Last night I watched the premiere episode of Bravo's new dating show, Miss Advised. In it, three "dating experts": Emily Morse, a sex expert with a radio show in San Francisco; Amy Laurent, a New York City matchmaker; and Julia Allison, who's described on the show as a dating columnist and now lives in L.A., take on what the producers clearly want us to understand as their greatest challenge: Their own dating lives. (Wink-wink, nudge-nudge.)
In so doing, Bravo gives viewers a whole new type of dating show, including an element we've seen before, for instance, in episodes of The Millionaire Matchmaker in which we got glimpses into Patti Stanger's sometimes troubled dating life. The underlying theme here is that even if you're an expert telling other women (and sometimes men) how to date, you're not necessarily so great at it yourself. In fact, you might blatantly break rules that you'd yell at a paying customer for flouting, as Laurent does in this first episode. That Miss Advised seems entirely based in this premise, with just blips of how the "experts" conduct their professional business and a focus on how they fail personally, is a kind of evolution overall in the dating show—though I'm not sure it's a forward evolution.
The first dating show I ever watched regularly was Blind Date, the late '90s-early aughts Pop Up Video-esque 30-minute "reality" dating program in which host Roger Lodge (loved that guy!) offered up snarky quips and hilarious commentary about dates that paired up two strangers who were followed around by a camera crew. The ensuing edited video of the date was punctuated with thought bubbles, subtitles, and witticisms that added to the comic tone. The beauty of this show, though it was ridiculous, was that men and women were on a basically even plane: They were both capable of looking like total jerks or insane people, and often did (it's the way of dating, after all, and more than that, the way of the successful dating show. Chalk it up to human foibles, schadenfreude, whatever).
Before Blind Date, though, there were other game show-type dating shows, like perhaps the earliest of all, The Dating Game, which began in 1965, and MTV's Singled Out, from the mid-'90s. These also mostly pitted men and women against each other on something of an even playing field, with a game show feel that made both sexes seem pretty idiotic. They were also launching pads for people who wanted to become celebrities, like Farrah Fawcett and Tom Selleck, who both appeared as contestants on The Dating Game, or Jenny McCarthy (host of Singled Out). Similarly, Blind Date was a way in for people with TV ambitions, like, for example, Ryan Seacrest.
In the years that have followed, we've gotten so many, oh so many, dating shows. Competition-based shows, like The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. Those numerous MTV shows, like Next and Parental Control, and The Fifth Wheel. Rock of Love, Flavor of Love, A Shot at Love With Tila Tequila, and so on. There are too many to count, but suffice it to say, dating shows are a staple, pairing the big business of reality TV with a universal interest in sex, dating, and relationships. Then enter the "instructional" element, i.e., how to do it right, or how to watch people who are doing it wrong and compare yourself favorably. This idea has bred the matchmaker-based show, like Patti Stanger's show and Steven Ward's Tough Love series.
The problem with any of these shows, and what I felt even more so watching Miss Advised last night, is when they are inherently cruel to women. Much like dating advice books and dating advice "experts" who purport to advise women (and, yes, sometimes men, but the audience in general is mostly women), these shows hope to entice girls with an idea of what they can do better to "snag a guy" while at the same time making fun of or "teaching" women who are doing it wrong. This is a vicious cycle, but it works: Women (and men) are confused about dating, because who isn't? Hoping to get it right, we tune into a show or read a book to teach us "The Rules." And then, maybe, we feel better: We weren't all that bad to start with! But those rules are fake, and, with shows like Tough Love and Miss Advised, we just become complicit in negging other women for "messing up" and laughably doing it so, so wrong. In Tough Love, the women being taught are the objects of our derision; in Miss Advised, those women are the actual teachers, which makes it all the more ridiculous. Maybe in some ways this is good, disillusioning everyone about the dating industry: If the experts are so bad at what they purport to know, why should we listen to them at all? But setting these women up for mockery, even if they're complicit in it, does everyone a disservice as well.
In the case of Emily, the sex expert in San Francisco, we watch her brother tell her she's too skinny, then go on to "school" her in relationships telling her she self-sabotages, even though all she's said is she's not sure she's into monogamy or knows what would make her happy in a guy (she's also, she says, focused on her career). But big brother (not sure he's older, he just acts like it) is apparently the expert because he's the one in a long-term relationship. We see Amy, the matchmaker, fail at her own rules, going on a date with a guy that she's obviously still in some sort of love with and making excuses for him, even though he was the ass who moved to Saudi Arabia without telling her and therefore ended it. Unfortunately, she's made into the pathetic one. And with the Julia Allison plot, we get another girl expressing fears that she's "too old" at the same time she offers up her 73-point list of demands ("reads The Atlantic, Fast Company, and Wired," for instance) in her bid to find a husband, a shtick that is so anti-woman as to be laughable if it wasn't so painful to watch.
At the same time, let's point out that dating shows are still a way for people to promote themselves and become more famous, which is exactly what, I imagine, all three of these women are hoping to do—even if Julia tells the camera that some days she'd "like to press a delete button on everything I've written on the Internet." But if that's the case, why be on a reality show, about dating no less, at all? They're not stupid... Even as much as they're willing to look that way to sell another book or column or get a bit more time onscreen.
But it makes me wonder: Can a dating show treat women fairly without belittling them or resorting to stereotypes? Can a dating show ever allow a woman to be happy, to be having fun and owning her life and doing what she wants to do, evolving as she does it? I'd like to see it, and I'd like to see women, who are successful and powerful in their own right or at least, have made names and careers for themselves, not fall back and rely on these same old tropes.
Failing that, take us back to the old days of Blind Date, when we at least got to make fun of everyone equally instead of whiplashing between stereotypes of women ranging from husband-hungry to sex-crazed to messed-up to mean to men or to the worst of all, sad and pathetic. Because these depictions of women are as false and one-sided as are any rules of dating.