On Friday, the cast of the hit Netflix show “Too Hot to Handle” appeared in a special reunion episode a few short weeks after the series premiered in April. Drama predictably ensued. This shouldn’t be a surprise for the millions of people who binged the series a few weeks ago. The premise is simple. Ten sexed-up singles are brought together at a Mexican villa, paraded past one another in teeny bikinis and tight board shorts, and generally encouraged to find someone with whom they might want to get down and dirty. Until the real reason for the retreat is revealed.
Instead of sex in the sand, the participants are told they must learn to form deeper and more meaningful relationships.
Turns out paradise is actually a "no-bone zone," and these overly frisky 20-somethings were selected precisely because they aren't particularly picky when it comes to who they hook up with. Instead of sex in the sand, the participants are told they must learn to form deeper and more meaningful relationships by avoiding sexual contact as they get to know one another. Even masturbation is off the table. A hefty $100,000 prize is attached in case any of them gets the idea that sexual pleasure trumps emotional connection. Money is deducted each time someone engages in rule-breaking, and the group quickly learns that even a kiss will cost $3,000.
Of course, it's too easy to simply pick on these people for the shallow culture that created and rewarded them. A better question is, why does Netflix think it’s really working to unearth some kind of sociological insight into what makes relationships work?
The first problem with shows like “Too Hot to Handle” is their casting, which is clearly designed to highlight caricatures, not actual humans. We are introduced to participants such as Sharron, the self-proclaimed feminist who uses his gender studies classes to help pick up women, and Nicole, who "gets with anyone" and gives men "the snip" if they get too attached. All of them seem shallow, even the supposed deep thinker who thinks deeply about things. One begins to wonder if these people even have the capacity for anything more than the most superficial human interactions.
In lieu of a real therapist, Netflix provides contestants with Lana, a talking robot that looks like an air freshener, to guide these singles on the path to better relationships. Through workshops, the guests learn how to build trust and communication skills. The men learn how to be vulnerable while the women learn their self-worth. Wristbands light up green here and there to reward couples with the chance to quickly kiss. Those who refuse to embrace this growth mindset and disavow their former selves are sent home. I won't spoil the end for those who haven't yet watched, but everyone leaves vowing to move beyond superficial hookups in favor of deeper connections.
“Too Hot to Handle” comes fast on the heels of “Love Is Blind,” another one of Netflix's relationship experiments. Contestants on “Love Is Blind“ commit to dating in pods in which they are encouraged to develop emotional connections to people sight unseen so that physical connections and appearance-based snap judgements don't get in the way of "what matters most."
Sold as the antidote to the woes of modern dating, couples commit to marry after a mere two weeks of conversation, declaring their love for each other so emphatically that we are left to wonder if they actually believe their own hype or are just committed to putting on a good show.
Both shows take as a given that the relationship problems they loudly condemn actually exist. But the research tells a different story. Young people hook up much less than most of us assume — on average less than once a semester for those in college, according to sociologist Lisa Wade — and almost a third of college students graduate without even doing so once. Today's youth sport no more notches on their bedposts than did their parents at the same age.
And the idea that casual sex precludes relationships? Not true, as relationships often develop from hookups rather than the reverse.
This doesn't seem to jibe with the lack of impulse control portrayed in “Too Hot to Handle,” where the participants worry about how they can possibly get through a month without sex. And yet in the end, most skate easily through the month without any sexual contact, with a few even failing to develop any sexual interest in anyone.
I'm left with the question as to why the show was necessary in the first place. Everyone seemed perfectly content with their lives coming in and as a result the show took on a puritanical vibe as the group was shamed for being overly promiscuous and not exhibiting enough society-induced sexual shame.
“Love Is Blind” gets a little closer to the truth. Love is not truly blind, as people tend to partner with those similar to themselves. People divide and marry along educational, racial and ethnic, social class and religious lines. The show presents these divisions as superficial and asks participants to overcome potential hurdles in their quest for a true "soul connection."
But the idea that love conquers all feels naive in a world where white supremacists parade in the streets, conservative Christians use a public health crisis to restrict access to reproductive health care, and celebrities sing “Imagine” while low-income workers risk their lives for our essential needs. These demographic divisions often shape our opportunities, experiences, life struggles and values, making them fundamental to who we are and yet this is rarely addressed in the show — and certainly not before couples get engaged.
And what about the fact that people put too high a premium on appearance in their search for a spouse? It is true that both men and women are more likely to emphasize the importance of good looks than they were in 1939. But that's also way down the list of qualities people say they want in a mate, with love, dependable character and emotional stability at the top.
Despite the show's critique of artificial connections, “Love Is Blind“ encourages warp speed relationship formation.
And despite the show's critique of artificial connections, “Love Is Blind“ encourages warp speed relationship formation, with participants expected to fall in love and decide to marry with zero joint life experiences under their belts. Sure, they discuss the number of kids they want and make generic proclamations about the importance of family, but do they agree on parenting styles, the division of labor, and how to handle work and child care? Do they handle conflict constructively? Are they able to effectively communicate their needs and really hear the expectations of others? Couples make tentative steps to address these questions as they move in together and meet the parents, but by then they are already fast-tracked to marriage, making it exponentially harder to pump the breaks.
In the end, I'm left with the sense that it's the show that has the superficial understanding of marriage. “Too Hot to Handle” is at least a bit more modest in its goals and doesn't take itself too seriously, laughing along with its horny young adults as they resist sex for a month in favor of conversations (about sex). Still, both left a bad taste in their insistence that there is a "right" way to have a relationship and that those who take other paths are somehow "less than."
And by making incorrect assumptions about both hookups and marriage, the shows themselves fall into the trap of operating on stereotypes. With little else to do during quarantine, both shows were runaway hits, no doubt suggesting we’ll be seeing a lot more reality dating experiments. But their trite conceptualization of love offers only slightly more insight than your average episode of “The Bachelor.” And a lot more judgment.