive.) With that in mind, Wang said, “I can see some people who are ready to settle down and get married saying, 'Hey, let me give this a try.’”

Cameron and Lauren's secondary engagement, when they reasserted their commitment to get married after meeting each other IRL. ©Netflix

Lauren and Cameron were the first couple to pair off in the “pods,” and they became the show’s thesis-proving relationship. But since she’s black and he’s white, their narrative on the show focused almost entirely on the challenges they’d face as a result of marrying outside their race. “From a pessimistic standpoint, you realize the show wanted to have an interracial couple. They wanted to have couples that had these potential differences that could be obstacles,” Chito-Childs said.

But what you really ought to pay attention to, she added, is how Love Is Blind framed their hurdles. From the very first episode, Cameron is introduced as this archetype of a stereotypical white guy. He’s from Maine, he’s a scientist studying artificial intelligence… “Lauren didn't explicitly ask Cameron his race or anything,” Chito-Childs pointed out, “but [the show] built up this drama around [the fact] that they don't know each other’s race” before getting engaged and meeting in-person.

“What's interesting is that it’s such a common technique used in film and television,” Chito-Childs added. “This pairing of two people who are supposedly so different because they're of different races is very commonly used.” She gave a handful of examples, like the 1967 film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and its 2005 reboot, Guess Who, which flipped the original conceit, starring Ashton Kutcher as a black woman’s white fiancé and Bernie Mac as her disapproving father. A major subplot on Lost involved a long-awaited reunion between an interracial couple, and Chito-Childs noted crime shows use race as the “twist” in a mystery all the time.

Cameron, in a wine cellar on his wedding day, showing us how serious he is about marrying Lauren. ©Netflix

Throughout Love Is Blind, Cameron is cool as a cucumber about the challenges his budding family could face. Later, we learn Cameron dated a black woman previously, which goes a long way towards explaining his chill. (His parents seemed like nice people who raised a good son, but there’s likely a black woman out there responsible for training up Lauren’s “woke bae.”) “Now, I don't think [the Love Is Blind producers] set up who-picked-who, but I'm sure they interviewed these people and had an idea,” Chito-Childs said. “What’s important to think about is, as they start building their relationship, the only person who has a problem with race is Lauren, the black woman.”

This goes against the sociological attitudes Chito-Childs has uncovered through her research. “I'm really interested in how families and communities talk about interracial dating,” she said. White people tend to claim they support interracial marriage — at least in theory. Chito-Childs said they change their tune when asked about their personal relationships and that of close family and added, “I would argue that a lot of white families and communities still feel that way.”

By contrast, Chito-Childs said the black communities she interviews tend to view interracial relationships as a problem — for a myriad of reasons, including the legacy of racism in America. “But then it's like, ‘Oh, actually, half my family married white people. My niece is biracial. I love her.’ People talk about being opposed, but actually live their lives within all sorts of interracial families within black communities. White communities, not so much. They say, ‘Oh yeah, we support it,’ but then actually don't do it.”

Lauren models her wedding dress for her mom. ©Netflix

The problem with dwelling on Lauren and her community’s fears and objections to the interracial union, Chito-Childs said, is that it plays into a “discourse where black people are the problem.” Love Is Blind didn’t air the moment when Lauren met Cameron’s parents, though it did happen. Instead, viewers were shown tons of footage of the questions and objections from Lauren’s family and friends.

“Here we have this fun, crazy reality show that's asking us, ‘Is love blind?’ And we're being made to think about an interracial couple. But what we're being fed is that it's the black side, the black community that potentially has a problem. Cameron's all fine,” Chito-Childs said. “That's important, because we live in a world where racism is still a reality. Those messages are very pervasive. People say, ‘Oh, give me a break.’ I get this all the time. ‘Give me a break. It's a reality show. Nobody is basing their life views on it.’ But unfortunately, yeah they are, because these are the images that we see of interracial couples.”

Lauren and her dad prepare to walk down the aisle. ©Netflix

Love Is Blind’s casting director Donna Driscoll insisted participants weren’t cast with specific couples in mind. She said the main thing she scouted for were “marriage-minded” people, agnostic of other physical or demographic traits. Once the show was cast and producers got involved, however, they did compatibility charts to look into shared key preferences between different singles, things like: Are you interested in having children? Open in terms of ethnicity? What’s your ideal age range? All the sorts of questions singles are used to answering on OkCupid and all the other dating platforms in existence.

I asked Dr. Wang, who researched interracial couples for the Pew Research Center, whether she thought Love Is Blind represented an accurate demographic sample — aside from the obvious (no people of Asian descent; everyone was basically straight, able bodied, et cetera). “I can say that in terms of interracial marriage, black women marrying out is much rarer than black men marrying out,” Wang said. She saw this as an argument in favor of Love Is Blind: “Lauren even said she'd never have met Cameron, this white guy, if the show didn’t exist. Their social circles were completely separate,” Wang said.

Cameron and Lauren on their wedding day. ©Netflix

Love Is Blind had a pretty high success rate, all things considered. At the end of the first season, two couples tied the knot — Lauren and Cameron, plus Amber and Barnett. More than a year later (the show wrapped in November 2018), they’re still together. A third couple, Giannina and Damian, who dramatically parted ways at the altar, got back together and are now dating at a slower, more reasonable pace. There were actually two additional couples who got engaged sight-unseen in the “pods,” but their romances weren’t reality TV-worthy, evidently. Viewers might remember one of the affianced in question: sweet Rory, who the guys turned to frequently for counsel as they wooed various women in de-facto isolation chambers.

I think these two couples, the ones whose romances never made it to Netflix, were perhaps the real winners of Love Is Blind. They didn’t get to bolster their personal brand and gain a ton of followers, like Lauren surely did. But they achieved what they set out to do, right? Get engaged to a stranger without those meddlesome distractions like looks and sexual attraction.

The cast reconvened for a reunion special, which aired March 5. ©Netflix

From the get-go, I never understood why anyone in their right mind would participate in both parts of the “experiment.” If a couple met in the “pods,” couldn’t they say, “Hey, baby. Let’s leave this circus in the dust and get to know each other IRL at our own pace?” There had to be some sort of contractual obligation or cash prize at stake. Why else would so many cast members wait until their wedding day to dump their partner at the altar? It seemed more than a little cruel and highly unusual. But when I talked to representatives of the production company behind Love Is Blind, they insisted nobody was locked into anything or pressured to get to the wedding day.

But, I mean, the reason everybody stuck it out is right in front of my face: acting like a rational human makes for really bad reality TV. Perhaps no one knows this better than Love Is Blind's "runaway jilted bride," Giannina. That girl played us all like a fiddle, and she's one of the show's breakout stars, as a result.