All of this might seem terrifying to the conservatives worried that Tinder and liberals are destroying American marriage. Actually, collectively, they might be the most conservative shows on television. As a group, all the way to F-Boy island, they re-enact and reaffirm a dating process that has less to do with 21st century swipe-right apps than 19th-century courtship rituals. And for many years, viewers have lapped it up. One study from the data-tracking company PeerLogix found that dating show viewership spiked during the pandemic, even drawing viewers away from other genres.
The popularity of these matchmaking shows, which are watched at once ironically and aspirationally, suggests a different spin on the delayed-marriage stats. The census data, after all, doesn’t address the question of whether singlehood is driven by a “childless left” culture or harsh economic reality, or whether young people intend to put off marriage for awhile or opt out of it entirely. A few years ago, a spate of liberal books and articles marveled at a growing cohort of single women — who tend to behave differently from married women in the ballot box — and speculated about the political power they might hold if their numbers continue to grow. But in a 2020 survey commissioned by the wedding platform “The Knot,” 80 percent of the Gen Z-ers and millennials reported that they had spent some time imagining their wedding day, and most of them expected to be married within two to five years. That mood matches a 2018 Pew report that found that, while they aren’t marrying young, nearly two thirds of millennials still hope to marry someday, and a quarter say they just haven’t found a person with the qualities they’re looking for.
The fact that more people marry later in life has changed the institution, and by extension, the stakes around courtship, says Stephanie Coontz, a professor emeritus at The Evergreen State College and the author of Marriage, a History. Older singles are likelier to already be financially independent and to prefer a union with an equal — which means they often have higher standards for a potential spouse. For singles surveying the landscape, “that gets very anxiety-producing,” Coontz says.
Reality TV showcases those modern anxieties in a place where the old-fashioned rules still apply. It’s a porthole to a universe where every woman harbors dreams of a floor-length white dress, every man earnestly asks for his girlfriend’s father’s blessing, and — notwithstanding a handful of shows like …….