The Mixed Signals of China’s New-Look Dating Shows
For all the concern mainstream media outlets have showered on China’s declining marriage and fertility rates, the country’s reality dating shows just keep chugging along.
Indeed, ever since the debut of “If You Are the One” in 2010, dating programs have been a rare constant on China’s television landscape. There’s seemingly a show for everyone, from “leftover women” to the elderly — even couples in the midst of a divorce. But the current standard-bearer for the genre is probably “Heart Signal.” Based on a Korean reality show, “Heart Signal” has won over audiences by promising a fully annotated look at the world of contemporary dating. In each episode, the show’s panel of experts, including actors, professional debaters, and a sociologist, breaks down the various couples, analyzing their progress, second-guessing their decisions, and offering viewers advice for their own love lives.
In keeping with the tastes of its target audience of young Chinese, “Heart Signal” dumps the single-minded focus on marriage at the heart of earlier dating shows like “If You Are the One.” Marriage is no longer a necessity. Rather, it is merely one of many “happy endings” capable of satisfying audiences. The popularity of danmei “boy’s love” dramas, homoerotic slash fiction, and idol culture more generally has given rise to an obsession with celebrity couplings, real and imagined. Known as CPs, these couples — which may or may not result in marriage — are key to the popularity of modern dating shows. Meanwhile, the inclusion of a studio-based panel of “experts” from outside the entertainment industry helps lend the on-screen relationships an air of authenticity. Fans obsess over any hint that their favorite couple might be falling for each other, though most are disappointed when the pair inevitably breaks up a few months after the season finale.
This obsession with authenticity elides important problems with the current crop of dating shows. First, even by the standards of reality TV, they tend to gloss over the most common real-life challenges singles face on the dating scene.
Foremost among these is the issue of class. Contestants fret about flighty young men or when to tell a prospective partner about their kid, but their wealth is taken for granted. While “If You Are the One” was often critiqued for spotlighting a mercenary approach to relationships, “Heart Signal” simply excludes the non-wealthy. Its cast seems to hail from a utopia in which everyone has money and thorny questions of home ownership, betrothal gifts, and housework arrangements are extraneous. Participants are expected to maintain the illusion, while members of the working class are, to use a term from my own field of media studies, “symbolically annihilated” from the dating scene.
Then there is the shows’ penchant for pop psychology. The expert panel is crucial to the format of modern dating shows: Its members grade and critique participants on their progress and performance, with the implicit promise that following their advice will help viewers in their own lives. But how useful are the shows’ lessons, really? On “Heart Signal,” sociologist Shen Yifei cites statistics when discussing the overall dating scene, but she often resorts to personal anecdotes whenever pressed for practical advice. Cast members of popular debating shows like “I Can I BB” and relationship influencers are there ostensibly to teach participants how to talk to their partners, but their role boils down to offering canned answers that seem smart, rather than teaching participants and viewers how to think for themselves.
In their 2008 book “Better Living Through Reality TV: Television and Post-Welfare Citizenship,” Laurie Ouellette and James Hay argue that, in addition to its more obvious voyeuristic and emotional characteristics, “reality TV circulates guidelines that we are all (at times) called upon to learn from and follow.” In other words, some audiences, intentionally or otherwise, learn the rules and norms of courtship and dating from reality shows. The current generation of dating shows might think they’re cultivating healthier relationships by eliding hot-button issues like money, but they’re doing viewers a disservice by leaving them in the dark.
Editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Stills from the fifth season of “Heart Signal.” From @腾讯视频心动的信号 on Weibo, reedited by Sixth Tone.)