What do straight cisgender people want?
Well, if you asked the Wife of Bath from The Canterbury Tales what women want, she’d say dominion over their lovers.
But we’re in the modern day and not my medieval literature class, and I’m binge watching reality TV dating shows. So we have a lot of straight women, and a lot of straight men. And all of them, I’m told, are super hot, super horny, and looking for love.
Growing up, what was I supposed to want? A nice husband, two kids, a golden retriever and a picket fence, and a 9-to-5. You know what? The 9-to-5 doesn’t sound so bad, but I’ve learned I don’t want dogs or kids. The husband? Take it or leave it.
I’m supposed to find said husband through my job, or through school. Maybe he’s an old friend, maybe I see him in the street, and we make eye contact, not knowing that our paths are destined to cross again. He constantly revisits the image of me in his mind’s eye: I’m beautiful, quirky, and mysterious all at once. (Rom coms, I love you. Please make a resurgence.)
Some people, it seems, would rather get creative. Or desperate. I, for one, am on dating apps, for better or worse. Some people sign up for Love Island.
Love Island, for the uninformed, is a very popular British dating show in which several male and female contestants go to a beach resort and “couple up.” The winning couple receives a cash prize, but no one is safe: new contestants are regularly shipped to the island to destabilize and break up existing couples. Anyone who gets dumped without recoupling is kicked off the island.
There’s a performative aspect to the exaggerated femininity of the women on the show, and the male attention they receive.
I love Love Island, partially because I think the British accents and sayings are wild. “She’s the fittest bird on the island,” male contestants might say. Is this Darwin? Is this island actually in the Galapagos? (No.)
The main attraction, for me, is watching how gender norms and interactions play out in such an aggressively heteronormative setting. There’s a performative aspect to the exaggerated femininity of the women on the show, and the male attention they receive. There’s also a bit of trashy teenage rebellion. (I’m not a teenager, but that’s the best way to phrase it.)
What do I mean by all this?
The first episode of Love Island starts with several women entering the “villa,” sipping drinks, getting to know each other, and awaiting the arrival of the men. Before the first man arrives, the women are lined up next to each other. He enters, and he and the women take a good long look at each other. The host then asks any woman who is attracted to this man to step forward. The man can then choose any woman to couple up with, whether she steps forward for him or not.
Yeesh! The Wife of Bath would not approve.
The men continue to enter, and the contestants continue to couple up, though men can steal women from a previous couple. Once again, the women don’t have much of a choice. To be fair, throughout the show, the women can break up the couple and choose new partners, but when I say this show is heteronormative, this selection process is what epitomizes it.
The women are beautiful, yes, but these shows draw a link between beauty, attraction, and sexual activity.
Growing up, you hear about what you should be–what a woman should be. Feminine, caring, polite, beautiful, intelligent (but preferably only in the humanities). On one end, gender in a heteronormative society is epitomized by aesthetics of beauty and attraction. On the other end, gender performance is dictated by standards of behavior–usually tied to sex. Reality shows like Love Island show these two categories in conflict. The women are beautiful, yes, but these shows draw a link between beauty, attraction, and sexual activity.
In Love Island, the people embody these beauty ideals about their respective gender. The men are usually ripped and tall, and most of them, as said previously, have had a lot of sex. The women are beautiful. Their makeup is both flawless and dramatic, and men love them. The contestants are usually wearing bikinis, and details of their (often outrageous) sex lives are discussed both in casual conversation and games meant to get the contestants to know each other more. If the women in the show can fulfill some expectations of femininity, they don’t fulfill the ideas of respectability that directly tie into those same expectations.
These TV shows are meant to be considered “trashy.” We all know that people on reality shows aren’t quite like us. We’re supposed to think they’re hotter, that they’re crazier, and that they have more sex (probably). Some people enjoy this kind of television to imagine themselves as attractive, godlike beings like the contestants, while others claim to hate-watch, laughing and cringing at the content and personalities. These aren’t my judgments–this perception is rooted in how the show is formatted, produced, and advertised. Because of this, I know many people, often in the generation that raised me, that have nothing but scorn for shows like Love Island.
They look like they’re having a great time. If I were one of those women, I’d be hot and sexy and cool in a way that would just piss my mother off, and that would be so fun.
As someone who has a hard time connecting with femininity and being a woman, I think I live just a little bit vicariously through Love Island. I actually really like and respect a lot of women on the show. They look like they’re having a great time. If I were one of those women, I’d be hot and sexy and cool in a way that would just piss my mother off, and that would be so fun. And men would be falling for me left and right, because that’s what I’m supposed to want, and then I’d choose one and settle down, because that’s what I’m supposed to want.
Maybe I do want these things. I haven’t figured out yet what kind of life I want to live and whether or not it is acceptable to myself. The exaggerated personalities allow me to explore these options from the comfort of my own couch, but that doesn’t mean I want to reenact it in my day to day life. But then again, maybe I do.
What do I choose in this life? Good thing I can choose – the Wife of Bath would be proud.